The Pacers had a very strong starting group last year. According to Basketball-Reference, the Pacers starting five-man unit was fourth in the entire league in Net Points per 100 possessions among lineups that played at least 300 minutes together, clocking in at a sterling +12.1 points per 100 possessions. Over the course of an 82 game season, a +12.1 MOV translates to a roughly 72-win team. The Pacers’ five of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert played over 1200 minutes together, ranking them as the second most played 5 man unit in the entire league, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting five of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder’s starting five only managed a (still incredible) +10.7 Net Points per 100 possessions. Basically, the Pacers’ starting five players was arguably the best in the entire league, given the relatively large sample of minutes they played together and their excellence when they were on the floor.
The Pacers’ problem was that their bench was pretty terrible. They gave pretty significant minutes to sub-replacement level players like D.J. Augustin, (-3.68 xRAPM), Gerald Green (-3.21), Orlando Johnson (-3.36), Sam Young (-4.94) and Dominic McGuire (-2.93). Well, this coming year that will no longer be the case. With the exception of Orlando Johnson, all of those guys will not be on the team next year. Instead, they’ve been replaced by C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, a returning Danny Granger, Donald Sloan (another below replacement player, but hey, you can’t win them all), and rookie Solomon Hill (who projects to be just above replacement level at -2.3). In addition, Orlando Johnson projects to be better this year, as he progresses upward in his career trajectory, though he’ll still likely be below replacement level. The Pacers starting five has gotten significant reinforcements. How much better will this make the Pacers?
Well, there’s one more thing to worry about and that’s just how good will Danny Granger be when he returns to the floor. I have no way of knowing what Granger will look like in xRAPM should he return healthy. I don’t know if he will be the roughly +1 xRAPM player he was in just 5 games this year or if he will look more like the +2.5–3.0 player he has been over the two years prior. Tendinosis is a scary injury. So, I ran the projections using Granger’s bad numbers from last year and then again with a possession-weighted average of Granger’s last few seasons adjusted for his 30 year old age. Up first, what the Pacers look like with a significantly reduced (like last year) Granger playing about 63 games.
Next year, the Pacers with a less-than-peak-effectiveness Granger look like a 55 win team. Given that they won 49 games last year, this might seem like a disappointing improvement considering how much better their bench has gotten this offseason. But a six-win improvement is very significant. That’s a 12% increase in wins. In addition, Paul George’s minutes projection is lower than his actual minutes from this past year by a shade under 400 minutes. So if George is able to play as many minutes as he did last year, the Pacers could be even better. Speaking of the Pacers being better, what would they look like if Granger comes back and plays like he did at his peak effectiveness?
The Pacers now look like a 57 win team. This may be understating things for the Pacers, too. If Granger is playing like he did 2–3 years ago, chances are that means he’s basically healthy, so he’d likely play more than the 63 games he’s projected to play here. That would push the Pacers win total even closer to the very top of the Eastern Conference. The Pacers, with their revamped bench and the return of Danny Granger to the rotation, look to be a team firmly entrenched in the top 4 of the Eastern Conference. It looks more or less like a four way toss up for which team will be the East’s best in the regular season. For Pacers fans, the more encouraging part of this exercise is looking at how much better their bench now is, to complement their returning starting five, which was the league’s best last year. In the playoffs, the Pacers’ ability to shorten their rotations and play their best five players for longer periods of time is the reason, along with their superior interior play, that the Pacers were able to take the Miami Heat to the brink of elimination. The Pacers now have a bench with competent players to play minutes in the playoffs and not be totally overwhelmed. That change could be the difference between their falling short this postseason and an NBA Championship in the 2013–14 season.
Image from ONE/MILLION via Flickr