CHICAGO – Some phobias can be worse than others, depending on one’s circumstances. For someone who makes his living in the NBA, gigaphobia – a pathological fear of tall people – would be a problem. So, for that matter, would aerophobia, the fear of flying.
But the five players who started most often for the Indiana Pacers last season set clinicians’ tongues to wagging when they began to develop an oddly contagious case of kathisophobia.
Otherwise known as the fear of sitting down.
“There were times we felt like guys should stay in the game,” center Roy Hibbert said Friday night, “and that we always should have at least two or three starters out there.”
Sitting down became a scary proposition for the Pacers’ starters because no team experienced the sort of performance dropoff – primarily offensively – that Indiana did when three, two or even just one bench guy subbed in.
When the first unit of Hibbert, David West, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill was on the floor in 2012-13 in regular season games, Indiana had an offensive rating of 108.6 and a defensive rating of 96.5 for a net of 12.1. When any other lineup was out there, the advantage flattened (98.5/96.7/1.8).
A group of reserves – primarily D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young – that was supposed to develop into something reliable never did.
“In the beginning of the year,” West said after the preseason loss to Chicago at United Center Friday, “we were playing 10, 11 guys, and I don’t know if that worked as well as we hoped. We made some adjustments, making sure there were a couple starters on the floor at all times. Found some lineups in terms of chemistry that worked, and things started to get better for us.”
Maybe, but it didn’t last. The dropoff got much worse in the playoffs: 109.5/94.7/14.8 for the starters to 94.5/107.4/-12.9 for the backups. And in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, the simplest way to put it is that the Pacers’ first unit outscored the Heat by 46 points. But the bench guys got beat by 74. It only went seven games because the Hibbert-West-George-Stephenson-Hill group stayed on the floor longer than all other combinations put together.
Understandably, there have been changes. Augustin, Green, Hansbrough, Young and Miles Plumlee are gone. Mahinmi is back, but he has been joined by guard C.J. Watson, forwards Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and rookie Solomon Hill. Danny Granger is back, too, after missing almost the entire season with a knee injury, adding to what is hoped – no, actually what had better be – a deeper, more reliable roster. Top to nearly bottom.
The Pacers’ 0-5 mark with 11 days left in the preseason isn’t a cause for panic yet. Their schedule has been outrageous, with the longest of the NBA’s Global Games trips (Philippines and Taiwan) and now a stretch of four consecutive October road tuneups. Granger still is working his body and conditioning into game shape. Derrick Rose went on a 32-point romp in an early-comeback performance with a 2010-11 smell.
Still, the newness of all those freshly acquired Indiana subs has been showing.
“Obviously we’ve added some experience,” West said, “But we’ve got to get guys acclimated to the way that we play. It’s taking us probably a little more time than we expected, but we have faith in the guys in this locker room. And we know the [defensive] mindset, our approach every single day, is something guys have got to adjust to.”
Scola, for instance, was indecisive and out of rhythm against the Bulls Friday, shooting 1-of-5, committing three turnovers and holding the ball out top while desperately seeking unfamiliar teammates. The 6-foot-9 veteran is considered one of the prize pickups of the summer, an international star who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in six NBA seasons. But he also started 371 of 386 games the past five years, so his preseason stats (9.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 36.4 percent shooting) can be attributed in part to his new role.
New system, new coaches, new teammates, new emphasis on defense, new role – it’s a lot.
“I hope I can bring a lot,” Scola said Friday. “I’m not sure. I’m trying to find a way to be more effective in this position. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to work out. It’s just a different way to play.”
Watson is averaging 6.0 points with 11 turnovers to five assists. Copeland got on the floor for 12 seconds against the Bulls and has missed 26 of his 34 field goal attempts. Teams have outscored the Pacers 500-453 through five games.
The Granger-Stephenson decision eventually has to get made, too. Initially, lots of folks took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, suggesting Granger be used off the bench to avoid, at least, disrupting the bankable starting five.
Then again, Granger’s shooting range could be a big help to the first group. And Stephenson, who subbed in for the first time this preseason Friday, really asserted himself with the backups. He fouled out after missing some key free throws late, but Stephenson scored 11 points with seven rebounds and eight assists, playing 34:22 partly because Granger’s left calf strain flared up.
“I’ve always started, so obviously I’m more comfortable doing that,” Granger told NBA.com afterward. “And Lance, he’s more of a playmaker. So when he’s in the second group, I think he actually excels more. He has the ball in his hands, he can make plays. When he’s with the starting group, the ball’s going into the post or Paul [George] has it. I play off the ball a lot.”
Coach Frank Vogel said he called a play for Stephenson “nine or 10 straight times” against the Bulls. If the fourth-year wing can take a stride this season similar to what he did last season, he or Granger can bring serious relief to the Pacers’ backups.
The thing is, with expectations high for a run at The Finals, there really is no room for if’s.
“He’s just a load,” West said of Stephenson. “He’s a playmaker, a shot maker, a shot creator. Lance is a big part of what we’re trying to do, and he has to have a great year for us. He’s beyond that stage of kind of proving himself. It’s time for him literally to be who we know he is.”
Soon enough, it will be time for the Pacers’ upgraded bench to prove that it is, too.