Pacers not able to challenge for conference title

Apr 8, 2014 3:03 AM

The Indiana Pacers have been a remarkable point spread story this year. Actually this story starts last year when the Pacers flexed their collective muscles, developing into a title contender for the first time in a decade.

Indiana was good, not great, in the 2012-13 regular season. They won 49 games, tied for the third best record in the (much) weaker of the two conferences.

The Pacers didn’t look like juggernauts when they opened the playoffs last year, tied 2-2 with Atlanta through the first four games of their series, each team winning and covering both games at home. But Indiana solved Atlanta, holding the Hawks to 83 and 73 points as they closed out the series in six.

Then the Pacers knocked off the Knicks in six. They notched only one win and cover at Madison Square Garden, but controlled all three home games. And then Indiana took the defending champion Heat to the wire in an absolute war for seven games, earning a significant measure of respect from the betting markets in the process.

After that type of a confidence inspiring playoff run, with their entire core back for 2014 and head coach Frank Vogel earning a strong “bet-on” reputation, the Pacers were expected to be very good this year. They were lined in the range of 55 wins; an elite team.

The Pacers opened with a 15-5 ATS mark in their first 20 games. They went 13-7 ATS in their next 20. Everybody knew the Pacers were going to be very good, yet Indiana still managed to hit 70 percent against the spread over the first half of the season! This isn’t a similar case to other ATS juggernauts this year like the Suns, Bobcats or Raptors (the top three ATS teams in the NBA as I write this), all of whom were lottery teams last year who have “come out of nowhere” to play playoff caliber basketball. This was the case of an elite team playing even better, “ultra-elite” if you will.

How did the Pacers put together that remarkable ATS run? Here’s what I wrote back in January: “My answer is two-fold: focus and defense. Indiana has the best defensive efficiency numbers in the NBA; barely allowing 93 points per 100 possessions. Opposing teams have struggled to hit ‘spread covering’ shots against them again and again in the latter stages of the fourth quarter.”

Indiana limped into the All Star break with a 4-8 spread mark in their previous 12 games, but it certainly didn’t raise any red flags. Nor did the fact the team with the best home record in the NBA suddenly lost a couple of games as home favorites against the Suns and Mavs. This team was a dynamo, bet-on all the way.

Which makes what has happened since the All Star break all the more remarkable. As I write this, the Pacers are seven games under .500 ATS for the year, tied with Milwaukee in the ATS standings. They’ve gone 13-13 SU, but just 3-22-1 ATS since the break, a 26 game streak of abject point spread futility.

One of those three spread covers was fraudulent, coming as a 5.5 point favorite in overtime. And it’s surely worth noting 10 of those 13 SU wins came against the Bucks, Celtics, Jazz, Lakers, Pistons and 76ers – absolute bottom feeders.

This is a classic case of the betting markets finally “catching up” with an elite team at the exact same time they are rapidly morphing from elite into mediocre. And mediocre might be giving them too much credit if you’ve watched them play in recent weeks, just 2-7 SU in their last nine ballgames. Sunday’s home loss to the Hawks – a game where the Pacers trailed 55-23 at home at halftime – was a new low for a team that has suffered through many of them in recent weeks.

So what’s wrong with the Pacers? Can they fix it and challenge for the Eastern Conference title again? My answers are short: “Everything” and “No.”

Let’s start with their offensive woes, a huge issue for a squad that has produced 91 points or less nine times in their last eleven ballgames. The Pacers superstar Paul George hasn’t been playing like one, hitting less than 40 percent from the floor since the break.

Their point guard, Lance Stephenson, is averaging only 3.4 assists per game since the break, nearly two per game less than he dished over the first half of the campaign. Their big men in the middle, Roy Hibbert and David West, have struggled mightily on both ends of the floor, disappearing for extended stretches. There’s very little offensive flow for Indiana these days, a team struggling to create good shots.

The Pacers defense has also declined by leaps and bounds during this dismal run. When you look at the season-long stats, the Pacers have the best defensive efficiency numbers in the league, ahead of Chicago and San Antonio. But two months ago, Indiana had lapped the field in this key statistical category, while now they’re barely hanging on to that top spot.

Indiana forced fewer turnovers, has given up more points in the paint and in transition, blocked fewer shots – the works. Again, this is no short term hiccup – it’s two months of bad basketball.

Team chemistry issues are surely a piece of the equation as well. GM Larry Bird’s decision to trade away locker room leader Danny Granger for Evan Turner at the trading deadline has proven to be a disastrous move. And the more the Pacers struggle, the more they don’t seem to like one another, in sharp contrast to what we saw over the first half of the campaign.

So what does this mean moving forward? It means the Eastern Conference is suddenly loaded with live longshots. Miami is certainly vulnerable; an aging team filled with expiring contracts that was somewhat lucky to escape with their second straight title last June. Looking for longshot value, the likes of Brooklyn, Chicago and Toronto are suddenly “live” in the East.

Frankly, Indiana’s first round opponent (probably Washington, Charlotte or Atlanta) could be a very “live” underdog as well. The Pacers have fallen and they can’t get up!

Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]

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