Should the Indiana Pacers Experiment with Smaller Lineups?

By Brandon Curry
Danny Granger Paul George
Michael Hickey-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of the questions surrounding the Indiana Pacers and head coach Frank Vogel recently have been how exactly they plan on using Danny Granger now that he’s back from injury. Eventually start him when he’s ready and break up one of the elite lineups in the NBA? Or what about using him as the team’s sixth man?

The answers to those questions will become clear over the next month, but will Indiana’s below-average offense fix itself by making one of those changes?

We got our first real look at the downsizing of the NBA last June. The Miami Heat consistently played the 6-foot-8 Shane Battier at “power forward,” ignoring the size advantage that the Oklahoma City Thunder had because of it. It turned out to be a successful tactic, obviously, as Miami won the series and the title in five games.

This season, while the Heat have carried over this strategy for the most part, the Houston Rockets have also adopted the small-ball style of play.

Before the trade deadline, Houston employed two stretch 4s — Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris — that step out to the three-point line as well as rebound at a respectable rate. Fast forward to after the deadline, Patterson and Morris have exited the equation via trade, and in comes two raw rookies, Thomas Robinson and Terrence Jones, to take their places. However, the Rockets and head coach Kevin McHale weren’t ready to install those two into the team’s spread pick-and-roll offense. Now, Houston relies on two conventional small forwards, Carlos Delfino and Chandler Parsons, to fill in at the 4 in stretches.

Old-school basketball believes playing smaller up front can leave you vulnerable on defense and the glass, but Houston’s general manager, Daryl Morey, believes the offense that is gained from it can outweigh the negative effects on defense.

“”It’s just math,” Morey told Grantland’s Zach Lowe. “There are a larger supply of good players who are shorter, and getting more of those guys on the floor just works.”

This brings us back to the Pacers’ current situation. Vogel has consistently gone with a combo of Roy Hibbert, David West, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, and Jeff Pendergraph at the 4 and 5, almost never playing with just one big.

Now, some of you are most likely saying something to the extent of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I understand that. The Pacers are currently tied for second place in the Eastern conference and possess the league’s best defense. But this current personnel management has led to the 19th ranked offense in terms of offensive efficiency. It’s the Pacers’ one clear weakness and could be the most prominent reason that keeps them from advancing deep into the playoffs.

I’m not suggesting making a move to a smaller lineup a permanent thing, as Indiana’s starting lineup has been phenomenal this season, but what happens if Hibbert falls victim to early foul trouble? What if the offense is bogged down in a middle of a game and has poor spacing?

The Pacers could do their own experimenting over the final quarter of the season when these situations appear. Lineups with one big (either Hibbert, West, or Mahinmi) with Granger at the 4, alongside the usuals: Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, could produce a much more effective offense. Indiana could play at a much faster pace with this type of lineup and would be something drastically different to throw at the opposition.

Houston’s assistant coach, Kelvin Sampson, describes the Rockets’ small lineup as its “curveball lineup.” If the Pacers were compared to a major-league pitcher, one could describe them as a starter who has a dominating fastball, but lacks the secondary pitches to take the next step to become elite. If the Pacers at least make an attempt at finding that “curveball,” that could mean the difference between the Eastern conference finals and the NBA Finals.


Brandon Curry is an NBA columnist for Rant Sports. Follow Brandon on Twitter @ByBrandonCurry

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