3 leftover questions from Pacers preseason play

Rejoice: The NBA regular season is right around the corner. While preseason basketball provides a suitable appetizer, it’s certainly not the same environment. For many teams, especially those with numerous recent changes, the preseason can raise more questions than it answers as teams adjust to new personnel or strategies and generally shake off a summer of rust.

The Indiana Pacers have been one of those teams this preseason. Once again, the Pacers underwent major changes this summer, turning over more than half their roster for the second-straight offseason in hopes of becoming a smaller, faster team. On paper, they look to have accomplished this, as Indiana is the third-shortest team in the NBA, and they had the second-highest percentage of points off fast breaks during the preseason at 19.1 percent, per NBA Stats.

However, the preseason also raised significant questions about the effectiveness of the Pacers’ new approach. They struggled on defense, and some personnel-related questions didn’t quite shake out during the practice games.

So, with Indiana’s first game less than 72 hours away, let’s look at a few lingering questions from the preseason and how they could carry-over to the Pacers’ regular season.

Is Glenn Robinson III ready to be a “big dog”?

Since their recent purchase of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants as a D-League affiliate, Indiana has shown a much stronger interest in developing young players than it had during previous years. One of the first players they acquired and utilized their developmental resources for was Glenn Robinson III. The young forward spent most of last season earning his keep at Fort Wayne, although he did crack the rotation in spurts.

Robinson remains in the fold this season, and so far, he looks much improved. The 22-year-old played well during NBA summer league, then even better during the preseason. In six preseason games, Robinson III averaged nearly 12 points per game. He also snagged four rebounds and almost a full steal in 23 minutes per game, with 67 percent shooting on three-pointers and 60 percent shooting overall.

Those are strong numbers. His shooting efficiency stats are particularly impressive, and even though they’re unsustainable, they’re encouraging nonetheless. Robinson has looked quick and confident in letting his jumper fly, and he’s also looked active away from the ball, trying to create opportunities in the half-court offense. He’s also a good athlete and finisher, which should fit in with the Pacers’ desire to push the ball for transition chances.

While Robinson has looked good and confident on offense, he still struggles on defense, particularly off the ball. While he gives good effort, his positioning is consistently poor, and he too often loses track of his man or the ball in halfcourt situations. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo beat Robinson several times cutting to the basket or sneaking out in transition. If GR3 is going to be a positive rotation contributor, his defense must improve, especially as part of what is already a leaky second unit for the Pacers.

With CJ Miles still sidelined due to a sore knee, Robinson’s potential importance has never been higher. Other than Miles, he’s the only player on the roster with the size, speed and athleticism to effectively back up Paul George at the three, so he should have an opportunity to ingrain himself in the rotation. Hopefully his preseason is just another positive step to build on in his development.

Where does Monta Ellis fit in?

Indiana brought Ellis in last summer to be the team’s primary playmaker in 2015-16, and although he played that part well at times, he proved too risky to do so consistently. This summer, the Pacers brought in Jeff Teague to play a similar role alongside Ellis, which raises the question, What’s Ellis’s role?

The preseason did little to answer this. In six preseason games, Ellis never played fewer than 20 minutes yet scored only 11, 14, 8, 7, 14 and 8 points, respectively, on 43/32 percent shooting splits. He didn’t look uncomfortable, but he did look to have a bit of a hard time coexisting with Teague, especially in halfcourt situations. Ellis was one of many Pacers who did a poor job moving around once the ball reached the offensive side of the floor, contributing to an unimpressive halfcourt attack.

Meanwhile, he looked comfortable but neutered with the ball in his hands, seemingly succumbing to a “your turn, my turn” mentality in terms of sharing those responsibilities with Teague. Whether it was getting into the lane or out on the break, Ellis often seemed a step behind in terms of playing a supporting role when his backcourt mate was leading the charge. Getting used to spending so much time without the ball will be a big adjustment for Ellis.

This overlap in terms of style and responsibility have led many to suggest that Ellis would be better off as Indiana’s sixth man, being the primary ball-handler for that unit and catalyzing its offense. However, his starting spot has yet to come into question, and until Miles is healthy, it will stay that way, as no one else on the roster would be a suitable replacement.

As long as Ellis remains in the starting lineup, his role will remain amorphous, and the 11-year veteran is going to have to adjust accordingly. For once, he’ll have to play more off teammates’ movements than vice versa, and the more effectively he can do that, the better for everyone.

March 12, 2016 - Dallas, TX, USA - The Indiana Pacers' Monta Ellis (11) battles the Dallas Mavericks' David Lee, right, and Chandler Parsons (25) for space during the first half on Saturday, March 12, 2016, at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Pacers won, 112-105 (Photo by Brandon Wade/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

March 12, 2016 – Dallas, TX, USA – Indiana Pacers guard Monta Ellis (Photo by Brandon Wade/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Can the Pacers stop fouling?

With their emphasis on offense for the last two offseasons, plus this summer’s dismissal of former head coach and defensive guru Frank Vogel, the Pacers’ defense has rightly been a concern. After a half-dozen preseason games, the team hasn’t done anything to assuage those worries.

Although their defensive results have been in the middle of the pack during preseason, their schedule hasn’t exactly been difficult, and this is a team that has not fallen outside of the top five in defensive rating in years. Even being an average defense would be a huge change for this team.

And yet, if they can remain among the top 15 defenses during the regular season, that would probably count as a win for this group. Indiana lost a lot of defensive talent in Ian Mahinmi, George Hill and Solomon Hill, so a drop-off is inevitable. Question is, How much of a drop-off will occur? The preseason play suggested it could be painful.

The Pacers’ inability to stop fouling raises some serious concerns about their defensive potential. Their rate of 23.3 team fouls per game during the preseason would have led the NBA in that category last year. With the team’s downsizing and loss of a rim protector, some of that spike is understandable. However, the team was already emphasizing steals and playing a quicker, more aggressive style of defense last year as well, so Indiana shouldn’t be flailing so much (at least not literally) in adjusting to new personnel on defense.

It could simply be a product of fatigue and preseason (lack of) enthusiasm. After their final preseason game, a loss to the Bucks, the Indy Star reported both Paul George and Nate McMillan called out the team’s low energy levels and suggested that their defensive effort could use major improvement. In response, Teague mentioned the intensity of the team’s training camp and practices as a culprit causing all the fouling. McMillan predictably did not agree.

Whatever the reason, McMillan is right in saying it needs to improve, because Indiana will sink without a defense in the top half of the league. With only one rim protector and no traditional power forward, the Pacers are going to have to play a fast, assertive defense once again, so they will have to continue to battle against fouling too much. They don’t have the depth to deal with foul trouble, nor the firepower to give away points at the line.

There are a lot of questions persisting about this club. Offensively, it has the talent and coaching to solve the aforementioned problems rather easily in theory — it’s the other end of the floor where answers will be harder to find. If the Pacers can find enough to get to a top 15 or  10 level defensively, however, they have the corresponding firepower on offense to be a strong team in the East.

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