('88 Record: 38-44)
In '86-87, when Portland's Mike Schuler was named Coach of the Year, there were quite a few people who thought that Indiana's Jack Ramsay should have won the award. People pointed to the fact that when Ramsay arrived, the Pacers were coming off a very disappointing 26-56 season, and that, after his first year, the Pacers were 41-41 and in the playoffs. Some of the credit was given to Rookie of the Year Chuck Person, but Ramsay got his share.
Jack Ramsay is a fine coach and Person isn't a bad player, but, frankly, the improvement of the Pacers (and their subsequent small decline last year) was very predictable and not completely due to Ramsay and Person.
The '85-86 Pacers could easily have won 33 or 34 games, rather than the 26 they did win. Indiana outshot its opponents 48.1% to 47.3% and outrebounded its opponents 3751 to 3529, including 1138 to 1050 on the offensive boards. The Pacers' floor % was .528, while its opponents' was .524. The Pacers' play % was .457 and its opponents' was .456. The Pacers' Pythagorean projection was for 30 wins, rather than 26. In fact, the worst part of the Pacers' game in '85-86 was free throw shooting, which happened to provide the whole reason the Pacers lost. The team made 361 fewer free throws than they gave up. That is a 4.4 ppg difference in a season where they were outscored by only 3.3 ppg. It was easy to predict that the Pacers were going to improve, one of the easiest predictions ever.
Then, Ramsay and Person came along, as well as off guard John Long from Detroit. Person and Long became the leading scorers, shooting poorly, but freeing up the veterans for better shots. The team still didn't take many free throws, but cut the free throw deficit to 3.6 ppg. A slight improvement in the number of field goals made and a big improvement in turnovers (this is due to Ramsay) made the team look a little better on the court and a lot better in the win column.
Actually, the team wasn't much better than it was in the previous year. Person and Long shot so poorly that the team's field goal percentage dropped to 47.2%, while its opponents' FG% improved to 48.0%. The Pacers outdid their opponents in floor % .533 to .532 and in play % .463 to .460. Their Pythagorean projection was for 39 wins, instead of 41. The numbers said that the Pacers would stay about the same or slightly drop off in '87-88.
The Pacers did slightly decline last year, falling to 38-44. The team regained its edge in FG% 48.0% to 47.2%, but lost even more on its free throws, shooting a league fewest 1982 and making 1546 for 78.0%. Indiana was outdone in floor % .540 to .533 and broke even in play % at .465. Their Pythagorean projection agreed perfectly with their record, 38-44.
Before the season, Ramsay and the team were going for 50 wins, an unrealistic goal even now. Other goals that Ramsay set for the team were more free throws, specifically by getting Chuck Person to put the ball on the floor to drive more, better rebounding, and improved shooting.
That first goal, more free throws, was certainly not accomplished. The team actually shot nearly 200 fewer free throws in '88 than in '87. Most everyone was to blame for this. Every one of the major contributors of '87 had fewer free throws in '88. Chuck Person, who was specifically told to drive more often to go to the foul line, shot 100 fewer free throws and made 90 fewer.
The Pacers also failed to improve their already poor rebounding. Ramsay was especially concerned with defensive rebounding, but that was where the biggest decline was. Person, again, appeared to be most at fault. After grabbing 509 defensive rebounds in his rookie season, he had only 365 last year. The whole defense, as Ramsay had said, was affected by the drop in defensive rebounding. If the Pacers had rebounded at the defensive end as well as they had in '87, their defense would have stayed as good. Instead, the Pacers defensive rating went from 105.2 to 105.9. That small difference conceivably lost them three games. Combine that with the free throw difference and the Pacers are down about five games; instead of 38-44 and out of the playoffs, Indiana could have gone 43-39 and made the playoffs.
The final goal, to improve the team's shooting, was accomplished to a point. As mentioned above, the team went from 47.2% to 48.0% shooting from the field. The guard positions were where Ramsay was concerned. Long shot only 41.9% in over 1100 shots in '87, about the worst in the league for starting shooting guards. He improved that to 47.4% last year in under 900 shots and got lots of help from rookie Reggie Miller. Miller was grouped with Person and Scott Skiles and called the Brat Pack, but that is probably misleading. Person and Skiles don't seem to want to learn as much as Miller does. Miller accepted a small role on the team and learned the structured offense without going off on any one-on-one shooting excursions as he often did at UCLA. At the end of the season, Miller was shooting 48.8% from the field, adjusted with his 61 three pointers to 53.7%. With numbers like that, he should play a much larger role in the offense next year. The other guard, Vern Fleming, also had a good shooting year in '88, shooting 52.3% from the field and shooting over 80% from the line for the first time. Person shot a little worse last year, but not significantly. Overall, Indiana does appear to be on the right track towards improving their shooting. Fleming and Miller should form one of the best shooting backcourts next year. Tisdale has consistently shot just above 51% his three seasons and has improved his free throw shooting to a very acceptable level. Stipanovich shoots around 50% nowadays, which isn't bad. Person...well, he has shooting problems.
Person's problems are almost exclusively shooting problems, though he does turn the ball over a little too much. He has tremendous range on his jumper, but that means that his percentage doesn't go down much as he gets farther out. The problem is that he doesn't shoot very well from fairly close range. Person was the only one of the 23 teams' leading scorers who had an individual floor % below .500. And it was considerably below .500 at .479. A big part of this is Person's inability to get to the free throw line. Steve Johnson played 37% of the minutes Person did and took over 750 fewer shots than Person did, but he still had 52 more free throw attempts. Person took 1252 shots last year and only went to the line 197 times. A normal number of free throws for 1252 shots from the field would be about 415. If Person then were more 'normal', he would have scored 146 more points and improved his floor % to .501. Even if Person doesn't improve on his 67% foul shooting, just going to the free throw line more often would drastically improve his offense.
What can Ramsay do about Person's 45.9% field goal shooting? Just getting Person to go to the foul line more often would help that a little. Ramsay has tried that already and Person rebelled against it. It seems to be a no-win situation unless Person recognizes that he must put the ball on the floor and drive. Driving to the middle will give him plenty of easy layups, put him on the line more, improve his assist total, and free his jump shot a little more. Person either has to learn to do that or let his teammates take more control of the offense. It will be Ramsay's call and he'll probably make the right one.
Figuring out what is going to happen to the Pacers next year is a difficult task. Coach Ramsay has almost never had a bad team in his 20 years of coaching and probably won't allow the Pacers to be bad. The talent he has is very good, but it may be too rebellious to let Ramsay develop it. The Central Division is very very strong now and teams will be beating each other up all year long next year. Indiana may have to take the brunt of that.
What effect will their rookie center, Rik Smits, have? In general, rookies have very little effect on their teams, but centers can often be exceptions. I have seen none of Smits' college stats, but people have been saying that he is a 'polished offensive player'. If that means he shoots well, he better shoot real well because he is going to get pushed around a lot in the NBA and shots won't be uncontested as they were at Marist. It sounds like Smits needs to hold his ground down low to try to draw fouls on offense. Defensively, Smits has to block shots. Herb Williams, who has a good shot blocker his whole career, seems to be getting old fast and no one else can block shots for the Pacers, especially Person, who had 8 blocks, 4 fewer than 5'6" Spud Webb had in half the minutes. Most Rookies of the Year play on very poor teams that need their help immediately. Smits wouldn't fit that scenario, but it just seems like people have been too tentative with him and that he may really surprise the league. But I doubt it.
The Pacers have enough to make it to the playoffs next year. Their defense is still strong enough, though it is in trouble. The offense should be led by Fleming, Tisdale, Stipanovich, and Miller, but Person won't sit around watching. If all goes well for the team, it may win 50, but a more likely goal would be about 45 wins.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver