On Wednesday, we looked at which teams really underperform on the road. The Pacers were far and away the top club on the list. Indiana at home is the best team in the league. Indiana on the road is very mediocre, worse than four East teams and the entire West playoff bracket. We also tracked down the categories the Pacers that cause this slump: offensive rebounding, turnover creation, foul rate and shooting defense.
The next step: determining if any particular players or conditions are driving the deficiencies.
Can we blame NBA schedule-makers?
It turns out that Indiana did draw a few more road back-to-backs than league average. But the Pacers' bad splits are far in excess of what a couple games could change. So no, we cannot blame the schedule.
Do the starters play less on the road?
One theory is that on road trips, a coach might rest his best players a bit more to conserve energy, with back-to-backs and whatnot. But that's not the case for Indiana: four of the five starters played at least one minute more per game on the road. This could be attributed to a greater likelihood of garbage time at home, where Indiana is spectacular.
The one starter who plays fewer minutes on the road than at home: Roy Hibbert. The center averages 30.2 minutes per game at home and 29.6 minutes per game on the road. That difference is negligible. But consider that David West, for instance, plays 2.2 minutes more per game on the road than at home. That puts Hibbert's negative burn split in perspective: while the other starters all play a good bit more on the road, Hibbert plays less.
Why does Roy Hibbert play fewer minutes on the road than at home unlike all other Pacers starters?
There's one fairly obvious culprit: fouls. Hibbert averages 2.8 fouls per game at home and 4.0 fouls per game in slightly fewer minutes on the road. That is a massive difference. Fellow center Ian Mahinmi also plays less on the road, which is odd. Indiana's only two centers of repute (sorry Andrew Bynum) both play less on the road than at home.
Isn't foul rate one of the Pacers' big road problems?
Yes! The average NBA team fouls 4 percent more on the road than at home. Indiana's foul rate jumps 11 percent on the road. Hibbert is the only Pacers regular whose fouls per game jumps enough (43 percent!) to matter on the road. Two extra fouls per game is just a ton.
Is this Hibbert's fault?
Highly unlikely. Remember, Big Roy is one of the toughest defenders in the NBA to call properly, thanks to the verticality rule and his immense stature at 7'2. It's entirely reasonable to believe that Hibbert is called differently on the road than at home. That's not his fault.
What about offensive rebounding?
Hibbert is only a slightly worse offensive rebounder on the road vs. at home. Among rotation players, Mahinmi, George Hill and Paul George have far larger drop-offs on the offensive glass on the road. But it's a problem by committee: the entire rotation pretty much sees a drop-off in this category.
There's another factor here, too. We've established that Hibbert plays less than expected on the road. So does Ian Mahinmi. Those two guys are the centers on this team. Playing less of them means more small lineups for Indiana on the road. Of course that affects the team's offensive rebounding, since other guys are playing out of position.
What about turnover creation?
The entire bench plus Lance Stephenson picks up fewer steals per minute on the road compared to at home, beyond league norms. Is this a conscious decision by Indiana to focus more on defending shots instead of gambling on the road? Do the guards who pick up most of the steals have less energy to attack lanes defensively? Is it just a noisy quirk of the data? We don't know.
What about shot defense?
Individual shot defense data is still unreliable, but I'll note that Hibbert blocks 1.9 shots per game on the road and 2.7 at home. That's a 30 percent drop. The foul issues that plague Hibbert on the road must factor in, either because they make Roy less aggressive, refs call fringe block/foul cases differently or a combination of both. West and Mahinmi also block fewer shots on the road, for what it's worth.
(NBA.com doesn't offer home-road splits on SportVU data. Otherwise, we could see whether Hibbert's paint defense is much worse on the road.)
So what's the verdict?
Foul issues for Hibbert and, to a lesser extent, Mahinmi appear to effect Indiana's ability to defend well and get second chances on the road. It's obviously not controversial to say that the Pacers need to keep Hibbert on the court as much as possible, especially on the road. We all know he's good.
But seriously, Indiana. You've really got to find a way to keep Hibbert on the court. Start working those refs now.