- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pacers have been gifted something they were in search of, an excuse. A convenient, timely, wonderful excuse. One that could finally save them from the inconsistent funk that has plagued them to begin the season.
That excuse came Monday in the form of Monta Ellis, replete in a sports jacket and khakis that made him look like a member of the P.T.A. Ellis is the focal point for a struggling Pacers team that is more talented than its 13-12 record. Though Indiana sports an interesting roster, the pieces haven’t fit.
Ellis hasn’t fit.
When team president Larry Bird signed Ellis to a 4-year, $44 million deal in 2015, he thought he was buying the old Monta, a fearless player who attacked the rim and got tough buckets in late-game situations. What he got instead was an aging Monta with tender knees who would rather shoot jump shots he can’t hit.
But as Ellis watched from the sideline with an injured groin as Indiana handed the Charlotte Hornets a 110-94 loss, he saw teammate Glenn Robinson III make a case to usurp his place in the starting lineup. He saw the kind of player he has been trying to become but is failing to be, someone who can fill in the gaps for a unit overstuffed with ball handlers.
When Ellis doesn’t take shots, he’s an anchor on the starting unit. Already a flawed player for his sketchy shot selection and porous defense, opposing teams often ditch Ellis to double Indy’s more potent threats in Paul George and Jeff Teague.
Ellis averaged a paltry six attempts in his last five games before the injury, wherein Indiana was outscored by 42 combined points when he was on the court. On the season, the starting unit with Ellis gets outscored by almost five points per 100 possessions, the sixth lowest mark in the league for a lineup that has played at least 100 minutes this season.
- Phil Taylor
But it doesn’t have to be this way, and the Pacers were handed the lever to the escape hatch when Ellis got hurt during Saturday’s win over Portland. This is their chance to make Ellis the sixth man upon his return, a more fitting role for him at this stage in his career. This is their chance to elevate Robinson to a position that just makes sense: hitch a ride with the starters, stand in the corner and knock down shots, play defense when he can and get the hell out of the way.
That’s what happened Friday when Robinson played almost 33 minutes but attempted just two field goals. He scored three points to go along with six rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a steal. An odd box score, certainly, but one that meshed with a unit in need of someone to do the little things. Though Robinson’s stats were timid, Indiana outscored Charlotte by 15 when he played.
“We were pretty much playing through Paul and Jeff and (Thaddeus Young) and (Myles Turner),” coach Nate McMillan said. “And there are going to be plenty of opportunities to get shots just playing off of those guys. He (Robinson) was ready when his time came. He made his shots. As far as running the pick-and-roll and trying to create, we really don’t need him to do any of that.”
The choice of who starts is ultimately up to McMillan, who has to see the way players respond to being above .500 for the first time since Oct. 28, the way a jovial post-game atmosphere permeates the locker room, the way teammates rally around and cheer on the young Robinson.
I’ll confess to switching sides on this debate. I was in favor of starting C.J. Miles, a 12-year veteran who brings a better shooting touch and slightly better defensive acumen. So what if the bench’s productivity dips a bit, Indiana is a struggling team that needs to start its five best players.
- Phil Taylor
I was wrong. Starting Robinson isn’t a perfect solution, he’s still young -- just 23 -- and learning to handle his increased role. But playing alongside dynamite scorers in George, Teague and Turner lessens his offensive burden and learning curve.
Starting Robinson would also push Monta to the bench, where he could be the primary ball handler once more and feast on reserve units. He would also have formidable threats to pass to, including an apparently renewed Al Jefferson and the ever-threatening Miles.
Such a move wouldn’t make the Pacers title contenders, but it would solidify the personnel and help them towards competing for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
If McMillan and the Pacers needed any more reason to give Robinson a full-time starting job, it came during the fourth quarter when guard Rodney Stuckey exited the game with a left knee contusion. Stuckey has played well in recent games with the starters, making a case for his own elevation in the lineup.
Two excuses in two games. What a coincidence. Here’s hoping Indiana reads the tea leaves.