(This is the first piece on 8 Points, 9 Seconds by Jay Ganatra, who is currently studying Accounting at the University of Florida. His work will appear here regularly. Jay can be reached at [email protected].)
Although their record stands at just 9-8, a deeper look at the standings indicates that the Pacers are in actuality playing at a higher level than in seasons past, with the reason for this being the improved defense. Last season, the Pacers ranked 23rd in the NBA in points allowed; this season, they are at the top of the pack, allowing 97.2 points a game, good for 10th overall. While Indiana wasn’t particularly poor in terms of points allowed per hundred possessions last season (they ranked 15th in the NBA), this season, they are hounding opposing offenses far more, as evidenced by their ranking 7th in the league in this area. When examining the defense from the perspective of opponent field goal percentage, the numbers are even more encouraging: Last season, they allowed the opposition to shoot 45% against them (13th in the league), but with better defense this season, they are forcing the opposition into 43% shooting, one of the best such marks in the NBA. The defense, thus, has played a major role in the Pacer’s 9-8 record.
It logically follows, therefore, that part of what is holding Indiana back is its inability to score efficiently. In terms of points scored per hundred possessions, it ranks 19th. Of course, the Pacer’s effective field goal percentage (conventional field goal percentage adjusted for the fact that a three-pointer is worth more than a two-pointer) is indeed above the league average at nearly 50%, but this metric paints an artificially rosy picture as it does not take into account free throws made — a category in which the Pacers rank second to last. Consider also the fact that Indiana ranks 18th in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage. Make no mistake; this is not too far below the league-average. However, it does become a minor blemish when one learns that the Pacers have attempted the second-most number of three-pointers of any team this season (but as we’ll see below, this issue is likely to fade as the season progresses as players exit their career-worst shooting slumps). Such are the offensive statistics for Indiana. It is clear, therefore, that (currently) offensive production is not as good as the fine defense.
In spite of these offensive struggles, however, Pacer Nation need not worry. One positive sign — and one that hopefully suggests that the team’s shooting woes will improve — is that the Pacers are currently ranked 13th in the NBA in assists-per-game. This suggests that Indiana has above-average ball movement; when the shooting percentages inevitably catch up (TJ Ford and James Posey are currently mirred in their worst shooting seasons of their careers, and so their slumps are unlikely persist for the entire season) the positive results will be even more pronounced. One big reason for this is the Pacers’ increased reliance on third-year starting center Roy Hibbert.
In order to give him more touches, they’ve slowed down the offense to where they are tied for 9th place in the NBA in terms of possessions used per game, a considerably drop from years past. Jim O’Brien’s tenure in Indiana has been marked by quick play. The Pacers were 2nd in pace last season, 3rd in 2008-2009 and 3rd in 2007-08. So far this year, however, they have been much closer to playing at a league-average speed.
As a result, the team has given Hibbert more control of the basketball, and thus far, the results have been positive. Aside from increasing scoring from Hibbert, a significant plus has been his ability to pass the ball: Among power forwards and centers, his 3.0 per night is tied for 6th in the NBA in assists per game. As a result, the Pacers have experienced better ball movement (as mentioned above, they’ve improved their assists-per-game ranking from last year), and when the collective shooting percentage inevitably (hopefully) increases to where the number of three-pointers attempted is more in line with the three-point percentage, the effects of his passing will be felt even more. And when the team shoots better, defenses will be less apt to sag off of perimeter players to help on Hibbert, giving him more room to operate in the post.
Another dose of hope worth investigating is the Pacers’ point differential. This metric is very favorable towards the Pacers; despite their 9-8 record, they are 11th in the League (+2.4 points per game) in terms of the average number of points that they win by. When adjusted for strength of schedule, the prognosis becomes even slightly more optimistic, as Indiana ranks 10th in the league in Simple Rating, a calculation that takes into account point differential as well as opponent strength.
Overall, the Pacers have improved from last season, most notably on the defensive end of the floor. While the offense has some catching up to do, it may very well improve, which will help the win-loss record even further. At any rate, the Pacers have played well, and for now, that’s enough to make a Pacer fan smile.
Statistics can never reveal the whole picture. But in this case, the team’s defensive and offensive numbers so far paint a good picture as to why this year’s Pacers look better than last season.
Tags: Roy Hibbert