The Pacers are in the playoffs for the first time in five years, but — more importantly — this will be the first time for 8p9s covering Indiana in the postseason. We’re going to jump in with both feet. Read all about it in our multi-part Pacers vs Bulls Playoff Preview series in the hours and days to come.
The first statistical deep dive we’re going take into the Pacers/Bulls series is what is sometimes called a “Stoplight Analysis.” It’s a simple visual tool that identifies the good (green), the average (yellow), and the bad (red). In this instance, green will reflect a top ten ranking in a category, yellow for middle ten, and red for bottom ten.
The graphic above shows where both the Pacers and the Bulls rank in key advanced statistical categories as of this past weekend. What I’ve done here is lined up the Pacer offense with the Bulls defense, and the Bulls Offense with the Pacers Defense.
Full Season Team Comparison
From 30,000 feet, this tells you more or less what you would expect. The Pacers — a well below-average offensive team — are going to go up against the top defensive team in the league. The teams seem more evenly matched at the other end, where the Pacers D and the Bulls O both rate as above average, but not quite top ten.
However, there are ebbs and flows over the course of a season, and the Pacers had a big one on January 30. When Frank Vogel took over for Jim O’Brien, there were some foundational changes made to the way Indiana plays the game. (The Bulls end-of-season stats are also more relevant to its current roster considering that both Carlos Boozer, who didn’t play his first fame this year until December 1, and Joakim Noah, who sat out from December 16 – February 23, missed substantial time. Only in March and early April have we really seen this team all together for an extended stretch.)
For these reasons, we need to look at how these teams have performed since Vogel was hired to get a closer picture of how these teams will match up on April 16. Here are the same breakdowns looking at only games played since January 30.
After the Fire
The view at the top of the house doesn’t change a great deal. The Pacers under Vogel have become a more efficient offensive team, but still rank only 19th overall. The Bulls defense is slightly less stingy, but still ranked second in the league since the end of January.
Digging deeper shows that the Pacers Offensive improvement comes from focusing on two specific areas: offensive rebounding and getting to the line. Under Vogel, Indiana has moved from 25th in ORB% to 8th, and from 28th in FT/FGA to 3rd. They were rewarded with an increase in offensive efficiency of 3.5 points per 100 possessions. This has been an impressive mid-season jump, but the Pacers remain a mediocre-to-poor offensive team.
It’s clearly this end of the court — Pacers O vs. Bulls D — that is the biggest obstacle that the Pacers will face in their upcoming series. The two factors that impede Indy’s offense are turnovers and shooting. Intuitively, it’s easy to focus on the turnovers. They have a more visceral effect — there’s seemingly nothing worse than to not even get up a shot. However, there is no single factor at either end more important than shooting (eFG%). Over the last 30 years, the ranking in eFG% has had a 0.79 correlation (1 being perfect, o being no correlation, and -1 being the opposite) to rankings in offensive efficiency. The correlation between ranking in eFG% allowed and defensive efficiency has been 0.84.
And therein lies the biggest challenge for the Pacers in the upcoming series. Shooting is arguably Indiana’s biggest weakness, and it’s going right into the teeth of the Bulls’ biggest defensive strength. The best way to balance this is by hitting the offensive glass, but as strong as the Pacers are at that, that is also going against a Bulls strength (2nd in DRB%).
The one area that of Pacer strength that is going against a Bulls weakness is getting to the line. Indiana will have to exploit this and try to control their offensive glass if they are going to avoid being smothered by the Bulls’ D.
Complicating things is the fact that things are going the other way at the defensive end. Though still having a similar ranking overall, the Pacers are giving up nearly an addition 1.5 points per 100 possessions under Vogel. That’s not a huge drop off, but it is a concern when coupled with the fact that the Bulls have increased their offensive efficiency by 6.2 points per 100 in the same time frame.
The Pacers are still pretty good at defending the first shot (8th in eFG%), but the defense has slid with their drop in defensive rebounding. The Pacers have gone from 6th in the league in DRB% (.754) to 20th (.726) under Vogel. If they’re going to stay with the Bulls, they’re going to have to get better control of the defensive glass, and that will be a tall challenge.
By focusing on the offensive backboard and by playing a more traditional lineup, the Pacers have become a top 10 rebounding team overall. They now grab over 51% of the rebounds available. This makes intuitive sense, given the personnel changes made (most notably, a lot more Hansbrough, no Granger at PF and no Posey at all). However, the Bulls have been the best rebounding team in the second half of the season, pulling down 54% of the available rebounds and rating 1st in DRB% and 2nd in ORB%. This match of strength on strength could be one of the most important areas for Indy in the series.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the #1 seed in the East has significant statistical advantages over the #8 seed. Normally, you would hope to see some areas where Pacer strengths could exploit Chicago weaknesses, but there aren’t a lot of those. Still, the last time the two teams met, the Pacers looked very strong for three quarters before coming away with an overtime victory.
The Pacers need to figure out a way to repeat that success four times in seven games. What we’re going to do over the next few days is to take a look at more detailed information. We’ll look at several things Synergy play breakdowns and individual player performances in the head-to-head match-ups. We’ll take a look at that Pacer win from March 18th, as well as other big Pacer wins or comparable Bulls losses to see if we can find a common thread.
I’m not sure whether we’ll find the key to a Pacer upset or just more completely understand the Bulls superiority. There’s value and hope in both. If you can understand a seeming miracle, you can demystify it and, perhaps, repeat it. If the series ends with Chicago moving on, then a better sense of what the team is lacking when measured against the best might help us see how best to fill that gap.