(As his first contributions to 8p9s, Kevin Hetrick is digging deep into how the Pacers performed last year and what they can do to improve next season — whenever it begins. Read Part 1 of his series here.)
Defense was the key to Indiana’s success last year. But they still have room to improve.
Last year was a somewhat encouraging year. The Pacers won 37 games, put up a good fight in the playoffs and did it while 60% of their minutes went to players 25 and under. They played at the 6th fastest pace in the NBA; which resulted in per game scoring in the top half of the league, but per game points allowed in the bottom half of the league. Their pace obscures a more complicated reality though; per possession the Pacers were 23rd in the NBA in scoring. Their offensive inefficiencies were a larger obstacle than defense, where they ranked 12th per possession.
As expected from what we learned in Part 1, the Pacers offensive efficiency correlates very well with their shooting percentages. They were 23rd in effective FG% (eFG%) and 21st in true shooting (TS%). Looking at the highest correlative factors with offensive efficiency, the Pacers were 24th in shooting percentage at the rim (0.652 correlation). Most of the front-court players (Hibbert, Hansbrough, Foster and Granger) were below average for their position at finishing on these shots.
The Pacers were average regarding three-point shooting percentage (0.627 correlation), finishing 16th in the league. Granger, Rush, Dunleavy and McRoberts were above average three-point shooters, but the Pacers could have been much better if not for AJ Price and James Posey being 4th and 5th on the team in three point attempts while cumulatively making 30%. (Posey took a three every 4 minutes he on the court). The Pacers were 9th in the league for percentage of field goal attempts from three, but were 24th in turnover rate. In items with lower correlations; the Pacers were 12th in the league at getting to the foul line, 5th in free throw shooting percentage and 17th in the league at offensive rebounding.
This is an appropriate place to note that during Vogel’s time as coach, the offense changed to a “power” game, more committed to post offense. Over the final 38 games, the Pacers increased their offensive efficiency by 3 points per 100 possessions, lead by improvements in FTA/FGA and offensive rebounding to top 10 levels. They shot 5 fewer three-point attempts per game and made 1.5% less of these attempts (34.5% vs. 36%). This all contradicts with the high correlation stats most likely to correspond with offensive efficiency. Vogel may have improved the offense the “hard” way, and this could continue next season.
There are some possible explanations for the Pacers offensive improvement that are not due to Vogel’s change in philosophy, however. The offensive improvement could be attributed to the games coached by Vogel being filled with more poor defensive teams than good defensive teams. The average NBA ranking of the defenses was 17.3 of 30 teams (vs. 13.8 under O’Brien).
The offensive improvements are also largely due to rotation changes Vogel made, primarily benching James Posey, TJ Ford and Solomon Jones. Through January, those players played 1,975 minutes, but from February through April they played 164 minutes (63 in the final game).
This group’s “credentials” included:
- Posey ranked last in the NBA (players with 500 minutes) for free-throw attempts per field goal attempt. He was the second worst offensive rebounder of all small forwards and had a TS% that was six points below NBA average for SFs.
- Ford had the lowest eFG% and TS% of all point guards.
- Solomon Jones had the lowest eFG% of all centers by 4%.
These players played nearly 20% of the Pacers minutes under O’Brien, and replacing them with almost anyone would have improved the Pacers offense. (Along these lines, this article series will presume that the rotation changes and easier schedule were more conducive to the Pacer’s improved offense under Vogel than the philosophy shift, and that improving high correlation measures are an “easier” way to improve offensive efficiency.)
Moving on, the Pacers were very poor as a passing team, ranking 25th in percentage of field goals at the rim that were assisted and 26th in percentage of all field goals that were assisted. The Pacers need to cut down on their turnovers (24th) and convert better at the rim (24th) to further improve their offense.
Although not highly correlative to offensive rating, it seems that the Pacers would benefit by creating more easy buckets at the rim through improved passing. The Pacers’ assist-to-turnover ratio was 27th in the NBA. Of the ten Indiana players who played more than 800 minutes, Josh McRoberts was second on the team with 3.4 assists per 36 minutes. That’s very poor. Maintaining the ability to create and convert three-point shots should be a good foundation for the offense, and reducing turnovers and creating more easy shots at the rim would help push the offense to a higher level.
As expected, the area that allowed the Pacers to be the 12th best defense was the same area where they struggled on offense: eFG%. They were the 7th best team in forcing their opponents to miss shots. This included allowing the 10th fewest shots at the rim and being 4th best at making opponents miss those shots (0.712 correlation). The Pacers were less successful at defending the three, however (0.706 correlation), ranking 17th in the league.
Unfortunately, they weren’t quite as successful at gathering those forced misses — something we saw prominently in the Bulls series. Overall, the Pacers were only 15th in the league at defensive rebounding.
On lower correlation stats, they allowed the 5th lowest percentage of field goals to be assisted (0.344 correlation), ranked 23rd in the league at allowing free throw attempts and came in at a lowly 22nd in the league for opponent’s turnover rate.
All told, it appears that the Pacers were good at the things most likely to result in a good defense and poor in the metrics less likely for this result. The Pacer’s defense did perform 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse under Vogel, however. This was seemingly due to a decrease in defensive rebounding success.
One interesting item is that while opponent’s eFG% remained a top-10 strength under both coaches, the means by which the team induced this were very different. Through January, when O’Brien was fired, the Pacers allowed opponents to make 37.9% of threes but only 46.5% of two point field goals. From February to April, the Pacers held opponents to 33.7% on threes while allowing 48.9% shooting on two-pointers.
Further showing the significance of this change is that the Pacers played decent three-point shooting teams under Vogel. The average NBA ranking in three-point shooting percentage was 15.5 (the exact average rank for 30 teams). The primary lineup changes were that Solomon Jones’ minutes went to Tyler Hansbrough, and on the wing, Posey, Rush and Dunleavy (due to injury) saw their playing time drop under Vogel, with those minutes largely going to Paul George and Dahntay Jones. And as previously noted, the back-up point guard became AJ Price over TJ Ford. These players and Vogel’s system were obviously much more adept at defending the three-point line, which is encouraging — especially if two-point shooting percentage can be reduced again.