Brick by Brick: How the Pacers Can Repair Their Offense

After nine games, Indiana has the second-worst offense in the league. Scoring only 92 points per 100 possessions, the Pacers are only bested in impotence by the winless Washington Wizards. Things went from bad to worse this week, when the Pacers lost on their home floor despite holding the Toronto Raptors to five fourth-quarter points, then completely mailed in a game in Milwaukee.

Losers of six of their first nine, Indiana Coach Frank Vogel and his squad are searching for answers, and so are a lot of Pacer observers. It’s one thing to lose some games; it’s another altogether to do so looking like they have — especially after billing yourself as an Eastern Conference contender for the past six months.

The Four Factors of Success

There are so many aspects that go into scoring points. The general offensive scheme, ball movement, setting precise screens, cutting, execution, individual playmaking, transition, exploiting mismatches, simply making shots. All are undeniably important. But when we talk about offense from a statistical standpoint, we mostly look at the Four Factors of Basketball Success, a concept identified by Dean Oliver in his attempt to understand how teams win basketball games.

All the less-tangible stuff matters, but we can analyze effectiveness pretty well by just looking at shooting percentage (eFG%), offensive rebounding (ORB%), turnovers (TO%) and getting to the line (FT/FGA). Throughout the years, good NBA offenses have most often been those that shoot well. Meaning, eFG% (effective field goal percentage) has had the highest correlation with offensive rating.

The following chart shows the historical correlation each of the Four Factors has with overall offensive rating.

Correlation of The Four Factors to Offensive Rating

For the less-mathematically inclined, the chart shows one basic truth: eFG% has a very high connection to overall offense while the other three factors do not. In short, you can much more easily create good offense by shooting the ball well than you can by not turning the ball over, drawing fouls and grabbing offensive boards. Those three (in that order) have an increasingly low correlation to creating good offense in today’s NBA.

Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the Pacers’ rank of 29th in offensive rating has a lot to do with its dead-last ranking in eFG%. At 43.6%, they are 5 full percentage points below the league average of 48.8%. Ugly, ugly stuff.

Interestingly, however, the Pacers were also not a good shooting team last year. Despite finishing with the league’s 5th best record and its  7th best offense, they shot just 47.4 eFG%, which put them 23rd in the league (and 1.3% below league average). So what gives? How were they able to score so well last year while shooting poorly? And why aren’t they doing the same this season?

Pulling the Right Levers

It comes down to what I call the “levers” that coaches can pull in order to guide their teams to victory. Essentially, last season Indiana, at the direction of Frank Vogel, was pulling the right levers in the non-shooting areas of offense to make up for missing so many shots. And this year, the team is not.

Last year, as noted, the Pacers ranked 23rd in shooting. But they made up for it by being the 7th best at protecting the ball (TOV%), 2nd best at geting to the line (FT/FGA), and 5th best at rebounding their own misses (ORB%). Essentially, they were elite at everything we measure in terms of team offense other than making shots. And that was enough to make them one of the league’s best offenses — and arguably its best when its starters were on the floor.

This year, however, they have declined when it comes to shooting — and in terms of almost everywhere else. Though just as strong on the offensive glass (currently 5th in the NBA), the Pacers have been bad at scoring from the line (21st – affected both by lack of opportunities and the fact they’re only shooting 73.7% when they get there) and atrocious at taking care of the ball (27th).

While there are lots of ways to have success, the easiest, most consistent way is to say, “Get good shots.” But the Pacers’ offense does not focus on that, the strongest lever. It is not designed to consistently “get good shots,” at least by certain measures. Frank Vogel has built game plans to get certain shots, but not necessarily what most people today consider “good” shots.

Getting Good Shots

One way to get a general gauge of the quality of an offense’s shots is to look at their distribution by zone. There are five basic zones where players can shoot from: “Restricted Area,” “In the Paint (non-Restricted Area),” “Mid-Range,” “Corner 3,” and “Above the Break 3.”

The chart above shows the NBA’s average eFG% for each zone since the 2001 season (including the first two weeks of 2013). Unsurprisingly, the Restricted Area — which is basically everything within 5 feet — has the highest rate of success, at over 59%. From there, the next best locations are the Corner 3 and then the Above the Break 3.

Then comes everything else.

Counterintuitively, there is almost no statistical difference between the success rates of a shot in the paint (outside the Restricted Area) and any other 2-point shot from the Mid-Range. Thus, given the general lack of success NBA players have shooting from them, those two areas combine to make what I’ve referred to here as the “Dead Zone.” This is the area where you get the least bang for your buck. Consider this: once players step outside of the Restricted Area, they are a full one-third less successful in hitting shots. (From a raw percentage-made basis, this rate was still better than the Corner Threes, 38.55%, and the Above the Break Threes, 34.91%, but those shots have the benefit of a bonus point, which make them into better places to shot from.)

Of course, these are generalities. A Corner 3 is a great shot — unless Sam Young is taking it. And a 17-footer is your least efficient look — unless David West is shooting it.

So, where are the Pacers getting their shots this year?

This distribution is somewhat unsurprising, given both their offense and the nature of their bigs.

David West earned the nickname The 17-Foot Assassin for a reason. Hibbert relies heavily on hook shots for his offense. In a league where only 13% of the shot attempts are coming In the Paint (but outside of the Restricted Area), 28% of West’s shots and 33% of Hibbert’s shots come from that zone. The fact that these shots are — as a general rule — closely guarded further impairs their efficiency.

Again, understanding the relative value of the various areas on the floor only informs game planning; it shouldn’t completely dictate it.

With Vogel, the offense is designed to “put the ball in play,” allowing the team to crash the boards and get to the line. That can work — as it did so well last year. Also of note: the Laker teams that won titles under Phil Jackson put a heavy emphasis on offensive rebounding — a function of the triangle. But they also consistently got good shots.

What the Pacers, under Vogel, did last year is a much more delicate balance: a lack of focus on maximizing shooting percentages requires you to ramp up the other “levers” in order to offset the impact of a lower eFG%. As a result, you inevitably have an offense that is less stable. Because of the lower expected shooting percentages, it is an offense predisposed to becoming inefficient. And if all the misses are not offset by strengths in the other areas, it stays that way.

That is what we are seeing so far this season from Indiana: they are again not making many shots, but they also aren’t getting free points at the line or protecting the ball (which lowers the number of shots, free throws and offensive rebounds they can possibly get).

Why Not Shooting from the Most Efficient Zones Isn’t Necessarily Bad

So does this mean that the Pacers’ poor shooting percentages (and therefore, offense) is a function of poor shot selection — and by extension — an indictment of the system and the coach?

No. Not entirely anyway.

By looking at another metric — expected eFG% (XeFG%) — we can get a general sense of how good or bad the Pacers’ overall distribution of shots has been this year, at least in terms of shot locations. In actual English, the team’s XeFG% is the eFG% the Pacers would have if they hit their shots in each zone at the league average percentage. So, it is what it sounds like: the percentage of shots history tells us they should be making based upon where they are shooting from.

The chart above shows a comparison of the Pacers’ actual eFG% (yellow) to their XeFG% (blue) since 2001. Focusing on the blue bars, you’ll see that Indiana’s XeFG% is down from previous years. At 47.54%, it is below the league  average of 48.83% and ranks 23rd overall. This is certainly at least a limiting factor in the Pacer offensive hopes — if not an outright hindrance.

The much bigger problem, however, resides in the yellow bars.

As noted earlier, the Pacers are dead last in eFG%, and their 43.63% creates an ORatio (eFG% / XeFG%) of 0.92 – second only to the Sacramento Kings when it comes to underachieving marksmanship. Being below 1.0 is nothing new the the Pacers, as they haven’t met or exceeded their XeFG% since 2002. But this year’s figure is a new low. Previously, 2007’s 0.96 was the worst, and in that season — Rick Carlisle’s last — they finished with the worst offensive efficiency in the league.

This gap arguably means that the Pacers have left 58 points on the table over the first nine games — over 6 points per contest. Of course, this isn’t a perfect metric, and it only represents opportunity by zone, so you can’t assume those are 58 points the Pacers should have. However, there’s still information to be gleaned here.

Consider this shot chart from Tuesday night’s loss to the Raptors, for instance.

In a two-point loss, the Pacers shot 42.1% from inside of 8 feet, including only 47% inside the Restricted Area. While low even for Indiana, this game wasn’t an anomaly: This season, the Pacers have shot under 53% in the Restricted Area while the league has hit 58%. That may sound like a small difference percentage-wise, but it has cost them 24 points.

Meanwhile, four of their six losses have been by a total of 8 points.

For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost.

How Do You Fix This Offense?

A combination of this data, the horrific turnover rate, and simply watching the games leads me to the conclusion that the current constraint is not in the plan, it’s in the play. Quite simply, the players are not getting the job done.

There’s no question that the absence of Danny Granger has a meaningful effect on the prospects for this team, but his teammates simply have to play better. Specifically, Paul George, David West, George Hill and Roy Hibbert have to play with more care and focus. George and Hibbert have been particularly awful. I’m not saying that Vogel’s philosophy and coaching won’t be a limiting factor at some point down the road; I’m just that it’s not the core problem right now. The core issue has been the players not doing their jobs on the court.

That doesn’t let the coach off the hook, of course. Vogel is still tasked to be a part of the solution.

Ideally, I’d prefer a coach and a system that did a better job of creating high-value shots. However, I don’t think Vogel is philosophically predisposed or particularly well-equipped (in terms of personnel) to address the problem of the shooting. Or, put more accurately, he probably thinks the shots they are getting are fine. Right or wrong, he’ll pound on the other stuff: power post, crash the boards, get to the line.

Logically, his offense — with these players — should excel at push these other levers. Teams that pound the ball inside should turn the ball over less than those that heavily rely on off-the-dribble moves. Teams that have skilled, experienced, empowered post players should be drawing fouls and grabbing offensive rebounds. The success in these other three of the Four Factors areas last season are likely the design of the plan as much — if not more — than the ability of the players.

Preaching those areas and expecting them to stabilize the offense regardless of whether or not the shots are falling on any given night is what worked last year. And it’s probably what has the best chance of making this squad successful. If you look at the roster, it is not filled with players who are going to turn into three-point marksmen over night or penetrate their way into the restricted area often. So there is no easy way to take the reins off the system and let the players get to the rim off the dribble. And while you could tweak things to try to create more shots from behind the arc, it’s probably not advisable when the only proven three-point shooters on your team are your point guard and a guy who is out with an injury for the next three months.

While that may not be of comfort to many hoping to see Vogel do something — anything — to fix the offense, it’s probably the right thing to do in this instance. “Getting good shots” is easier said than done, and some of it is a function of the players you have on the floor. The personnel is unlikely to change, and two weeks into the season is as bad a time as any to try to revamp the system — especially one that was so dominant last year. The best hope for getting their head back above water is to get better at executing the plan they have.

There’s no guarantee that it will work, but there aren’t really any other practical options.

(Stats courtesy of the NBA)

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