Pundits like to talk about whether certain players or teams “are ready” to win a title. There is some truth to such things — most champion have had to get close to a title before winning one — but as is often the case, they tend to overweigh such things.
For last year’s Pacers, there were three bigger reasons they didn’t beat the Miami Heat and advance to the NBA Finals: (1) their awful bench, (2) turnovers, and (3) LeBron James.
They addressed reason one in the offseason. Whether they will get enough extra production from the reserves in this year’s playoffs remains unknowable, but they tried to upgrade. Reason three is tough to do much about, aside from a Celtic Pride situation or some improbable early-round playoff loss, the Pacers will still have to confront LeBron in the postseason.
The Turnover Problem
That leaves reason number two — Indiana’s propensity to turn the ball over — that still needs to be addressed. If they can learn to keep their turnovers to a reasonable level, their chances to win the title will be greatly increased.
To their credit, they have cleaned it up a bit this year. They have gone from being the 29th “best” squad in the league at taking care of the ball to the 24th.
Although that improvement should be taken with a grain of salt.
The Pacers actually turn the ball over on almost exactly same percentage of possessions as they did last year (in fact, they are slightly worse); other teams have simply gotten sloppier. (Houston has moved its worst-place percentage from 16.6% last year to 17.7% so far this season, and five other teams falling them above the 17.0% plateau. Random hypothesis: Early-season games perhaps tend to feature more turnovers from rusty teams that later clean up their act and improve their turnover percentage as the year wanes on.)
Naturally, there are many things that hurt a team’s chances for winning a game and picking out a single factor as the problem can be a bit disingenuous. For sure, the Pacers shot worse — especially from three-point range — in losses last season than they did in wins, but the turnover numbers certainly tell a story as well.
In their 49 wins last year, they turned the ball over on 15.9% of possessions whereas they coughed it up 16.8% in losses. Neither number is great, and it may not seem like a large difference, they number of points they gave up off of turnovers shows the damage: In wins they only gave up 14.5 points per game off of turnovers, but in losses they gave up 18.0.
And the disparity became even more pronounced in the postseason.
In 11 playoff wins, they turned the ball 16.8% of the time, giving up 15.6 points per game
In their 8 losses?
Those figures were 19.9% and 19 points off turnovers per game, which is absolutely horrible. Even worse: In their two losses against the Knicks, those numbers jumped to 22.4% and 22.0. That is more than one in five possessions and inching towards one in four. Looking at it that way, it’s a wonder those games were so “close.”
The Offensive Rebound Problem
You watch the Pacers, and you see that they don’t have a rebounding problem. The numbers show you that they are one of the best rebounding teams we have in the NBA today. You look at Frank Vogel, and you have to admire his interior-focused strategy, commitment to playing big and bone-crushing defense that have all helped Indiana dominate the paint and boards in this league.
The numbers last year support that story. The Pacers grabbed 74.6% of available defensive rebounds in 2012-13, which was better than all but five teams, per NBA.com.
This year, Indiana is actually grabbing a higher percentage of the rebounds available on the defensive end. Oddly, however, their rank has fallen. It seems that more teams are getting a larger share of defensive boards as offensive rebounding has fallen league wide from 26.5% last year to 25.6% this season, according to Basketball-Reference.
This could be an anomaly or a product of fewer teams prioritizing the offensive glass (like Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers do), but it means that Indiana’s “improved” defensive rebounding hasn’t improved as much as their peers’ has. This is probably more trivia than anything to worry about, but even if the difference is slight, there are currently 12 teams that have been better on the defensive glass than Indiana.
The larger concern comes anecdotally.
Last night, for example, the Detroit Pistons destroyed the Pacers on the glass, grabbing 14 offensive boards in the first half on just 29 missed field goals. For the whole game, Detroit grabbed an overwhelming 39.2% of the available offensive boards, leaving Indiana’s defensive rebounding percentage at an embarrassingly low 60.8%.
It was just one game, the Pacers seemed a bit disinterested, and the Pistons have Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond (who did this). There’s no reason to get too upset when the team is 20-4 and hasn’t been dominated on the glass in its other losses.
But this also highlights a problem we saw as the Pacers were bounced from the playoffs last season.
In two of their four losses to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana gave up a ton of offensive boards. Their Game 1 and Game 7 defensive rebounding percentages were 61.9% and 65.9%, respectively, which allowed the Heat to rack up 24 and 22 second-chance points in those two games. These were arguably the two most important games of the series, and the Heat were able to grab way too many of their own misses. In Game 1, which was decided by just 1 point in overtime, this was arguably a bigger issue than the more-talked-about decision by Frank Vogel to bench Roy Hibbert for the game’s final play.
While the problem was more pronounced in these two losses against the Heat, the Pacers also gave up more second-chance points in to the Hawks and Knicks during the four games they lost in rounds one and two than in the eight games they won. Overall in the 2013 playoffs, the Pacers rebounded way worse in losses than wins (72.1% vs. 79.8%) while giving up a ton more second-chance points (17.4 per game vs. 9.4).
Here is a full breakdown of both the defensive rebounding and turnover numbers last year during the regular season and playoffs.
As mentioned near the top of the post, it’s silly to blame a series loss on one or two factors. For example, while the Pacers turnover and rebounding numbers during their two losses to the Hawks were bad, the bigger factor was clearly shooting (Indiana shot a combined 32.7% in the two defeats in Atlanta).
There were also clearly other issues that contributed to the Pacers losing to Miami (small ball and three-point shooting among them). But looking at the game logs of the Eastern Conference Finals, we can see that Indiana gave up a combined 46 and 37 points off of turnovers and second-chance points to Miami in the pivotal Games 1 and 7.
Look, the Pacers are 20-4 and have a historically great defense. Losses like those to the Pistons and Thunder naturally make us look for answers, but we’re talking about a team that is really, really good.
Still, these are their flaws. Turnovers and offensive rebounds were arguably their biggest Achille’s heels in the postseason last year. We know they haven’t fixed the turnover issue, and now we have seen them get manhandled by not controlling the defensive glass. These chinks in the armor shouldn’t be fatal, but they do need to be monitored and controlled by Vogel and the coaching staff if this team hopes to win a title.
Topics: Stat Talk