The Indefatigable Lance Stephenson Is Key to Pacers' Chances in Back-to-Backs

As I was procrastinating and pretending to work yesterday, I came across an interesting piece on the Pacers via Twitter. The Fansided site Always Miller Time ran a column by William Rettig arguing that the Pacers’ chance of winning is highly tied to the play of Lance Stephenson. Or, probably more accurately, that when Sir Lancelot plays poorly, the Pacers often follow his lead.

An excerpt:

The Indiana Pacers are victors when Lance Stephenson brings his energy. The Pacers go as Stephenson goes. Yeah, you read that right. Not Paul George, not Roy Hibbert and not David West. Lance Stephenson.

Rittig offers some anecdotal evidence.

Indiana’s first loss of the season, to the Bulls, saw Stephenson put up 12 points (5-14 FG), three assists and a rebound in 32 minutes. Not normal numbers for the 40th overall draft pick in 2010. The Pacers’ second loss to Portland was worse for Lance: two points (1-3 FG), four rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes. He fouled out of the game.

What about the third loss, you ask? It came courtesy of Oklahoma City, in which Stephenson scored eight points (4-11 FG), grabbed three rebounds and dished out three assists in only 26 minutes.

Interesting numbers indeed.

I decided to dig a bit deeper and here are Stephenson’s averages from Indiana wins and losses so far this year.

Lance Wins vs LossesIn the eight losses in which he has played (he missed the ninth loss, a poor outing for Indiana in Atlanta, due to injury), he has clearly produced less. His points, rebounds and assists per game are all significantly down compared to his totals in victories, and his 3-point shooting falls off a cliff. And while his turnovers per game are lower in losses, that could actually be a sign that he is being less involved (a phenomenon that Jon Washburn recently explored in this turnover analysis).

Peeling back the onion further, here are the numbers in each loss.

Lance Losses

Here we see there are a few outliers. Stephenson produced well in losses to Denver (23 points, 7 assists, 10 boards), Detroit (26/6/7) and Miami (13/2/9). But in Indiana’s other six defeats, he hasn’t scored much (with point totals of 12, 8, 8, 6, 2, DNP), dropped heavy dimes (4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2 DNP) or rebounded a ton (6, 5, 4, 3, 1, DNP).

Without digging into all the other numbers involved that are contributing to these losses, there certainly seems to be somewhat of a link here.

There is one other clear impediment to victory as well: second games of back-to-backs.

Six of Indiana’s nine losses this year have come in games when the Pacers played the night before. Such futility isn’t uncommon across the league. The second game of a back-to-back (the so-called SEGABABA) is always difficult, as travel and fatigue only exacerbate the rigors of an 82-game regular season.

And prior to Saturday night’s game, Lance had been a bellweather for the Pacers’ fate during their 12 SEGABABA results so far this season.

Before the loss in Denver, Stephenson was posting per game averages of 16.7 points, 5.3 boards, and 4.2 assists (on a blistering .618 eFG%) in six SEGABABA wins compared to a meager 7.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3 dimes (on a disgusting .378 eFG%) in four such losses. (He missed one SEGABABA loss, the ugly defeat in Atlanta.)

His good game in Denver (23/10/7 on .656 eFG%) blew the trend, but the concept of Lance being key on the second night makes some intuitive sense: He’s the youngest and seemingly most indefatigable player on the roster, so he should be better able to keep his engine running to pick up the slack as many of his older, bigger ‘mates struggle to get it going.

Looking a little further into this idea added some statistical evidence to support such a hypothesis.

Lance actually, somehow, tends to be more efficient on nights with no rest than in other games. This is contrast to every other member of Indiana’s main rotation, all of whom have lower field-goal percentages on no rest than they do in other games.


Now, Lance’s shooting accuracy is only a blip higher in SEGABABAs than it is on the season as a whole (50.4% vs 49.6%), but almost every other Pacer drops off considerably (aside from Hibbert), so even maintaining his normal rate is an accomplishment. But when his legs should be the most tired, he actually shoots better — especially from 3-point range, where his percentage jumps from 34.4% on the season to 38.2% in SEGABABAs.

Other than youth and Lance defying many aspects of conventional wisdom, I have no explanation other than perhaps this. But the numbers here are pretty clear about two things: (1) When the Pacers lose, Lance usually plays bad, and (2) when they are playing in SEGABABAs, Lance is the only rotation member who plays as well as he normally does — and arguably better.

Oh, and if you’re curious, here are the field-goal percentage numbers for all eight of Indiana’s primary players on the season compared to SEGABABAs.

Pacers SEGBABAOh my, George Hill, C.J. Watson and Danny Granger.

Get some naps, how’ bout?

Looking at that list, it just further shows Lance’s importance in back-to-backs. He and Paul George are the only perimeter players shooting respectably from the floor, and he is the lone player on the whole roster who is actually thriving.

Again, I lack a definitive explanation, but I do presume this is a good representation of how Sir Lancealot responds when someone tells him he needs to get some sleep before a big game the next day.

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