Tim Donahue: 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 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
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.
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