The Numbers Behind “Going Small”
If the games against Philly and LA are any indication, the pairing of Roy Hibbert and Troy Murphy could be a thing of the past. To back up his new commitment to “Going Small,” O’Brien said:
“In regards to small vs. big lineup the margin is over +320 (favoring small) for the year. We’ll go with it for as many games as we can, as long as we can because that’s our best lineup.”
That +320 number is pretty dazzling, so I wanted to understand it a little better. Basketballvalue.com has some pretty detailed unit statistics that I use pretty regularly to help me understand things. Though I couldn’t quite replicate the +320, the statistical differences still make a pretty damning case against any big lineups the Pacers have.
(Note: All analysis excludes Wednesday’s loss to the Lakers, unless specifically noted otherwise.)
What Constitutes a Big Lineup?
A “big lineup” is something of a misnomer when it comes to the Pacers. Roy Hibbert is the only honest-to-God center on the roster, as well as being the only player over 7-feet tall. The rest of the “bigs” on this team are really either ‘tweeners or straight power forwards.
Generally, when Obie talks about the big lineup, he’s really referring to the Roy/Troy combo. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I’m going to expand that. This roster has three guys whose primary roles are to play center: Roy Hibbert, Jeff Foster and Solomon Jones. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch to say Foster and Jones are true centers, but that is their role here.
“Big lineups” in this analysis will be defined as any lineup with Roy, Jeff or Solomon at center, alongside one of the other two or one of the more traditional power forwards: Troy Murphy, Tyler Hansbrough or Josh McRoberts.
All other units will be considered “small lineups,” including any lineups where Granger, Dahntay Jones or other smaller players are manning the power forward position.
Big vs. Small
Using these definitions, the Pacers have employed a big lineup for 1,202 minutes this season, which equals about 56% of all minutes. With a big lineup on the floor, the Pacers have been outscored by 252 points, resulting in a +/- per 48 minutes of -10.1 points. This is in stark contrast to when the Pacers have gone small this year. In the 958 minutes of small ball, they’ve outscored their opponents by 34 points, translating to a 48 minute +/- of +1.7 points. This gives small lineups a +286 advantage for the year over big lineups.
(I’m not sure why there’s a discrepancy between these numbers and the +320 figure O’Brien used in the press, but it’s possible that he might be including the Murph/Hansbrough pairing as a big lineup. That duo is -45, which would bring the total to +331. I treated all lineups with Murph as a center as small. Regardless, the difference doesn’t materially affect the conclusions.)
Offensively, small lineups are also much more efficient, scoring 6.6 more points per 100 possession than big lineups. Their 105.3 per 100 possession output isn’t anything to write home about (league average offenses put up 106.9), but it is at least significantly better than the big lineup offense that only generates 98.7 per 100. That’s output isn’t quite “New Jersey” bad, but it’s certainly within spitting distance.
Defensively, the Pacers are a middle-of-the-pack team overall, allowing 106.6 points per 100, which puts them just a hair’s breadth better than the league average of 106.9 and ranks them 15th overall. However, the smalls only give up 104.1 points per 100, which is a rate that would put them 7th in the league, while the bigs allow 108.4, which is worse than average but would still land them about 18th overall.
The generic conclusion here is that the smalls would be a good defensive team and a mediocre offensive team. If sustainable over 82 games, this type of performance probably results in a win total in the mid-40s and puts Indiana in the playoffs — in the Eastern Conference, at least.
By the same token, the numbers say the bigs are playing on a par with Minnesota and New Jersey.
However, averages can be deceiving. Also, +/- is one of those stats that is really only useful if you continue to ask questions, and there are some good ones that we can still ask.
Breaking Down the Bigs
Unsurprisingly, Roy gets the lion’s share of the center minutes in the big lineup rotation. Here’s a breakout:
I’ve broken these units down into “BigHibbert,” “BigSolomon” and “BigFoster,” and the nomenclature is relatively self explanatory. Each of these three groupings remain negative in terms of points produced and allowed. The units anchored by Foster are the least negative, being outscored by only 15 points in 244 minutes (or -3.0 per-48). Solo’s groups had the worst per-48 +/- at -13.4, while being outscored by 81 overall. With Roy anchoring the big lineups, opponents score 156 more points than Indiana, or 11.2 points per 48. For the year, the Pacers have only been outscored by 218 points, meaning the BigHibbert group has accounted for 72% of the team’s deficit while playing only 30% of the minutes.
Defensively, all three of these groupings are terrible. BigHibbert and BigSolomon each give up almost 108 points per 100, while BigFoster gives up just a tick over 111. BigFoster’s groupings have shown a little offensive punch by scoring 108.6 per 100, but the other two have been miserable offensively, with BigHibbert only scoring 97.4 and BigSolo scoring a measly 93.4.
However, it’s important to remember that just because these groups carry their names, it is not necessarily an indictment of Roy, Solo or Jeff. The focus here is unit — and more specifically, the big man combos (PF & C). It’s no surprise that Troy Murphy is playing the bulk of the power forward minutes in all these big lineups. To be exact, Murph is on the floor for 62% of all big lineup minutes, and during that time, the Pacers were outscored by 220 points, or 14 points every 48 minutes. They gave up almost 111 points per 100 while scoring only about 96. (We’ll come back to discuss Troy a little bit later.)
As is relatively obvious from the bad overall numbers, there is not much good news here. However, if you’re looking for a silver lining, you can find it in some of the numbers involving Buckaroo Banzai (aka Tyler Hansbrough). In 197 minutes with Tyler at the 4 alongside either Hibbert or Foster, the Pacers were actually +9, with a respectable 108 points per 100 scored vs. 105 points per 100 allowed.
I’ve nce again broken down the lineups by who is playing “center,” and three groups (SmallHibbert, SmallMurphy and SmallSolomon) have accounted for 93% of the minutes. So this is where we’ll focus.
Here’s the chart:
The Pacers fared pretty poorly with Solo at Center in small lineups, being outscored by over 13 points for every 48 minutes. The Solo units were bad at both ends, scoring 94 per 100 while giving up over 110. (Truth be told, the Pacers have fared pretty poorly whenever Solo has played this year, so I’m going to operate under the assumption that he’s only going to be an emergency backup going forward.)
In 343 minutes with Troy at the 5, the Pacers have basically held their own. They were a -8 overall, or -1 for every 48 minutes. Oddly enough, the results with Murphy are somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom, as they were mediocre (to bad) offensive units at 103 points per 100, but a solid-to-good defensive units, allowing just under 105.
Small ball with Roy at center has been the most successful. Overall, the Pacers have outscored opponents by 81 in these configurations — or about 10 points per 48. Roy has been one of the few positives on the team, but here, again, it’s important to look at who is playing the four. Doing it for these units makes one conclusion relatively clear: Danny at the 4 is the secret of their success.
As noted at the top, the smalls outscored their opponents by 34 points overall this season. With Danny playing power, the Pacers have been +118 this season, over 10 points better per 48 minutes than the bad guys. From an efficiency standpoint the “DannyPower” lineup scores 111 while only giving up 101 points in every 100 possessions. Both of these numbers are outstanding.
So, the answer is: move Danny to the 4.
Ehhhhhhhh … I don’t know about that.
The DannyPower Lineup
Once again, we are hit in the face with exactly how poorly the pieces on this team fit together. Roy Hibbert and Troy Murphy are the Pacers’ best big men. They are, respectively, the best center and the best power forward on the roster. However, it’s painfully obvious that they can’t play together effectively. In 468 minutes of floor time, the Pacers have been outscored by 159 points. That equates to just about a disgusting -16 points per 48 minutes. In other words, the Pacers haven’t even been remotely competive when they play together.
Overall, the two of them have played in 98 rotations together.
Take a look at the results of their on-court stretches together, which are broken down by whether they outscore the other team (win), are outscored by their opponents (lose) or match the other squad exactly (draw):
Even worse than the negative results shown by this chart is the fat that the Hibbert/Murphy big combo has only had positive +/- for an entire game 9 times in the 34 games they played together. They won 6 of those 9 games, with the only losses coming on the road to the Magic, the Spurs, and the T-Puppies. And they lost 23 of the 25 games in which they were negative, winning only in Washington and at home when they mounted that miraculous comeback against Toronto.
However, if you put either one of them at the 5 with Danny at the 4, it generates some real success. The Hibbert/Granger big man combo has been +67 (or +11.6 per-48) so far this year, while a Murph/Granger combo has been +45 (or +14.7 per-48). From an efficiency standpoint, Hibbert/Granger are better offensively (112.6 per 100 vs. 110.5 per 100), but the Murphy/Granger pairing has the edge defensively (97.3 per 100 vs. 100.4 per 100). It should be noted, however, that all of the numbers are outstanding.
So, why balk at making Danny the permanent Power Forward?
First, it’s important to keep perspective on things. The minutes played by these units are substantial, comparable to most of the other units, but they’re still not huge chunks of time. Combined, they only account for 20% of the 2160 minutes the Pacers have played this season. It is fair to expect the Law of Diminishing Returns to kick in at some point, bringing these numbers back to earth.
Sustaining this level of performance over 70%-75% of the minutes would likely result in a team that was would win 70%-80% of its ames. Surely, we all recognize that as wildly unrealistic. It’s far more likely that raising the playing time on these combos would steadily degrade the result, creating a team capable of winning perhaps half — give or take — of its games.
Second, the Pacers can’t be too wild about the prospect of playing their All-Star Small Forward out of position, though the horse may be out of the barn on this one. Coming into Wednesday’s night game against the Lakers, Danny had played more minutes at the 4 (549) than at his natural position, the 3 (466). He’ll regularly be tasked with guarding bigger, stronger and sometimes quicker players like Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol. Add to this the fact that he’s a relatively poor rebounder, and neither Troy nor Hibbert even approximates a dominant inside force. I’d have a hard time believing that anyone within or outside of the Pacer organization could see that as sustainable.
Third, the ripple effect exposes Indy’s lack of depth at the wing position. Danny and Mike are the only true small forwards with size on the roster. Dahntay, at 6’5″, is undersized for a 3, but lacks the shooting range requisite for a SG. Brandon Rush brings nice size, but given the pace of play and the inconsistency of performance on the wing, we will potentially see a steady diet of Luther Head. Plus, if you’re going small all the time, then Dahntay Jones will actually see some amount of time at the 4 — a position where he has logged more than 200 minutes this year.
Fourth, opponents must be taken into account. The Hibbert/Granger combo got a little fat off of losing teams, getting 58% of their minutes and a +45 against them. Even so, this story is an overall positive. The Pacers played 207 minutes against winning teams with Danny at the 4, next to either Roy or Troy. In that time, their offensive efficiency was a stunning 113 points per 100 possessions, and their defensive efficiency was just over 97. And they outscored the opponent during that time by 69 points.
Finally, it could potentially interfere with playing time for Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough. Assuming Jeff Foster isn’t going to return soon, a total commitment to small ball would essentially force Troy and Roy to split the 48 center minutes and never play the 4.
Against the Lakers, Hibbert played 28 minutes and Murphy played 27, but I wouldn’t expect that to be a common event any more. Bynum and Gasol were killing the Pacers inside all game, but when Hibbert and Murphy started the second half together, the team was outscored by 7 points in the first four minutes — hardly a harbinger of good things to come. Following that line of reasoning further says that Danny will chew up the majority of the PF minutes, leaving only scraps for Buckaroo Banzai (once he returns from his viral inner ear infection).
A Beggar’s Choice
Despite all of the things previously noted, I’m hard-pressed to disagree with O’Brien’s assessment of the situation. While I can point out all of the bad things that may happen down this path, I can’t really point out any better alternatives. I’m sure I won’t quite agree with the minute distribution between Troy and Roy, but I don’t really think that’s a huge game changer.
It really seems to me that the numbers basically indicate:
- Any combination of (quasi) traditional Pacer bigs = Bad
- Danny on the floor at the 4 = Better than the alternatives
- A big man combo of Roy and Troy = Death
So, looking tactically, small ball seems to be the most promising way to make this particular team competitive — or, at least, less un-competitive — in the short term. If nothing else, maybe just settling in on one course of action and going with it will give the illusion of a little quiet. It’s time for O’Brien to stop shuffling and just see if he can create a cohesive unit.
However, I really doubt it will make much difference — at least not in the standings. The hole is too deep, and the cupboard is too bare. Right now, this isn’t so much a case of confusing activity with accomplishment as it is a case of having activity when there’s simply no accomplishment to be had.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the Venn diagram.