Is This the Worst Pacer Team Ever?
The headline may seem melodramatic, but it’s a serious question. Leaving aside the ABA, are we witnessing the worst Pacer performance in its 34-year NBA history?
One of the things about asking, “Is this the worst Pacer team ever?” is that “worst” is both a quantitative and qualitative distinction. We know that this year’s team, which has 19 wins today, will undoubtedly win more games than the 1982-83 team (20 wins). And it will also — hopefully — at least best the 1984-85 squad (22 wins).
But wins aren’t the end-all-be-all of the numbers, and I will show some of the reason why below with in a pretty exhaustive quantitative break down of charts and numbers. That’s the easy part.
Defining the qualitative aspect, on the other hand, is naturally much more elusive and subjective. One of the age-old dilemmas is comparing NBA players across generations. (Hell, it’s a dilemma trying to appropriately compare NBA players of the same generation, but I digress.)
Still, I have watched all of these teams, so I will give it a shot.
The Pacers of 1983-86 were anchored by Clark Kellogg and Herb Williams, with Steve Stipanovich filling out the front court. The back court was a smattering of an aging Billy Knight, a very young Vern Fleming, and miscellaneous journeymen like Jerry Sichting and Butch Carter. The bench was pretty much nonexistent. The 1989 team still had Williams but also had Chuck Person and a rookie Rik Smits before adding LaSalle Thompson and Detlef Schrempf late in the season.
When I look at the 2009-10 Pacers, I’m not sure they compare favorably to those teams.
If we’re being honest, Danny Granger is the only player that could be considered a core member of a good team. Roy Hibbert looks like he probably could — and hopefully will — be, but he has yet to reach the level of play that Rik Smits did as a rookie. AJ Price looks like a good bench player. It’s really just impossible to say what Brandon Rush is going to be. Murphy is what he is: perhaps a latter-day Herb Williams-type who puts up good stats but has questionable impact. Dunleavy, the way he’s currently playing, simply is not a rotation player. Injuries and illnesses have made Tyler Hansbrough a question mark. The rest of the roster is, realistically, inconsequential.
I suppose it would be an interesting exercise — if aided by some beer — to break this down even further and try to come to a conclusion. Are the Danny and Roy of 2010 a better duo than the Rifleman and Dunking Dutchman of 1989? Perhaps on the court. Obviously not in the nickname department.
Really, who knows?
Ultimately, however, I don’t think there’s a huge talent difference one way or the other. And that goes for the early-80s teams, too. In fact, I feel largely the same way I did when I watched those teams: I have no problem cheering for these guys, and they all seem pretty likable — but they just are over-matched on almost a nightly basis.
Which brings us back to the quantitative analysis. Where we can find some definite, objective conclusions.
Let’s start with straight wins and losses. Here are the historical winning percentages for all 34 NBA Pacer squads. (The date listed marks date at the end of the year. For example, “1985″ is the 1984-85 season.)
As stated earlier, this year’s team only needs one more win to match the 1983 Pacers record-low 20 wins, so the 2010 team won’t be making history here. But this is a good benchmark to show that it’s at least worth digging deeper into more nuanced numbers.
And this is the stuff that will give a pretty good case for the prosecution.
State’s Exhibit A: Offensive Offense
If you’ve read any of the work Jared and I have done on 8p9s this year (like this for example), you have surely seen us complain about the offense. Based on the presumptions of the past two Jim O’Brien coached teams, the prevailing public opinion about the Pacers is that they are a “fast-paced, three-point-chucking team that lives by the three and dies by the three.” Because of this, people seem to think that the 2009-10 Pacers offense is capable of exploding in any given half, but the defense is a sieve that holds them back.
But both the numbers and anyone who has watched every game this year tell a different story.
The defense, while highly flawed and rife with questionable individual defenders, hasn’t been memorably or inexcusably bad. The other team generally doesn’t shoot that well. (Opponents are shooting 45.2% against Indy this year, which makes them the 10th best defensive team in the league by this figure.)
The offense, on the other hand, is dreadful almost every night. (They have shot 43.8% for the year, which makes them the 27th “best” offensive team in the league by this figure.) The team simply cannot score and rarely ever goes on the quarter-long offensive binges (the Houston second half and few other stretches throughout the year notwithstanding).
In fact, I consider this team’s offensive incompetence to be the main culprit in its collapse.
Here are Pacers’ yearly offensive ratings (points scored per 100 possessions, which is widely considered the best team offensive metric since it is pace-adjusted to ignore how fast or slow a team plays):
This year’s 101.8 offensive rating isn’t just bad, it’s historically bad.
Take a gander above and you’ll spy the yellow bar indicating this year’s team. There have only been two teams in Pacer NBA history that have scored fewer points per 100 possessions — but those two teams both come with a major asterisk. The red bars indicate the three seasons where there was no three-point shot. Obviously, the three-pointer allows a team to average more points per possession, and this year’s team is the least efficient Pacers offense in the three-point era.
Another way to look that will help clear up some of the issues surrounding the change in rules is to compare the Pacers’ offensive efficiency to the league average. This year, the average points scored per 100 league wide is 106.9. And the Pacers’ 101.6 translates to .953 (101.8/106.8) of the league average.
Here’s how they stacked up in past years:
Once again, the 2010 Pacers land third from the bottom. They rank just ahead of the 26-win 1984 squad and are virtually tied with a 1985 edition that managed only 22 wins. Before Saturday’s surprising performance in Houston, they were a second-worst .949. As they sit nestled in with three 20-win teams, and well behind the pre-three-point shot teams, they demonstrate the offensive ineptitude necessary to remain in consideration for the “Worst Pacer Team.”
State’s Exhibit B: They Can’t Compete
It’s one thing to lose games. It’s another thing entirely to be unable to compete. And this team is threatening to make impassive nonresistance an art form.
Here is their net points per 100 possessions (aka offensive rating minus defensive rating):
For every 100 possessions they play, this year’s squad falls 4.7 points behind their competition. Only 1983′s 5.6 and 1985′s 5.9 are worse. The defense this year has improved — dropping from 109.2 to 106.5, which is a sizable improvement — but it cannot keep pace with the collapsing offense.
This inability to compete is further illustrated by the number of times they’ve been either handled easily or flatly blown out by their opponents.
Here are the number of double-digit losses per year:
Through 55 games, the Pacers have lost a mind-numbing 22 by double digits.
That represents just under two-thirds of their losses, and would generally mean that for every five games they’ve played, they’ve lost two of them by more than 10 points. That’s just stunning.
While there are currently six Pacer teams that have lost more games by double-digits than this year’s team, the 2010 Pacers still have 27 games to go. And they are on pace to break the record of 30 set in 1985.
And I’ll tell you why I’m absolutely sure they will in a little bit.
State’s Exhibit C: The Four Factors of … uhhhh … Losing?
At the beginning of February, Jared posted a nifty little chart on the “Four Factors of Winning.” That visual showed lots of red and very little green for your boys in Blue and Gold.
The “Four Factors” are (basically): shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws. (Basketball-Reference has a a nice little explanation.) There is one set of four factors for offense (which show how well you shoot, take care of the ball, rebound and get to the line) and a set of four factors for defense (which show how well your opponent shoots, takes care of the ball, rebounds and gets to the line).
Back in November, Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub did a really interesting piece called “Pushing the Boundaries of the Four Factors” in which he was trying to understand if a team could contend for a title if it was sub-standard in certain areas of the Four Factors. In essence, Zach took the the team’s ranking in each of the Four Factors and added them together to create a number. This game himan accumulated rank. If a team was ranked 10th in each of the Four Factors for offense, for example, it’s total accumulated rank would be 40. Simple enough. And logical enough to yield some interesting analysis.
Stealing the use of this mechanism, I took the results of all of the teams from the 1980 to now and ranked them on their Four Factors for both offense and offense. Then, by adding these together, we get one accumulated ranking number for each team on the “Eight Factors” (four for offense, four for defense). So here, a team that was 10th in all the offensive Four Factors and all the defensive Four Factors would have a total accumulated rank of 80.
(For reference’s sake, the lowest possible accumulated rank for any team is 8, which would mean it was ranked 1st in the NBA in all eight categories. That has never happened, obviously, and it turns out that the best teams in NBA history rank in the 50s. On the other end of the spectrum, the highest possible accumulated rank is 240, which would mean a teams was 30th in all eight categories. No team has ever been this bad — although the Nets this year are trying — and the worst teams in NBA history have come in around 190.)
The 2010 edition of the Indiana Pacers currently have a 165 accumulated rank. As is to be expected, the Pacers are pulled down by their accumulated offensive rank of 91, while the defense is a below average 74. (Average would be about 62.)
Here is how this 165 stacks up to the rest of the Pacer teams. (Note: since the years prior to 2005 had fewer than 30 teams, I prorated their rankings so that first would be first, last would be 30th, and the other spread appropriately in between.)
The 2010 Pacers are dead last. For anyone who buys into the Four Factors, this paints a very unflattering picture of this year’s team. And even for people less familiar with this stuff, this should be highly alarming since the numbers on the far left should help lend some credibility to this metric.
The best Indiana teams (those with the lowest rank) include the only Pacers team to reach the NBA Finals, and the five others that reached the Eastern Conference Finalists are all in the top seven. This isn’t an end-all-be-all metric, but we should be able to agree that it certainly shows us something when it provides that type of output.
And in plain English, what this shows us is that 2010 Pacers, relative to their competition, are statistically worse than any of the five 20-something win teams from the 1980s.
State’s Exhibit D – The Kid Gloves Come Off
A couple of days ago, I took you through a different way to look at Strength of Schedule (SoS). You may want to refer back to it because I’m about to break out those metrics again here. In fact, that particular work came out of the analysis I was doing while researching this column.
And it is, in my mind, the most damning evidence against this team. It is the so-called “smoking gun” that puts the current Pacers ahead (or, more appropriately, behind) the 1980s Pacer teams with fewer wins. It is also why I am sure that the 2010 Pacers will set a franchise-high record for most double-digit losses — and quite possibly end up with the worst net points per 100 possessions in team history.
Here is the Pacers traditional strength of schedule by year:
And here is the yearly SoSHR:
What this shows is that not only have the Pacers lost a ton this year — they have lost a ton against one of the weakest schedules in their history.
This is what separates the five 20-something win teams of the 1980s from the current edition.
While this year’s schedule is towards the bottom in both the SoS and SoSHR, the five teams from the 1980s accounted for the top 5 “toughest” schedules in SoSHR. Those teams played in a smaller, pre-expansion, less-diluted league, and they had to play teams within their division and conference five or six times.
And Unfortunately for the current edition of the Pacers, the easy part of the schedule is over. The kid gloves now come off, as the last 27 games have a combined SoSHR of .520.
This, more than anything else, is why I’m expecting the double-digit losses to be a record this year. And this easy schedule has also allowed this team to post the 18 wins it has managed to find. As I mentioned in the SoS piece of a few days ago, their .335 WinFactor (WF) is not only the worst in the league, it’s abnormally low.
But the WF gets worse when compared to the rest of the Pacers’ NBA history:
While the .335 is “way-out-of-whack” low when compared to other 2010 NBA teams, it’s still farther away from the franchise’s own historical performance. The inaugural NBA Pacers in 1977 have the second lowest WF at .371. All of those teams in the ’80s had much higher quality of wins than the current version. And if my projections for the rest of the season come true, it will finish the season at around .332.
Given this team’s consistent inability to compete, I simply don’t see them starting to knock off quality opponents on a regular basis.
How bad is this WF? I charted 900 teams from the 1977 season through the current year. Only 24 teams had lower WF than the Pacers currently have. Twenty Four out of 900. That puts the Pacers in the 3rd percentile.
It’s simply not possible to sufficiently express how bad that is.
The Prosecution Rests
What all this shows is that the 2010 Indiana Pacers have performed as poorly as any team to ever to don the Blue and Gold during their membership in the NBA. It says that they’ve done this against one of the weakest schedules in the team’s history, and they’ve produced an alarmingly low ratio of “quality wins.”
If nothing else, this Pacer team can certainly be called the “Worst Pacer Team” in relation to their contemporaries (current NBA foes). In other words, this team is weaker when compared to the league in which it played than any other Pacer team over the last 34 years.
And I suspect — unless something changes drastically and immediately — we will be able to confidently consider this squad to be the “Worst Pacer Team” ever by the end of the year.
(Epilogue: Some might find it odd that this piece is coming out on the heels of one of the Pacers’ best wins of the season. Mostly, it’s just coincidental, but one good win isn’t going to materially alter this team’s current situation. Also, there were once again circumstances that mitigate the quality of this win, specifically the possible impact of the Kevin Martin deal and Houston’s adaptation to it. In any case, this Pacer team has not sustained quality play for any reasonable stretch of time. They have shown flashes, but only flashes. I’m not holding my breath for it to start now. That being said, few things would make me happier than seeing the Pacers, and particularly Danny Granger, play like that for the rest of the season.)
I’m a little black rain cloud…