Indiana Pacers Must Fix Flawed Offense to Be Legit 2014 Title Threat

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Indiana Pacers Must Fix Flawed Offense to Be Legit 2014 Title Threat
Allen Einstein/Getty Images

Offense matters.

Allow me to repeat that once more, but this time, I'm speaking exclusively to the Indiana Pacers.

Offense matters.

There's this gross misconception that defense wins NBA championships. Defense alone does not win championships. Neither does offense.

Balance wins championships.

What the Pacers don't have wins championships.

Indiana's defense is incredible. The best in the league. Some have even argued it's one of the most talented defenses ever.

But while the Pacers are deserving of every last bit of defensive praise they generate, it's not enough to overshadow one harrowing, championship-derailing fact: They are not a good offensive team—or even close to good. Their offense, especially of late, is a fragmented disaster, notorious for its stagnancy and patchy efficiency.

Until recently, it hasn't been a glaring problem. It's been an issue, but one that's become progressively cold, cooling to a point of lasting dysfunction. 

And the Pacers cannot afford to keep it that way. Maintaining the status quo won't allow them to win an NBA title. Their defense and their defense alone isn't enough.

If they don't get their offensive act together, if their offense doesn't make the jump from dead on arrival to respectable or even average, they won't contend for much of anything this spring.

 

Offensive Trouble Is Afoot

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

How bad is Indiana's offense?

Really bad. 

How bad has it been lately?

Worse than really bad.

Productive offense has been harder to come by for the Pacers than pre-2012 pictures of Matthew McConaughey wearing a shirt. 

That kind of bad.

The Pacers rank 20th in offensive efficiency on the season per NBA.com (subscription required), scoring at a rate of 102.2 points per 100 possessions. They've been even worse over their last 10 games, checking in at 26th in offensive efficiency (99.2).

Pacers' Declining Offense
When Offensive Rating Offensive Rating Rank
2013-14 Overall 102.2 20
Last 20 games 101.7 23
Last 10 games 99.2 26

NBA.com.

There have been no individual rays of sunshine, either. Paul George leads the team in scoring over the last 10 games, as expected, but he's shooting just 36.8 percent from the floor overall and 27.5 percent from three-point range. 

After George, no one else is putting in more than 14.8 points per night (Lance Stephenson) over the last 10 games. George Hill (37.9 percent) and David West (43.3 percent) are struggling immensely from the field as well. 

Fittingly, the Pacers are a whatever 5-5 during this stretch. Their 92.1 points per game during this period falls markedly lower than their season of average of 98.1 and is especially troubling when you consider they're 8-9 in games they score under 93 points. And when a 51-19 team goes 8-9 under any circumstances, you take notice.

What's most unnerving about their offensive performance is how gradual the decline has been. The Pacers were a decently efficient offensive team for a little while. Looking at certain months, you might even say they were above average.

Infogr.am.

"No worries," some might conclude. 

"Defense is all that matters," a few may think.

"The Pacers have this under control," others may posit. 

Either way, it doesn't matter. Those people would be wrong.

It's time to worry. The Pacers do not have this under control. 

Offense matters.

 

How Much Does Offense Matter?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If history repeats itself, the Pacers are in trouble.

Using Basketball-Reference's nifty NBA playoff index, we can find out that the last team to win an NBA title while ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency is the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, who finished 21st

That's the good news for Indiana, the NBA's top defensive team.

The bad news? Since the ABA-NBA merger, only three teams have won an NBA title while ranking in the bottom half of offensive efficiency—the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, 1993-94 Houston Rockets and 1978-79 Seattle Supersonics. 

Moreover, just one team has won a title while finishing in the bottom 10 of offensive efficiency—the 1978-79 Sonics, who ranked 14th out of 22 teams

No matter, though. Defense, right? 

There's a tendency to compare these Pacers to the 2003-04 Pistons, who defended their way to an NBA title while ranking 18th in offensive efficiency out of 29 teams. But as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal points out, the Pacers don't really compare to those Pistons:

In baseball, there are era-adjusted stats like ERA+ and OPS+ that compare a player's mark to the league-average number that season. An ERA+ of 200 means the pitcher's ERA was half the league average, and an ERA+ of 50 would mean it was twice the league average. Conversely, an OPS+ of 200 would mean the player's OPS was double the league average, and so on.

Regardless of the stat, the higher number is the better one.

If we look at DRtg+, the story becomes a little more clear:

Still Good Luck Scoring
Team DRtg League-Average DRtg DRtg+
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 95.4 102.9 107.9
2013-14 Chicago Bulls 100.7 106.3 105.6

Basketball-Reference/Adam Fromal.

The gap is closer, but it's still clear that the Pistons of a decade ago were superior. That shouldn't be surprising, seeing as the pieces started coming together more recently for Chicago. Plus, the '04 Pistons are commonly referred to as one of the greatest defenses of all time.

Failing to match the defensive fortitude of those Pistons is hardly embarrassing. The fact that we can even make the comparison attests to Indiana's staunch defense today.

But that also doesn't mean the Pacers can lean on their defense the way that Detroit team did. Their defense isn't as good.

And unless they pick things up offensively, their chances of contending for a title aren't, either.

 

The Importance of Not Being Offensively Mellow

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Quick fixes don't exist. Not here.

The Pacers could try any number of things to bog down offensively. Running more complex, less predictable sets is a good place to start. Simply hitting more of their shots is imperative as well.

Whatever they do, something must change. Their offense isn't good enough to compete with many of the NBA's elite teams. They join the Charlotte Bobcats and Chicago Bulls as the only three playoff teams to check in at 20th or worse in offensive efficiency. That needs to change.

Defense won't carry the Pacers to a title. Maybe it allows them to make some noise in the woeful Eastern Conference, but it doesn't offset their borderline despicable offensive performance.

Indiana needs more balance. A lot more.

Look at how the defensive and offensive ratings rank for every champion since the league expanded to 29 teams for 1995-1996:

Infogr.am.

In the last 19 years, there have been two outliers that do not share the traditional balance between offensive and defensive efficiency: the 2000-01 Lakers and 2003-04 Pistons. That's not a whole lot.

It also bears mentioning that the Pacers' ranking differential between their offensive and defensive ratings is the largest of any championship team in the last two decades. Scratch that. Make it since the merger.

How far can the Pacers go in the playoffs with their current offense?

Submit Vote vote to see results

No champion since 1976 has put as much distance between its offensive and defensive ratings. In part, that could be because there were only 18 total teams in 1976. Mostly, though, these Pacers are playing like one of the most asymmetrical teams ever. And imbalanced contingents don't win championships.

"We couldn't score at all," Hibbert said after the Memphis Grizzlies held the Pacers to a season-low 71 points on Saturday, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "That's the basic thing."

That's the sad thing, too. This is all basic stuff. This is all easy to understand. The Pacers can defend all they want, but they still need to score.

And if they don't score more, they aren't going to contend for any championships, let alone win one.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required).

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