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The Pacers Are Bucking Every NBA Trend. And It’s Working.

INDIANAPOLIS — Even before this season, a campaign in which they’ve pieced together the NBA’s best record, the Houston Rockets and their unusual goals on offense have been an object of fascination. For years, there’s been intrigue surrounding Houston’s desire to shatter records by taking threes whenever possible. More recently, the team’s historic ability to score 1-on-1 has garnered attention.

Indiana’s ahead of schedule

Projected win totals for NBA teams if they continue their current pace compared with FiveThirtyEight’s 2017-18 preseason win projections

Projected season wins
Team Preseason Current Diff.
Raptors 45 61 +16
Pacers 32 45 +13
76ers 39 49 +10
Rockets 57 66 +9
Blazers 42 50 +8
Celtics 47 54 +7
Heat 40 45 +5
Lakers 32 37 +5
Pelicans 43 47 +4
Pistons 34 38 +4
Kings 24 26 +2
Bulls 26 27 +1
Wizards 46 46 0
Jazz 46 46 0
Knicks 30 30 0
Clippers 46 44 -2
Hawks 26 24 -2
Warriors 64 61 -3
T-Wolves 50 47 -3
Spurs 50 47 -3
Bucks 45 42 -3
Nets 29 26 -3
Mavericks 30 26 -4
Nuggets 48 43 -5
Thunder 55 48 -7
Cavaliers 57 48 -9
Hornets 46 36 -10
Suns 31 21 -10
Magic 37 26 -11
Grizzlies 35 21 -14

Current pace for games through March 21

Far less talked about are the Indiana Pacers, arguably the league’s most surprising team this season. At 41-31, Indiana is vying for home-court advantage in the playoffs and is only a shade behind the reigning three-time conference champion Cavaliers. More interesting is how the Pacers are doing it: They have become the Anti-Rockets.

Indiana’s offensive approach is diametrically opposed to the league’s best team. The Rockets are notorious for avoiding midrange shots; the Pacers hover nearly just as far above the league average in how often they take long twos as the Rockets are beneath it. The median team shoots from the 16- to 23-foot range about 12 percent of the time; Houston takes 4.4 percent of its shots from that distance, while Indiana takes a whopping 19.3 percent of its shots from there.

The contrasts in shot selection don’t end with midrange jumpers. Unlike the Rockets, who take a league-high 50 percent of their shots from 3-point range and get to the free-throw line at the second highest clip in the league, the Pacers rank among the NBA’s bottom six in both 3-point attempt rate and free-throw attempt rate.

A fair amount of that seems to stem from coach Nate McMillan’s offensive philosophy,1 which encourages pulling the trigger quickly if a defender is allowing the solid jump-shooting team more than a few feet of space.

“We talk about playing early, playing late,” McMillan told me. “If you have an open look or a rim attempt early (in the shot clock), take it. If you don’t, then make teams defend. But when we have open looks, we want to take them.” The Pacers have often done that, with the caveat being that, in today’s NBA, those midrange attempts are often ones the defense would like for Indiana to take.

Indiana has launched 1,273 open and wide-open 2-point jumpers,2 over 100 more than the next closest team, according to Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. And in keeping with McMillan’s wishes, the Pacers rank third with 205 open attempts from midrange in the first eight seconds of the shot clock.

Simply put, the Pacers aren’t in the business of turning down open looks — even the ones thought to be the least efficient.

The Pacers and Rockets have different philosophies

How the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets compare in key offensive metrics, 2018-17 season through March 21

Long-midrange attempts 3-point attempts Free throws
Team Rank Share of all shots Rank Share of all shots Rank per 100 FG attempts
Indiana Pacers 1 19.3% 27 28.3% 25 22.7
Houston Rockets 30 4.4 1 49.9 2 30.7

Long-midrange attempts are 2-point jump shots from between 16 and 23 feet.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Al Jefferson, a Pacers backup big man and former All-NBA center who’s been forced into action because of recent injuries to Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, told me that his teammates have gotten frustrated with him at times for not always adhering to that shoot-it-if-you’re-open game plan.

“They got on me in Philly because I turned down some open midrange shots. So I told them, ‘I guarantee you the next game, I’ll shoot it,’” Jefferson said after a loss to the East-leading Raptors. “Then tonight came and I turned down another open look and did a dribble handoff instead. And they all yelled at me: ‘Shoot the ball!’3 Luckily for me, I shot the next one, and it went in.”

“I guess that’s just the new NBA. I’m more old-school. But that’s the shot. You look at a lot of the bigs (on defense), and they back off when you set that pick. If the pop is open? That’s when my teammates will get mad at me if I don’t take it,” Jefferson said. “Even if you might miss it, take it. Because that’s what the defense is giving you.”

It would be hard to say this approach hasn’t worked for Indiana, a team that was expected to struggle mightily on offense after trading Paul George. No one is more integral to Indiana’s strategy than Victor Oladipo,4 who’s made the huge leap from mere starter to All-Star. (Not only have the Pacers improved slightly since last season, jumping from 15th to 12th in offensive rating, but they also sit in fifth place in the East.) But it’s also worth noting that their heavy reliance on jumpers — ones that some teams avoid like the plague — hasn’t hurt them. If anything, Oladipo and the Pacers have taken advantage of a market inefficiency by launching, and making, midrange tries at a much higher rate than other teams.

Of course, the midrange shot is far from the sole reason Indiana is outperforming every preseason projection. Darren Collison is leading the league in 3-point percentage. The Pacers’ defense has improved and uses its length to create the second-most deflections in the NBA; they’re also tied at third for forcing the highest turnover percentage. Oladipo’s gambling instincts as a free safety occasionally help shorten a handful of defensive plays, not only helping keep Indiana’s young bigs out of foul trouble, but also creating quick, efficient looks the other way in transition.5

Forward Thaddeus Young put it in much simpler terms: “We’re just playing basketball. We’re having fun,” he told CBS Sports. “When you have a team that’s just full of ISO players and it’s just isolation basketball, it’s not as fun. You’re just standing around watching.”

While no one will mistake this offense for the perpetual-motion ones used in San Antonio or Utah, the Pacers seem to benefit from added movement in their sets — particularly in screen-handoff scenarios, where Indiana is one of the NBA’s most efficient, aggressive teams on a per-play basis.6

The real question with Indiana — beyond its tough schedule to close out the season — is how the club will adjust come postseason if the midrange looks don’t fall as frequently, or if opposing clubs begin crowding the Pacers’ space more than they’re used to. This month is already testing the former, as McMillan’s team has shot its worst percentage of the season7 from that part of the floor.

Indiana has shown it’s capable of beating just about anyone in the East.8 But if that cold spell carries into the playoffs, Oladipo and his teammates may be required to force the issue a bit more and use a more aggressive style than the one we’ve seen much of the season. “There’s plenty of times I walk up to him in games and say, ‘Don’t let them off the hook,’” Young said of Oladipo.9

If the Pacers can avoid doing that, these Anti-Rockets could transform themselves into a tough out next month.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Larry Bird’s hiring of McMillan was initially criticized by many because of his reputation as a coach who slowed things down — a trait that ran counter to Bird’s stated desire to play more up-tempo after parting ways with Frank Vogel. McMillan, who’s since sought to get the Pacers to play faster, has argued that the long-held perception of his coaching style was unfair, given the sorts of rosters he was working with.

  2. From 10 feet and farther. “Open” means no defender was within 4 feet at the time of the shot. “Wide open” means no defender was within 6 feet at the time of the shot.

  3. Look carefully at the first clip, and you’ll notice a fan sitting in the third row (on the bottom left of the screen) standing up, gesturing to Jefferson that he should have taken the first open shot.

  4. Perhaps the simplest measure of his value: The Pacers, 41-25 with Oladipo, have gone 0-6 in games without their All-Star this season.

  5. The Pacers are sixth in offensive efficiency after forcing a live-ball turnover, and their possessions last an average of just 9.1 seconds after such plays, the NBA’s 11th-fastest pace, according to Inpredictable.

  6. They rank first in field-goal attempts stemming from direct handoffs and rank fourth in points per direct handoff, according to Second Spectrum.

  7. March has been the Pacers’ worst month from midrange by a country mile. They were shooting 36.9 percent from there heading into Friday’s game, a mark that would rank 25th. Their worst percentage prior to this was last month, when they hit 42.7 percent of those attempts, still good enough for the NBA’s ninth-best mark.

  8. The Pacers took won three of four against the Cavaliers, split four games with the Celtics and won their first matchup with Toronto back in November.

  9. Oladipo is rare in the sense that he’s just as dangerous after a considerable number of dribbles as he is off the catch. His effective field-goal percentage is nearly the same after using seven dribbles or more as it is when he doesn’t use a dribble at all, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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