Predicting the Pacers

Posted on October 22, 2008 by


A few days ago Henry Abbott – of TrueHoop – stated the following in a story about the Josh Childress experience in European basketball:

If it really is true — that little things that win games are more valued in Europe — then that confirms just about every negative stereotype of American basketball development. And it fits perfectly with the message from just about every new-breed statistical expert: That scoring is overvalued here, at the expense of other things that are hugely important but less obvious.

Pacer Pessimism           

If you can imagine, these words were floating about  And with these words in the air, Chris Broussard decides that the Indiana Pacers are the worst team in the Eastern Conference this year.  Okay, I am not sure Abbott posted his comment before Broussard offered his thoughts on the Pacers.  Still, let’s imagine that despite Abbott’s argument (and this is something he said before), Broussard still picked Indiana to finish 15th out of fifteen teams in the East.

And how is this pick defended?  Here is what Broussard said in ESPN’s preview of the Indiana Pacers:

Jim O’Brien is a good coach, but he needs more to work with. Not one Pacer has ever averaged 20 points a game. The only other team in the league you can say that about is Portland.

This statement suggests that the lack of a major scorer in Indiana – in Broussard’s view – dooms the Pacers.

To be fair, Broussard is not the only one down on Indiana.  The following writers – listed with their ranking and comments – picked Indiana to finish in the bottom three in the East:

Chris Sheridan (ranked14th): Hard to decide which of Larry Bird’s decisions was worse: Trading Jermaine O’Neal for a bag of spare parts or benching Jamaal Tinsley at the start of camp rather than allowing him to display whatever value he has to potential suitors.

Ric Bucher (ranked 14th): Dear Larry: Loved you as a player. Liked you as a coach. As a GM … Did I mention I loved you as a player?

Marc Stein (ranked 13th): Don’t know how Jim O’Brien got 36 wins out of the Pacers last season. And don’t think he’ll be able to get that many out of them this season, with almost all of the East’s non-playoff teams making upgrades.

Jon Barry (ranked 13th): There’s been a serious change of culture in Indy, helped further with T.J. Ford now at the point. But the bottom line is there’s still not enough here for this team to get in the playoffs.

Jalen Rose (ranked 13th): This team is in total rebuild mode in terms of roster, image and fan base. T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack will push the tempo to go with the scoring of Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy. One key question: Can they trade Jamaal Tinsley?

Although every other writer participating in ESPN’s preview ranked Indiana higher, the average ranking of all the writers only placed two teams in the East below the Pacers (the Nets and Knicks were ranked lower).  In sum, a number of writers are clearly pessimistic about the Pacers.  And I find this to be more than just a bit odd.

Where Indiana Has Been and Where They Are Going

To see why this odd, let’s go back a few months. The Pacers finished the 2007-08 season with the following marks:

Wins: 36

Offensive Efficiency: 103.45 points per 100 possessions

Defensive Efficiency: 104.84 points per 100 possessions

Efficiency Differential: -1.40

Summation of Wins Produced: 37.2

In terms of wins, the Pacers ranked 9th in the East and missed the playoffs.  Efficiency differential, though, ranked Indiana 8th.  In other words, if we repeated the 2007-08 season, we would expect Indiana to make the post-season.

Of course, we are not repeating the 2007-08 season.  Indiana has made changes to their roster and these differences should impact what the Pacers will ultimately achieve in 2008-09. 

Before reviewing the changes, let’s just make it clear – contrary to Marc Stein’s contention – the 36 wins the team achieved last year can be connected back to the players on this team.

Table One: The Pacers in 2007-08

As Table One reports, about 35 of this team’s Wins Produced can be linked back to the play of Jeff Foster, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, and Danny Granger.  And all of these players will be returning in 2008-09. 

The following players – who played at least 500 minutes last season — will not be joining this quartet (with Wins Produced and WP48 – Wins Produced per 48 minutes – reported):

Kareem Rush: 0.0 Wins Produced, -0.001 WP48

Ronald Murray: -0.1 Wins Produced, -0.005 WP48

Jermaine O’Neal: -0.4 Wins Produced, -0.017 WP48

Shawne Williams: -1.4 Wins Produced, -0.070 WP48

David Harrison: -2.8 Wins Produced, -0.189 WP48

In addition, Indiana appears to want Jamaal Tinsley (2.2 Wins Produced and 0.083 WP48) to play someplace else this next season. 

When we look at these six players, we see four who offered production in the negative range.  And the other two were below average (average WP48 is 0.100).  In sum, none of the departing players were really helping the Pacers last year.  In fact, Indiana is better off with some of these players in a different uniform.

Okay, enough of the subtractions.  Here are the veteran players – who played at last 500 minutes last season– the Pacers are adding:

Jarrett Jack: 4.6 Wins Produced, 0.098 WP48

T.J. Ford: 4.0 Wins Produced, 0.160 WP48

Rasho Nesterovic: 3.2 Wins Produced, 0.104 WP48

As one can see, the three main veteran additions to this team are each average or above average. 

In addition to the new veterans, Indiana also selected Roy Hibbert and Brandon Rush in the draft (two players who were about average — for an NBA draft pick — in college last season). Although Hibbert and Rush will probably not help much, they probably won’t hurt much either.  At least, it’s not expected that the rookie’s production of wins will drift into the negative range.

Heeding Hollinger

When we compare what the Pacers have added to what the team lost, it’s hard to see how this team dropped towards the bottom of the conference.  Yet several of the experts at ESPN reached this conclusion.

One should note that not all the ESPN experts reached this conclusion.  John Hollinger’s forecast differed from his fellow writers at ESPN.  Hollinger thinks the Pacers are the 7th best team in the Eastern Conference.  In sum, he thinks Indiana has gotten relatively better.

In the past I have noted that Hollinger and I agree that teams should be evaluated in terms of efficiency differential (where we disagree is on how to move from the team to the player).  Although I don’t know this for sure, I think Hollinger begins the process of forecasting the next season by considering where a team finished the previous campaign.  So when Hollinger creates the forecast of the Pacers, he starts with a team that is just a bit below average.  And since he concludes the team is better, he must think – as I conclude – that the additions Indiana has made trump the subtractions (not sure how PERs gets Hollinger to that conclusion, but I think I have accurately captured his approach).

Apparently, though, the other writers at ESPN are not listening to Hollinger or paying much attention to what we saw in 2007-08.  These writers see a roster in Indiana that is devoid of anybody who averaged 20 points per game last season and conclude that without a major scorer, the Pacers cannot compete in the resurgent Eastern Conference.

Projecting the Pacers

Again I return to the words of Abbott noted at the onset of this column.  Scoring is simply over-emphasized by many NBA analysts.  When we look at all the stats – whether we use the Wages of Wins measures, the work of Dean Oliver, of the adjusted plus-minus approach of Wayne Winston – we see that there is more to wins than points scored per game.  And I think all the stats tell us the Pacers are going to get better.

How much better? Well, I still think the East will be led by Boston, Detroit, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.  After these five, I think Toronto and Indiana have the best chance at the post-season.  In sum, I think Indiana has a good chance of seeing playoff basketball next April.  At least I think the chances of that outcome exceed the probability the Pacers will finish – as Broussard contends – as the worst team in the Eastern Conference.

– DJ

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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.