The Backpack Conundrum: Why the Pacers Attempt So Few FTs

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

With under two minutes to play in Oakland Monday night, the Pacers had only attempted nine total free throws. Why is it that the team with the league's best record ranks just 19th in the NBA in total free throw attempts?

As many Pacers fans likely are already aware, Indiana Members Credit Union (IMCU) donates one backpack to "Indy BackPack Attack" for each free throw George Hill makes during the regular season. From the perspective of most spectators, the number of backpacks donated by IMCU is likely interpreted as nothing more than what it really is - an admirable act of philanthropy. That being said, this same donation total can be viewed as more than just a good deed, it can also be utilized as a measuring stick for George Hill's aggression level from game to game. In fact, it was FSI's commentator, Quinn Buckner, who first suggested, during one of the Pacers' telecasts, that the number of backpacks donated by IMCU could serve loosely as a barometer for the hometown hero's willingness to attack the rim, draw contact, and, subsequently, get to the charity stripe.

On the surface, the assumption that backpacks donated, free throws made, or free throws attempted can directly speak to a player or team's collective attack seems sound. When a team relentlessly drives to the rim, pounds the paint, and refuses to shy away from contact, it is only logical that said squad's commitment to go on the attack would result in a high number of free throw attempts per game... right?

Well, per basketball-reference, the Pacers currently rank 19th in the league in terms of total free throw attempts for the 2013-2014 season. According to ESPN stats and info, the Pacers come in at 17th with 22.6 free throw attempts per game. Thus far this season, Indiana has attempted fewer free throws than their opponent in 18 of their first 40 games. Individually speaking, Indiana's roster does not have a single starter rank in the top ten of total free throw attempts (Per ESPN: Paul George (12th); Roy Hibbert (46th); David West (95th); Lance Stephenson (tied for 111th); George Hill (125th), and PG ranks 16th in free attempts per game).

Should any of these statistical findings really come as a surprise?

Just look at the Pacers most recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Through 46 minutes of that match-up Monday evening, the Pacers had attempted only nine free throws all the while scoring a whopping 46 points in the paint.

So what gives exactly? Why are the Pacers failing to get to the free throw line despite their paint dominant offense?

The easy answer to this question would be to just blame the officials. Nevertheless, while NBA referees are far from infallible, there must be a more measurable reason behind why the team with the league's best record ranks 19th in the league in terms of total free throw attempts.

Shot Distribution:

Conventional, wisdom says that teams that get in the paint, or, better yet, reach the rim, will be more likely to absorb contact and get to the charity stripe than those teams that settle for long contested twos, or, worse, live and die by the three. Well, with that line of reasoning in mind, consider that according to NBA.com/stats, the Pacers rank 29th - yes, second to last - in terms of total shot attempts taken less than 5ft from the basket. Moreover, they rank 16th in shots attempts between 5-9ft from the basket.

Now, compare the Pacers' abovementioned low rank to that of the Houston Rockets or Miami Heat. With 1459 shots attempted less than five feet from the basket, the Rockets rank 3rd in the league. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat rank 13th in the NBA with 1202 attempts. Not coincidentally, both of these teams, in turn, also rank in the top ten of the league in terms of total free throws attempts (Houston ranks 1st and Miami ranks 9th).

From this information, it can be interpreted that if the Pacers want to make more frequent trips to the free throw line they will need to make a more concerted effort to increase the number of shot attempts they take less than five feet from the basket.

Fewer Shot Attempts:

The last point concerning shot distribution can be deceiving. Readers that notice that the Pacers rank 29th in the league in terms of shot attempts less than five feet away from the basket would probably assume that the Pacers must just be settling for too many midrange jump shots, long contested twos, or catch and shoot three pointers. While this undoubtedly is a steady portion of the Pacers offense, Indiana still relies most heavily on close shot attempts.

When examining the Pacers' "team shots" breakdown over at NBA.com, it can be determined that roughly 43% of the Pacers field goal attempts are taken within 9ft of the basket, while 32% are taken less than five feet from the hoop. Comparatively, 39% of Miami's field goal tries originate five feet from the basket - only 7% higher than Indiana.

Therefore, the problem for the Pacers is not necessarily where the shots are being taken, but, rather, how many shots are being attempted. Thus far, the Pacers have attempted 438 fewer close shots than the Houston Rockets - the league's leader in free throw attempts.

How can this large of a disparity be explained?

At least part of this answer can likely be attributed to the Pacers' slow pace. Indiana's pace - an estimate of a team's number of possession per 48 minutes - ranks in the bottom third of the league, a woeful 22nd to be exact. In fact, according to basketball-reference, the Pacers are estimated to average just 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes. If you couple the team's slow pace with their high turnover rate (18th in terms of total turnovers), is it any wonder that the Pacers average fewer shots attempts per game, and, subsequently, fewer free throw attempts?

Drives:

When shooters cannot find the bottom of the rim, the common directive is to have the player drive to the rim, draw contact, get to the line, and have the shooter see the ball go through the hoop on the freebie attempt. This is good advice, but drawing the foul actually requires said player to drive to the rim - something the Pacers do not do consistently, at least not collectively.

For instance, through the wonder of NBA.com's new Player Tracking data generated by SportsVU cameras, it is now possible to measure a player's total number of drives (any touch that starts within 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks). While three of the league's other top four contending teams (San Antonio, Portland, and Miami) all have at least one player ranking in the top 25 in terms of drives per game, the Pacers have none (comparing only those players who have played in at least 35 minutes and average at least 28 minutes per game). No surprise, Lance Stephenson (29th) and Paul George (30th) are the team's top drivers, but they average just 3.9 and 3.6 drives per game, respectively. Compare those numbers to LeBron James who averages nearly double Born Ready and PG's drives with 6.6 per game, or, for that matter, consider that James Harden and Chandler Parsons each average 6.6 drives per game.

Consequently, in order for the Pacers to get out of the bottom half of the league when it comes to free throw attempts, a logical adjustment would be for them to up their drives, or, as more colloquially known, take it hard to the rack.

Selling the Foul:

While it should never be the go to excuse, sometimes it is acceptable to reason that officials miss calls - Frank Vogel certainly expressed this sentiment Monday night in Oakland. Speaking with admitted bias, it sure does not seem that Paul George's star status is translating into trips to the line on a consistent basis. Consider his most recent game against the Warriors where he attempted 20 field goals and shot only two free throws.

Perhaps, the Pacers just do not make it known well-enough that they are being fouled (Please note the writer's sarcasm). Coincidentally, this theory gets shot down quickly given that Lance Stephenson just received his second flop warning of the season on Tuesday. Of course, there is always room for improvement. Perhaps, the Pacers should go to the tape, and study how one of the league's leaders in free throw attempts manages to get so many foul calls - now known as "LeBroning."

All kidding aside, as evidenced by the above statistics and rankings, there are very real reasons behind the Pacers' infrequent trips to the line. Like Quinn Buckner suggested, backpacks - or, in this case, free throw attempts - can serve as an excellent indicator for a team's collective attack. Whether it is shot distribution, pace, turnovers, or drives, the answer to the backpack conundrum proves that even the league's best team still has room to improve.

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