With their struggle to create good shots in the half-court running the gambit from occasional to frequent, the Pacers' offense relied heavily last season their ability to push the ball in transition. They were selective about when they did it, not willing to sacrifice the integrity of their defense to gamble in passing lanes, or leak out in transition at the expense of controlling the defensive glass. But when the opportunity presented itself they took advantage and it often seemed that those opportunities had a way of lifting the entire offensive ship. But working on an unrelated project this summer I stumbled onto some very striking evidence of just how important those transition opportunities are.
The relationships between The Four Factors and overall efficiency have been fairly well established and studied. But this work is usually done with an eye to the macro-relationship, using data the includes every team in the league and multiple seasons. At Hickory-High, Jeremy Conlin and I wanted to drill down and see if these relationships looked different on an individual team level. We gathered the game logs from every team last season and ran correlations between different pairings of The Four Factors and efficiency using just each team's numbers.
Last week we looked at the correlation between defensive turnover percentage (DTO%) and offensive rating (ORTG). We expected to find a strong relationship for most teams based on the idea that turnovers mean transition opportunities which, in theory, lead to easy baskets. In fact we were surprised to find that the overall correlation was extremely weak and several teams actually had a negative correlation, meaning they scored less efficiently when they forced more defensive turnovers. The Pacers' however, found themselves right where we'd expect.
No team in the league had a stronger connection between forcing turnovers on defense and efficient scoring. In fact the relationship for the Pacers was nearly twice as strong as the league average and was more in line with what we expected to find for the group as a whole. At this point we don't have an explanation for why this relationship seems to be so much weaker than we expected across the entire league, but Jeremy did have a few thoughts:
This lack of correlation in general could be explained by the difference between live-ball and dead-ball turnovers. All live-ball turnovers are recorded as steals. All dead-ball turnovers are not. So it’s pretty easy to calculate how many turnovers actually lead to a transition opportunity for the other team. In 2013, the league average for turnovers was 1192, and the league average for steals was 639. Basic math would then tell us that 53% of turnovers were of the live-ball persuasion.
If it’s roughly a 50/50 proposition, it might be possible that the advantage gained from a live-ball turnover (a transition opportunity in the other direction) is offset by the disadvantage of a dead-ball turnover (the stop in play allows the defense to set up). And that doesn’t even account for the fact that not all live-ball turnovers immediately lead to a fast break – like the defense stripping the ball in traffic under their own basket, or a scrum for a loose ball that ends up with more bodies on the floor than leaking out.
We had one other idea, that is perhaps more far-fetched, but still worth mentioning. Generally speaking, forcing a turnover requires the defense to expend more effort than they might normally – it’s pretty rare to see an offensive player simply pass the ball directly to a defender (unless it’s Fred Brown throwing the ball to James Worthy) or dribble the ball off his foot under no duress. So assuming that to be true, perhaps it’s the case that the extra effort expended to force a turnover makes it harder to perform on the subsequent offensive possession.
To explain why defensive turnovers were so much more important for the Pacers offense than most teams, we don't need to look much further than their offensive splits. According to mySynergySports, the Pacers averaged 1.12 points per possession in transition last season which means their offense scored 0.87 points per possession in all other scenarios. That's an enormous chasm and it speaks mostly to their half court struggles - the Pacers were just 17th in efficiency on transition possessions. In the half court they ranked 4th in efficiency on post-ups, but 29th on isolations, 23rd on spot-ups, and 24th and 23rd on possessions finished by the ball-handler and screener in the pick-and-roll. The one other thing I'll point out is that not all transition possessions came off turnovers, as the Pacers' were also one of the best in the league at pushing the ball after defensive rebounds.
What I find most interesting about this whole topic is the delicate balance it reveals in the Pacers. Last year they desperately needed to force turnovers to buoy their offensive efficiency. But they play an incredibly effective defensive style that forgoes the kind of risky behaviors that force lots of turnovers, in favor of keeping between their man and the basket, pushing penetration towards help and contesting every shot. If the Pacers' had tried to leverage this turnover-transition connection to improve their offense it probably would have hurt their defense and created an effect that was, at best, somewhere around neutral.
With the improvements to the bench this season, the Pacers' half court offense should be improved and not need these defensive turnovers quite so intensely. However, it will be interesting to watch as they begin the season anew and figure out exactly how to balance their defensive focus to create the best product at both ends.