Tell Your Statistics to Shut Up: The Weird Pacers-Spurs Game

This season, Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich have been, in terms of D’Antoni Index, the most mired-in-the-Dark-Ages, least inclined toward modern NBA offense teams in the entire league, and it hasn’t even been close between them and the rest of the NBA’s coaching fraternity.

For those needing a primer, to calculate D’Antoni Index, you sum a team’s 3-point attempt rate (the percentage of its shots that are 3-pointers), its percentage of shots taken within 3 feet of the rim (per Basketball Reference; you can just as easily use NBA.com’s restricted area stats if that’s more your pleasure or you need a single-game proxy that doesn’t quite match but comes close enough to the Bball Ref stat), and its free throw rate (divide a team’s free throw attempts by its field goal attempts.)

You then take this sum, subtract the league average total of those same three stats, and the higher the number, the more “modern” the team. By contrast, the lower the number, the less efficient the offense as a rule grounded in the principle of expected value per shot.

Yes, it’s a gross oversimplification, but so’s batting average in baseball, but it’s almost as easy to calculate by even the least analytically-inclined fan.

Anyway, my point here is that the Pacers have a DAI of minus-.092 while the Spurs clock in at an even worse minus-.119. San Antonio is 29th in 3PAR; the Pacers are 30th. Indiana is last in FTR, while the Spurs are allergic to layups and dunks, ranking dead last in the league in shots taken inside 3 feet.

So when the teams played each other, you’d expect a rock fight, a low-scoring game marred by nobody shooting beyond the arc and a bunch of clanged midrange shots with hardly a free throw in sight.

Except the game ended 116-111 in Indiana’s favor, the Pacers took 40.2 percent of their shots from long range, and the Spurs took 41.6 percent of theirs (31 out of 77 for Indiana; 32 out of 77 for San Antonio) from out there, combining to make 31 of the 63 attempts.)

Teams that don’t shoot threes and don’t dunk the ball shouldn’t have good effective field goal percentages. But the Pacers in particular are bizarrely efficient thanks mostly to their ability to penetrate and get good looks in close, standing ninth in eFG% despite seven of the eight teams ahead of them shooting over 40 percent of their shots from out in the boondocks of the court and the eighth being the Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Even the Spurs, thanks to DeMar DeRozan hitting 52.8 percent of his shots while only taking 30 3-pointers all season (about half of one per game) and LaMarcus Aldridge finally learning how to shoot from outside (39.2 percent from 3 and a .534 eFG% to DeRozan’s .533), stand 16th in that stat, just about at the median.

So you got the feeling that maybe two Dark Ages coaches might finally see their teams’ strengths come out in a weird 2002-ish sort of way.

But a combined 3PAR of .409? 227 combined points despite just 154 field goal attempts (a you-gotta-be-kidding-me 1.474 points per shot)?

Heck, even the Pacers, a team that is downright afraid of contact (the one knock you can genuinely level against Myles Turner, who shoots just 2.6 FTA per game), got 26 FTA and canned 23 of them, good for a .338 FTR that for this season would be light years ahead of the league-leading Miami Heat (.300 FTR) while the Spurs shot 19 FTA for a .247 FTR that is roughly on the level of their .253 for the season.

It’s harder to suss out that last piece of the statistical puzzle, but doing a rough count of shots from the Basketball Reference play-by-play for the game, the Pacers took 22 shots (28.6 percent) from 0-3 feet and the Spurs took 24 (31.2 percent) from that same range.

Those numbers are good for 16th and 5th respectively compared to every team all season.

Fifth for the Spurs, a team that is dead last in that category otherwise.

And your D’Antoni Index for both teams? Plus-.105 for Nate, plus-.054 for Pop.

It’s a shame these teams can’t play each other more often. Because the last word on this comes from the Offensive Ratings each of these teams put up in a snail’s-pace game (94.9, which would’ve been below league average in 2015-16 and is fully 5.4 possessions shy of the league pace today).

Indiana: 122.2. San Antonio: 117.0.

They played a high-scoring, wildly entertaining game with a five-point final score margin, lots of threes that went in half the time, and plenty of layups and dunks despite only 77 field goal attempts each.

Which, considering who coached, is the just plain downright weirdest box score of this entire 2019-20 NBA season.

All it takes for the two worst coaches (sorry Spurs fans, Pop’s a legend and a deserving Hall of Famer, but he’s terrible in 2020; Nate, meanwhile…just read more of my Pacers Tuesday columns, hmm?) in the league to not suck is to coach against each other. Weird.