Are the Pacers on Track to Be the Next Contender in the East?
About a year ago every Pacers fan panicked after hearing Paul George wanted out of Indiana. Yet again, the team had fallen victim to LeBron James in the NBA Playoffs. Their franchise star was loud and clear with his message and gave the front office two options: allow George to walk as a free agent in 2018 or trade him elsewhere and attempt to get something in return now. It was the Oklahoma City Thunder who made the gamble and got George in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. That deal was supposed to be a no-brainer for Thunder GM Sam Presti, right?
Fast-forward into the first round of the 2018 Playoffs and the Oladipo-led Pacers pushed the same Cavs team that eliminated them one year earlier (though retooled and without Kyrie Irving) to a nail-biting seven-game series that the Pacers had in control at one point. "If y'all don't respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you. Nobody thought we would be here", Oladipo proudly said after being eliminated. Added then-Pacers guard Lance Stephenson: "This team was amazing. We brought it every night. There was no drama all season and everybody kept a positive attitude at all times. The future is bright."
And indeed, the future is very bright in Indiana. The team will be mostly intact after Thaddeus Young picked up his $13.7 million player option for the 2018-19 season and Darren Collison’s $10 million salary became guaranteed on July 1st. Both Lance Stephenson and Glenn Robinson III decided to sign elsewhere, but multiple reports confirmed the Pacers agreed to sign Doug McDermott to a three-year, $21 million deal and Tyreke Evans to a one-year, $12 million contract, though neither is official until the free agency’s moratorium period ends. I am even more optimistic about the team with both McDermott and Evans coming to Indiana, and it is only a small part of why I firmly believe the Pacers will do much better than they did this past season.
Speaking about Conference Finals, let us take a look at all four teams that played in the 2018 Conference Finals: the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics. Though each team fought their own battle to get to that point, there is an outstanding pattern in this group of four teams; their best lineups all had a shot-creating ball handler, a catch-and-shoot stretch-four, and a defensive-minded, rim-rocking center. Perhaps the only exception was the Celtics who have a shot-creating ball handler in Kyrie Irving but missed the playoffs due to injury; however, the young guys at Boston took turns to play Irving’s role each possession. The top lineups from the other three teams clearly followed the lineup pattern I outlined. Now look at the Pacers… Do you see anything similar?
I am not saying this Pacers team is immediately ready to take the next step, but I am convinced they are going in the right direction. I want to take a look at two aspects that show how great of a job Kevin Pritchard and his front office did to avoid going into rebuild mode after the PG13 era ended in Indiana.
None of this would have happened had the Pacers not received both Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The deal looked absurd at first; it appeared as if the Pacers were robbed! That was because Victor Oladipo had only played for the dysfunctional Orlando Magic and been an awkward fit alongside Russell Westbrook. The same goes for Sabonis, as he never got a fair chance to maximize his strengths in OKC while Westbrook focused on getting triple-doubles.
There is no point in speaking much about Oladipo’s transition to Indiana. It is well documented and his first season in a Pacers uniform ended with him claiming Most Improved Player honors. Instead, let me explain how great Domantas Sabonis is and how much he helps the Pacers’ offense. Head coach Nate McMillan deserves a lot of credit for putting the second-generation NBA player in a situation where he could help his teammates and himself simultaneously. I see Sabonis as a poor man’s Kevin Love: a great rebounder with a nice inside game that can also punish you from behind the three-point line.
In just 4.4 more minutes per game than what Sabonis averaged in OKC (20.1), his box score stats from this season look terrific across the board: 11.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and two assists on 51.4% shooting from the field and 35.1% from three. The numbers may not look like a big deal, but when you compare them to his subpar stats from his rookie season in OKC the improvement is clearly there. His biggest impact was on the boards; among qualified players (20+ games with the Pacers) Sabonis led his team in rebounding, total rebound percentage (17.8), and offensive rebound percentage (10.4), while being second to Al Jefferson in defensive rebound percentage (25.2) per Basketball Reference. These percentages express the amount of rebounds a player grabs while he is on the court. Sabonis knows how to grab offensive rebounds and fights for position to get them. In this clip, watch Sabonis score on back-to-back possessions after an offensive rebound:
One of Sabonis’ best attributes is how he very often sticks to his role on offense. 69.4% of his shots came from 10 feet or closer to the basket. And even though he only shot 38.5% from 3 to 10 feet away from the hoop, his 66.9% accuracy inside the restricted area is a big positive. According to NBA Stats, 7.5 out of Sabonis’ 11.6 points per game came from inside the paint. He has a nice touch close to the rim and will sometimes put on a show with a variety of hooks and layups. Look how Sabonis uses a simple pick-and-roll play to get himself a close, floater-like hook that gently finds its way through the hoop:
Even though his mid-range numbers are really not that impressive, Sabonis can still knock them down consistently. He likes to use quick pick-and-pops to get wide open shots at the mid-range area, while occasionally sliding a step back to the three-point arc. He also loves shooting off the catch; 74.7% of his shots this season came off an assist, including all 13 of his three-point makes. He does not shoot threes in bunches, just 0.7 per game, but he can still punish you from out there. Going back to his mid-range pick-and-pop game, look how he patiently waits for the pass and looks for an opening to shoot as soon as he receives the ball:
Sabonis’ biggest hole is still defense, thus playing him at center may not be the smartest move given he is not a rim protector. Even though he is 6-foot-11 and played 81% of his minutes at center this past season, it is clear the Pacers need to find this defensive-minded, rim-rocking center I spoke about and have Sabonis slide to power forward. It is not McMillan’s fault, as the team needed somebody to fill-in for the injured Myles Turner at different points during the season. With Sabonis at power forward, the Pacers can then run either Bojan Bogdanovic or Thad Young at small forward, depending on what the team needs at the time. With Oladipo as the shot-making ball handler and Darren Collison as a good playmaker and great long-range threat, the team is set. The team still has some cap space to operate, plus the younger guys can only get better. But where does this leave Myles Turner?
I believe Turner should be traded immediately. This may be the best moment to trade him away, as his value could go down as next season unfolds. The Pacers would ideally want back a decent center that can play defense and finish strong close to the basket; this is not about getting a household name, simply somebody that can fill the Aron Baynes or Clint Capela role for Indiana. If they can get that plus a really solid bench player, then the front office did their job right. Perhaps Turner and a second-round pick could be enough to lure a team to pull the trigger. And if everything goes right, I believe the Pacers are ready to to contend in the East.