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Sabonis Benefitting From More Prominent Role With Pacers

Spencer Davies chats with Domantas Sabonis about his fresh start with Indiana and the positive direction they’re going in.

Spencer Davies

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In his 14th season as a professional in the NBA, Al Jefferson has seen two types of young players come across his way.

There are the ones who have the potential to become great, and there are those who have the intangibles of the game ingrained into their mind. In the case of his Indiana Pacers teammate Domantas Sabonis, it’s the latter.

“Got a very high IQ,” Jefferson told Basketball Insiders of the sophomore big man. “Just needs sometimes to be pointed in the right direction and kinda polished a little bit. That’s what I’d seen with him when he first got here. I said, man this kid is very smart, got a lot of upside and could play right now, be effective right now.”

The veteran center’s assumption turned out to be true. Sabonis has absolutely thrived under Nate McMillan in Indiana in his second season. As he’s gotten more opportunities in a game to be a difference maker, it’s safe to say things have turned out well, both for him and Indiana.

“He’s playing basketball,” McMillan said of the success at the beginning of the season. “He makes his teammates better. He does a good job of really initiating our offense with his ball movement. He’s taking high percentage shots. Defensively, he’s done a nice job of really adjusting for starting and coming off the bench.”

With the way Sabonis has been depended on for the majority of this season, it’s safe to assume that his up-and-down rookie campaign in Oklahoma City was an aberration.

No longer is he outside on the perimeter waiting to receive the ball as a catch shooter. Instead, he’s being utilized as a ball-handler with an all-around effect on the game. Over the summer, he focused on improving a number of things.

He hit the weights to bulk up. He worked on his control with the rock in his hands. He even put in extra work with his post moves and jump shot. And judging from the vast upgrades we’re seeing this year, it’s paying dividends.

“I feel like this year I’m feeling better on the court,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, it was a different kind of role I had. This year it’s a different situation. I’m being used differently and I’m just trying to take advantage of the situation.

“I’ve been playing that role, the five-man, basically almost my whole career. I feel like that’s where I can do more—get the ball on the short roll, look to make plays, be a point forward. I feel like that’s the way I like to play.”

Of course, it would be a different story if McMillan didn’t believe in the Lithuanian big man’s talents, and that’s something he’s very grateful for.

“He’s helped a lot,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “Since day one since I got traded, I came here first workout he wanted me to be more selfish, no hesitation. If I’m open, shoot it. Don’t worry. I don’t think he’s ever told me not to shoot it yet, so putting that trust and that confidence into me I think has helped me a lot.”

His coach isn’t the only figure who’s helped him this year.

Sabonis’ father, Arvydas, played 14 seasons between the NBA and Europe as a well-respected player who made his mark as a post presence on both ends of the floor. Revered for his tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers, the 53-year-old is in his son’s ear constantly after games.

“’I’ve always had him,” Domas told Basketball Insiders. “My whole career my dad’s been helping me, talking to me after games. He watches most of the games on league pass. Most of the time he just tells me to be more aggressive, try new things out, don’t be afraid. It’s just awesome having him there.”

Don’t start making comparisons between the two, though.

“I’m myself,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “I’m a completely different player. He would say I am too. I’m just trying to make up my own name and if I can pick anything that he did well, well it’s better for me.”

All of this talk about his improvements is something special, but Sabonis really went to bat for his teammate who came to Indianapolis with him in the blockbuster Paul George trade in the offseason, Victor Oladipo.

Similar to his situation, Sabonis believes the first-time All-Star’s usage has played a huge part in his break out season.

“He’s our first option for scoring,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “He’s the leading scorer. That’s who we look for. Everybody works to get him open to help get him really good shots and he’s taking advantage of it and knocking them down.

“His confidence has always been there. Even last year, he’s been like that always, hasn’t changed one bit. I just think he has a bigger role. He’s taking advantage of it. There’s more trust in him and he’s just playing his game. I think just both of us just getting a bigger role on the team helped us gain our confidence. Just stay aggressive and just show everyone that we can play.”

Along with Pacers third-year center Myles Turner, the two have created a nice one-two punch in the frontcourt. They don’t play all that often together (199 minutes total) because of some similarities in their games, but when each is on the floor with their own units to work with, it’s a difficult dynamic for opposing teams to stop.

The 21-year-old has seen plenty of starting time with Turner out due to injuries here and there, but now he’s back in that backup slot since he’s returned. But for Sabonis, it doesn’t matter what group of guys he plays with as long as it’s best for the team and it results in wins.

“I think it’s great,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders of the staggering with Turner. “He comes out of the starting lineup. He does what he’s been doing his whole career. He’s one of the most talented big men in the league and he does his thing.

“And then as for the second unit, I just come in and try to do my job, just be aggressive. Try and keep that momentum up so there’s no slippage or nothing and I think it works great.”

As of Monday, Indiana stands in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a 32-25 record. The commitment on both ends really showed in the month of January with the sixth-best defensive rating (104.2) and net rating (5) in the league.

“We’ve really improved our defensive intensity, which is leading to easier offense for us, transition points, and then that just gets us going overall,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. ““We just gotta keep improving every day.”

Still, there is plenty of work to do for the Pacers according to Sabonis. It starts with better team spacing and sustaining their level of play on a nightly basis.

“We’re gonna come in—defensively, offensively, there’s little details on the court that you’ve just got to execute,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “I think like coach says, it’s more stamina just to like do it for 48 minutes. Not just do it for a quarter or for 20 minutes. Just gotta keep the same intensity for 48 minutes and I think that’s the biggest key for us now.”

Approaching the All-Star break, 32 total wins didn’t even cross most people’s minds when the George trade went down and sent Indiana into a rebuild. The fact that they’re in the hunt for the playoffs says a lot about the confidence of this group, and Sabonis knows it’s pretty darn special.

“Coming into the season, all of us knew if we worked hard every day it could be a special team and at least put [ourselves] in position at the end of games to win games,” Sabonis told Basketball Insiders. “And I think every day we come in, we try to get better, and we’re trying to win one game at a time.”

It’s easy to admit most of us were guilty of being wrong, and as a fan of basketball, it’s turned out to be great to watch the situation develop.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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