NBA Daily: Big Decision Looming for Indiana Pacers

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Over the last few years, basketball has transitioned into a position-less game. Traditional lineups have been replaced by dynamic frontcourt players that have become high-usage floor generals.

In order for a big man to be elite at the center position in the modern NBA, he must be able to showcase exceptional post skills, handle the ball, rebound, defend the rim, defend the perimeter, read the defense, make the right pass and of course knock down the occasional three-point shot.

The days of the Twin Towers in San Antonio are long gone. There is no more Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. Duos like Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy are all a thing of the past. Even Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins in Boston and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in Los Angeles seems like an eternity ago.

But, while the “small ball” lineups have provided countless high-flying dunks and sensational highlight reels, two big men have been dominating the game. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have been doing everything for their teams, which has put them at the top of the list of MVP candidates for this season. Finding the right players to put around (and beside) them is key.

Today’s game is all about up-tempo pace and floor spacing. With the three-point shot becoming the focal point of every NBA offense, there is not much place for two interior big men to be on the court at the same time. There is one team, however, that is still going against the grain, for now.

The Indiana Pacers have two extremely talented big men with their own unique skillset. Domantas Sabonis is a two-time All-Star that has thrived this season as the focal point of Indiana’s offense. The second-generation player is having a phenomenal year under first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren, putting up career-bests in scoring, assists, steals, blocks and free throw attempts this season.

Just as Sabonis fuels the offense for the Pacers, Myles Turner anchors their defense. The seven-footer out of Texas has proven to be one of the best defenders in the league. Turner led the league in blocks (2.7 per game) during the 2018-19 season and currently leads the league this year with a 3.4 per game average.

Indiana has found themselves in an odd situation where they have two young, talented big men that have recently been paid. Sabonis is under contract with the Pacers through the 2023-24 season while Turner will be a free agent after the 2022-23 season. Both players were drafted 11th overall and both will celebrate their 25th birthday within the next five weeks.

On paper, the two appear to be an excellent pairing. On offense, Turner is the one who is able to create space with his shooting, allowing Sabonis to feast inside. On defense, it has been Turner on the inside protecting the rim while Sabonis is left to deal with the quicker forwards on the perimeter. Essentially, it is Turner at power forward and Sabonis at center on offense and vice versa on defense.

This pairing worked well in spurts under Nate McMillan last season but, while he and coach Bjorkgren share the same first name, their philosophies are vastly different. Compared to last year, Indiana’s offense this season is night and day. Taking a more modern approach, Indiana is averaging nearly four more points per game this season. They rank inside the top ten in shot attempts this year, where they were 18th in that category last season.

This has transformed their offense but they are suffering on the other end of the floor. Last season the Pacers ranked third in opponents scoring. This year they are 20th. They had the sixth-best defensive rating a season ago but are now just at the middle of the pack.

Since adding Caris LeVert to their lineup, the Pacers have won three of their last five, including a two-game sweep of the Miami HEAT. They just finished up a brutal 12-game stretch in their schedule where ten games were on the road against some of the top teams in the league with Indianapolis playing host to the NCAA Tournament.

This stretch of Indiana’s schedule was all about keeping the ship above water. Getting LeVert on the floor has been a major boost but their fate may ultimately fall on the shoulders of Turner and Sabonis.

Brogdon has had an outstanding season at point guard, but it is Sabonis that is utilized as the hub of their offense. Much like how the New York Knicks use Julius Randle, the Pacers funnel everything through Sabonis in the mid-post. This is where his exceptional passing skills and one-on-one ability really come into play. He is averaging a career-high in assists and has recorded six triple-doubles this season.

The results of this experiment have been mixed. At times, it seems as though they have hit on something big. Then, there are nights where everything seems to go wrong. After 35 games this season, the Pacers went into the All-Star break with a 16-19 record. Their record last season after 35 games was 22-13 and that was without Victor Oladipo.

The conundrum for Indiana: further stagger their minutes during games, or trade one of their talented big men before Thursday’s deadline?

The Knicks may have found something with Randle and Nerlens Noel. The Boston Celtics have struggled to go big with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson playing alongside each other. The Orlando Magic will soon wave the white flag on the Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon pairing. Last season the Memphis Grizzlies did well with the Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr duo but we haven’t seen it this season as Jackson has yet to take the floor.

The long list of big men in Cleveland did not work and Andre Drummond is moving on. The same story has already played out in Detroit with Blake Griffin. LaMarcus Aldridge will soon have a new home as well. Steven Adams has not been a good fit next to Zion Williamson in New Orleans. Sacramento has been trying to trade Marvin Bagley III and Atlanta’s John Collins has been a popular target in many trade talks.

Part of the reason why these frontcourt pairings are not working is based on matchups. Guys like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons have made the point forward position difficult to defend. Indiana doesn’t exactly have anyone on the roster besides Warren that can defend those guys on a nightly basis. In order to fill that void on the roster, it may cost them either Turner or Sabonis.

The team has evidence that this “Turbonis” pairing can actually work. They have been able to close games together and have produced a positive net rating. It would have been nice to see the experiment play out during the playoffs last season but Sabonis missed the postseason while dealing with plantar fasciitis. That may be another reason for Indiana to dial back his minutes down the stretch.

Indiana would love nothing more to return to the postseason, this time with their full complement of players. In order to get there, they will need this frontcourt experiment to bear fruit.