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Sabonis, Turner Providing More Answers Than Questions

Domantas Sabonis wanted to start and the Indiana Pacers obliged. Despite its old-school style, early returns on the Pacers’ frontcourt are good – at least after one preseason game. Jack Winter writes.

Jack Winter

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Nate McMillan almost made it seem like the Indiana Pacers’ hand was forced.

With Domantas Sabonis eligible for an extension until late October or entering restricted free agency next summer, it was crucial for the Pacers to prove that he’s a part of their long-term plans. Coming off a breakout season that cemented him as one of the most productive young bigs in basketball, too, Sabonis made it clear he wanted a more significant role – and Indiana, positional redundancies and stylistic complications be damned, had no choice but to give it to him.

“Last season, you’re trying to find ways for him get more minutes,” McMillan told reporters on Pacers Media Day last week. “He feels he’s a starter. He feels he’s a starter, he wants to become a starter, he expressed that to us. We had to make room for him to do that. We felt that he was part of the future of this organization, and we had a starting center in Myles [Turner].

“We had to make room for him.”

There’s an important distinction between the Pacers honoring Sabonis’ desires at the expense of team success and doing so with that overarching factor in mind. In 2019, it’s taboo for a team to start a pair of traditional big men. The league is smaller than ever before and faster than it’s been in 30 years. Committing major minutes to an old-school frontcourt – even one including an established superstar – is contrary to not just where the game is right now, but all of the signs point to the trend continuing.

Indiana understands that reality, of course. If there’s anything to be taken from McMillan’s forthright explanation behind Sabonis’ promotion, it’s that both he and the organization at large understand the potential pitfalls of such a development. Sabonis and Turner no doubt do, too. But just because the Pacers are aware of the risk they’re taking by entering the 2019-20 season with a frontcourt better suited for decades earlier hardly means the possible rewards don’t outweigh it.

That much was clear on Friday in Mumbai at the inaugural NBA India Games, where Indiana beat the Sacramento Kings 132-131 in an overtime thriller that functioned much more like a game that mattered than both teams’ preseason opener.

Sabonis and Turner shared the floor for just less than 16 minutes in their first ever start as teammates, with the Pacers outscoring the Kings by 13 points. Indiana shot a scorching 18-of-32 from the field with Sabonis and Turner playing together and absolutely dominated both the offensive and defensive glass, which McMillan suggested at Media Day was key to their sustained viability as a tandem.

The Pacers won’t always put up a 144.1 offensive rating during stretches featuring their new starting frontcourt. Much of that gaudy number, for instance, is owed to the red-shot shooting of T.J. Warren, who poured in 30 points and went 5-of-6 from deep in his Indiana debut. Still, the eye test from Friday’s game certainly lends credence to the hope that offense may not hold the Sabonis-Turner partnership back.

Turner has received a lot of flak for his natural inclination to set up a step or two inside the arc as both a ball-screen partner and off-ball shooter. He took 3.3 mid-range jumpers per game last season, per NBA.com, hitting them at a solid 41.2 percent clip. But Turner has worked tirelessly to realize his pre-draft potential as a three-point shooter, and is comfortable enough in that regard by now that he should always launch triples rather than long twos.

On Friday, with Sabonis mostly serving as Indiana’s designated roll man, Turner made a concerted effort to retreat behind the arc if he found himself inside it when ball handlers turned the corner.

Turner tried just one three-pointer against Sacramento, a look from above the break he let fly in transition with no hesitation whatsoever. It would be supremely disappointing if he didn’t attempt at least three triples per game this season; four would be a number with which Indiana should be happy.

Don’t confuse Turner’s inability to get up threes on Friday as any harbinger of hesitance to come. The Kings were simply so overwhelmed by their opponent’s size and execution that there weren’t many opportunities for Turner to shoot threes within the flow of the offense and random ball movement.

The space provided by Turner stationing himself on the perimeter, like a stretch four, made stopping the Pacers’ real power forward next to impossible.

Sabonis has a keen sense of timing as a roller, frequently finding cracks within the defense to make himself available for a pass, and is one of the most accomplished dribble hand-off partners in the NBA. He went 9-of-11 from the restricted area all by himself on Friday, on multiple occasions out-muscling Marvin Bagley III for thunderous dunks and routinely using his patience and footwork in a crowd to find room to finish.

But it’s not just his effectiveness as an interior scorer that separates Sabonis from other offensively-minded bigs with limited shooting range. Sabonis is a dangerous, clever passer from all over the floor, a trait that seems to be rubbing off on Turner entering his fourth season in the league.

Most concerns about playing two traditional big men revolve around shooting. Small-ball has grown so ubiquitous across the league, though, that spreading the floor with one-dimensional shooters is no longer enough. On the game’s best offenses, those guys can make smart plays with the ball, too.

Sabonis was blessed with that ability from the womb, and Turner has already made the type of playmaking strides some thought he never would. The latter found T.J. McConnell on Friday with a slick bounce pass after letting him turn the corner on a would-be dribble hand-off, a staple of Sabonis and other impactful high-post passers.

But it’s the big-to-big passing that was most impressive in Indiana’s exhibition debut. There will inevitably be times when Sabonis and Turner both find themselves in the paint when the other has the ball, and it’s imperative they’re able to make quick passing reads in small spaces to get out of that bind – a difficult task they at times made look easy.

While most of the hand-wringing in Indiana about matchups comes on the other side of the ball, Sabonis and Turner were able to use their collective size to an advantage against Sacramento. With Luke Walton matching up positionally, slotting his centers on Turner, the Pacers consistently exploited Sabonis’ strength edge over Bagley and Nemanja Bjelica. Even Turner, showing off some canny deception, found him for a pair of baskets on early-clock post-ups.

The Kings are an especially favorable matchup for the Pacers. They don’t have a big man physical enough to bang bodies with Sabonis defensively, and ranked 26th in defensive rebounding percentage last season before adding Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes, average rebounders at best. There will be nights when Sabonis doesn’t have a favorable on-one-one matchup, and there will be nights when the Pacers can’t glean easy extra points from wrecking the offensive glass.

There were nevertheless enough signs in Sabonis and Turner’s first game as Indiana’s starting frontcourt to come away very encouraged. It shouldn’t have been all that surprising the double-big look was successful; lineups featuring Sabonis and Turner posted a plus-3.4 net rating last season, per NBA.com, mostly on the strength of defense. But with Victor Oladipo playing beside them, that number bumped up to all the way up to a dominant plus-13.0, as the Pacers scored nearly five more points per 100 possessions and managed to get even stingier defensively.

The sample size is small, and it’s foolish to expect Oladipo – whenever he returns – to immediately be the player he was before rupturing his quad last January. More likely is that he struggles to reach that level until after the All-Star break, or even next season.

Kevin Pritchard did well over the offseason to bring in ball-handlers and scorers who help compensate for Oladipo’s absence – and maybe more importantly, both now and going forward, delay the need for the Sabonis-Turner combination to be a clear strength offensively.

Warren, a natural bucket-getter, proved on Friday that his career-best campaign from deep last season was no fluke, and Malcolm Brogdon thrived playing full-time point guard, especially when running high pick-and-roll with Sabonis. Jeremy Lamb, starting in the backcourt in Oladipo’s stead, is a more dynamic scorer than any guard this team took to the playoffs last spring.

Sabonis and Turner are still a long way from proving their partnership is viable offensively. The Pacers were elite on defense with them on the floor together a year ago, but it’s telling that against Sacramento McMillan spent the last few minutes of the fourth quarter with Turner manning the middle, then had Sabonis take his place for the duration of overtime.

Harrison Barnes, playing power forward for the Kings down the stretch on Friday, isn’t exactly Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton, any three of the Boston Celtics’ talented wings, nor Pascal Siakam, the players Sabonis will be tasked with checking when Indiana meets other likely playoff teams in the East. The Philadelphia 76ers’ similar size and far superior talent is another thing entirely.

Questions on both sides of the ball abound for the Pacers. As the regular season quickly approaches, though, there’s ample reason to believe the long-made decision to start a throwback frontcourt was the right one – and not just because they “had to make room” for Sabonis.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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