Nate McMillan did what he had to do against the New Orleans Pelicans. He opted to split the ill-fitting Kevin Seraphin-Al Jefferson tandem by staggering the minutes of the former with Myles Turner and the latter with Thaddeus Young.
Separating the two plodders, both of whom have struggled mightily to cover opposing stretch shooters, has been overdue. Per NBA Wowy, opponents have racked up an eye-popping 117.4 points per 100 possessions in the 68 minutes Seraphin and Jefferson have spent on the floor together.
No rotation tweak made to this 15-man roster, as replete with redundancy as it has been limited by injury, can be accomplished without precipitating another problem equally as much in need of a quick fix.
On this count, it is certainly notable that Turner and Young combined to play a season-high 75 minutes on Monday afternoon. Ominously, despite playing the entire frame, the lefty power forward never managed to attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter. This, after he scored 17 points through the game’s first three frames.
Therefore, with extending the starting frontcourt’s minutes nearly as unappealing as revisiting the Seraphin-Jefferson pairing, perhaps it’s time for Indiana to take a closer look at some of the team’s other already existing options.
There’s a reason Seraphin supplanted Allen in the 10-man rotation. Actually, there were several. The most compelling being that the Frenchman proved himself better at what Allen does best, effectively wrangling away the team’s title for top garbageman by grabbing the highest percentage of Indiana’s misses (11.5%). Already ill-equipped to defend the pick-and-pop, Allen shooting a woeful 18.5 percent from mid-range should act as a powerful incentive to avoid revisiting having him park his big body on the opposing low block from Jefferson.
One-half of the only net-positive reserve frontcourt, using Miles as a stretch-four seemed to resolve some of the bench’s fit issues earlier in the season. Flanked by Glenn Robinson III and Jefferson, the lefty sharpshooter was perfectly positioned to open driving lanes for Indy’s plethora of ball-dominant guards while simultaneously taking full advantage of Big Al’s gravitational pull.
Alas, Rodney Stuckey being out as well as the improved chemistry of the starting lineup makes it a challenge for the bench to consistently reproduce what Miles can provide as an interchangeable forward.
Small-ball factored huge into the Pacers mounting a second-half comeback against the Kings on Wednesday evening, but doing so required that Paul George play all 24 minutes. He started the third quarter, closed it with Aaron Brooks, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, and Al Jefferson, and then took the lead late in the fourth with Ellis, Miles, Jeff Teague, and Myles Turner. Both of those lineups shot over 70 percent from the field and posted staggering net ratings; however, asking Indy’s two-way star to log 40-plus minutes to make those groupings possible isn’t a sustainable solution.
It’s a small sample size against lesser talent, but Niang’s four games played with Indiana’s D-League affiliate, in which he’s averaged 17.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists, have confirmed his knack for making shrewd, winning plays.
Take, for instance, the awareness he displayed when he recovered a tapped out offensive rebound before immediately whipping a split-second touch pass to a wide open Trey McKinney-Jones for three in the corner against the Raptors 905. That particular heads up possession didn’t make the highlight reel, but it epitomizes why the Mad Ants are assisting on a team-high 62.3 percent of their field goals when Niang is on the floor.
Indiana’s rookie may lack the explosiveness to beat NBA-caliber wings off the dribble and the lateral quickness to stay in front of them on defense, but he’s mobile enough to contest spot-up attempts and hedge against the pick-and-roll as a power fauxward. Shooting above 35 percent from behind the arc strengthens his case. (If not, then that begs the question of the Pacers as to why they’ve prioritized emergency depth over having him develop long-term with the Mad Ants.)
After the Boston Celtics waived him, the Pacers signed the former Providence star with the intention of making him an affiliate player after they acquired his D-League rights. Gauging his ability to crack the 10-man rotation, though, would necessitate creating a roster spot.
Bentil, who just rejoined the Mad Ants after unexpectedly signing a more lucrative contract in China, made a strong showing in his debut with Indiana’s affiliate, scoring 27 points on 40 percent shooting while grabbing nine rebounds and knocking down two three-pointers.
“Ben gives us another scoring threat, inside and out. He’s a mismatch at the five (spot) but will mainly play the four for us,” head coach Steve Gansey told the Journal Gazette’s Justin A. Cohn.
“He brings great energy on the defensive end and should help us in the defensive rebound category, in which we have had struggles this year. … Ben can flat-out score the basketball and brings a toughness to him and a swagger. I’m really excited to have him back in the Mad Ants’ uniform.”
Likely because his return to the team happened to coincide with the D-League’s marquee scouting event as well as Rakeem Christmas and Joe Young’s assignments, the 6-foot-9 power forward only managed to log 16 minutes in his first game back with the Mad Ants, recording five points and one rebound.
Underwhelming performance aside, Bentil grabbing 4.8 rebounds per contest and shooting 47 percent from three (23-of-48) in 11 games with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers is a strong indicator that he’s better suited to fill a need for the current makeup of Indiana’s roster than Rakeem Christmas.
Still, it is notable that he and Niang can loosely be described as the antithesis of each other. Bentil’s footwork is cleaner, and he is the more likely of the two to sprint ahead of the break and score in transition, but he lacks Niang’s passing instincts. He (0.4) averaged fewer assists than Andray Blatche (3.0) in China, and he has yet to record a single assist with the Mad Ants.
Opting to eliminate the small bursts of all-bench minutes that typically bridge the first and third quarter breaks, will likely result in Turner and Young being initiated into the exclusive 35-minute club. If that isn’t enough to make Indiana weary, it may be worth it to consider that Thaddeus Young’s sometimes sleepy off-ball defense, when paired with Al Jefferson, has only produced a minimal upgrade (DefRtg: 108.2) over Lavoy Allen’s sluggishness (110.7).
As the above graphic illustrates, the offense manages to compensate where the defense lags when the bench plays small. In order to replicate that lineup, McMillan has two options (barring a trade): Risk wearing out his franchise player and already thin wing rotation, or be willing to try an untried rookie.
Niang’s potential to make an impact with fewer touches may not translate, and Bentil may struggle to see the floor when opponents close out on him. But, Indiana’s aggregate bench net rating (minus-6.5) ranks 27th in the league, and they’ve been the league’s second-worst second quarter team.
It’s already bad. If the trade market doesn’t provide any other options and Rodney Stuckey remains sidelined, the Pacers will need to take a chance and explore the unknown in spot minutes. It could get better, and it can’t get much worse.