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What the Pacers can do to make next season more meaningful

Without a treasure trove of picks and prospects, here’s five actions Indiana should take to avoid a gap year.

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Picks aren’t just people. They’re currency, and they’re representative of the allure of the unknown. One of the many knocks against the return for Paul George was that the Pacers removed that element of surprise by opting for what “presently is” over what potentially “could be.”

“The reality is we know these kids now,” Kevin Pritchard said at the team’s introductory press conference for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. “The certainty of their character. The certainty of what we knew of what we’re getting. The certainty that I have no doubt that both these players, along with Darren (Collison), are starting caliber players.”

Along with that sureness, however, comes the probability of losing without the consolation of daydreaming about the concept of unlimited upside. Even if the schedule does its part to preclude the Pacers from the doldrums of rebuilding through the middle, it obviously can’t stock them with liquid assets.

Therefore, beyond relying upon the team’s ability to draft well along with hoping that they can somehow buy low on more young talent, here’s the first five of ten things that the Pacers can do to add meaning to what otherwise feels like a gap year.

Play Glenn Robinson III more minutes at small forward than Bojan Bogdanovic

Outside of sparking competition, it’s relatively strange that Nate McMillan already declared Paul George’s starting spot as Bojan Bogdanovic’s to lose. He’s a cost-effective option to provide much-needed floor spacing in a pinch following the loss of Paul George and C.J. Miles, but the second year of his deal is only partially guaranteed. That, along with his age (28), seems like a solid indicator that his marksmanship may not factor into the team’s long-term plans as much as his favorable contract.

If so, Glenn Robinson III’s still-developing game would be better served earning the lion’s share of the minutes at his position when the most shots will be available, even if the Pacers want to showcase the Croatian sharpshooter to prospective contenders before the trade deadline.

For instance, it’s a teensy sample size, but it seems notable that the Pacers managed to outscore opponents by 16.0 points per 100 possessions in the 98 minutes that the athletic wing shouldered the starting small forward burden when Paul George was hampered by a sore left ankle early last season.

If that figure doesn’t prove his readiness, then perhaps the fruits of GRIII’s offseason labor will. Put simply, the 28-year-old’s one-dimensional specialty is arguably a finished product, whereas the 23-year-old is one of few players on Indiana’s roster with definite unrealized potential.

Show up on the road

The Pacers went a rather abysmal 13-28 (.317) away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse last season. Yet, somehow it actually seemed worse. Not only did they rack up disappointing road losses against three of the four worst teams in the league, they would routinely follow up encouraging home wins with “lifeless” no-shows in opposing arenas, oftentimes inexcusably from start to finish.

“They started out aggressive and they dictated how this game was going to go from the tipoff on every possession,” Paul George told the Indy Star’s Nate Taylor following his team’s lackadaisical effort on the road against Charlotte last season, in which the Hornets scored on their first 12 possessions. “It felt like they scored more than the first 12, to be honest.”

Next season’s team shouldn’t be evaluated as much by the score in those types of contests as they are by their collective effort.

“There were many games when we left the arena, where we would win but he (Larry Bird) wouldn’t be happy...,” Kevin Pritchard said of his former boss, shortly after being promoted. “Conversely, there’d be games where we’d lose and he’d be pretty happy because he felt like we did the right things.”

Zeroing in on players who will consistently play hard seems to partially inform upon Indiana’s insistence to rebuild through the middle.

Increase three-point attempts per 100 possessions

Last season’s squad ranked 27th in the league in terms of three-point attempts per 100 possessions (23.2). Increasing that rate will be key, if Bojan Bogdanovic indeed does replace Paul George in the starting lineup.

Not only did ESPN’s real-plus minus grade the Croatian sharpshooter’s on-court defensive impact as the the worst rotation two-guard in the league last season, the Washington Wizards surrendered 123.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., and Marcin Gortat.

All of which is to say that it will be tough for the first unit to play fast if getting stops is a struggle, but exchanging baskets will be nightmarish if their shot distribution doesn’t become more modern, even if they aren’t as accurate.

Try switch-everything lineups in small bursts

The Pacers rarely attempted to switch last season, and when they did it was mostly a hot mess. Recall, for instance, that there were moments during the season opener against the Dallas Mavericks when Rodney Stuckey was trapped on the block with Dirk Nowitzki while Lavoy Allen was left alone at the top of the key with J.J. Barea.

More of the same reared its ugly in the head in the playoffs when miscommunication rued the day and Jeff Teague was repeatedly left at the mercy of LeBron’s equal parts power and finesse 6-foot-8, 250 pound frame.

At issue, in both instances, was the defensive strategy — and the place of the smaller guards within it.

Shifting Teague’s porous defense over to J.R. Smith obviously would’ve been preferable, but finding someone else similar in size and stature to Paul George to switch the Irving-James side pick and roll wasn’t without complication. Reducing Lance Stephenson’s minutes as the second unit’s primary ball-handler arguably would’ve come at a cost, and C.J. Miles couldn’t be in two places at once while Glenn Robinson III was hampered by injury.

Next season’s roster could provide a clearer path.

Experimentation should be the natural byproduct of lessened expectations and roster turnover, which is why running a switch everything lineup in tiny bursts with Stephenson (6-foot-5) at point alongside Victor Oladipo (6-foot-4), Glenn Robinson III (6-foot-6), Thaddeus Young (6-foot-8), and Domantas Sabonis (6-foot-11) deserves at least a cursory look.

Aside from the possibility that Sabonis might be a tad slow to slide alongside ball-handlers, that group, in theory, has the physical tools to be a versatile unit. Whether they can demonstrate the necessary degree of focus and awareness, in practice, remains to be seen.

Either way, it’s worth a try.

Get T.J. Leaf minutes somewhere, anywhere

Outside of prematurely shortening the rotation, Georges Niang’s modest ability to add some space to the floor was really the only option to facilitate the bench going small last season. Alas, the Pacers rarely gave him the opportunity to provide emergency depth — let alone prove himself worthy of a rotation spot. Instead, he played a grand total of six games for the Mad Ants, despite the fact that he only tallied more than seven minutes once while Paul George and C.J. Miles were both out.

T.J. Leaf needs to add strength before he can be expected to absorb minutes from Thaddeus Young or Domantas Sabonis in a pinch, which means a similar scenario to that of Niang has the potential to play out during the 19-year-old’s rookie campaign.

If so, it would be preferable for him to make plenty of trips up and down I-69 than to languish on the bench.

The same goes for Ike Anigbogu.

(Check back for the second part of this post tomorrow.)