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Why and How the offense of the Turner-Sabonis pairing needs to evolve

On what the Pacers can do to prevent the pair of 22-year-old centers from infringing on each other’s space.

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Image on left via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports, Image on right via Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The moment for the Pacers to research and discover the reality of what they may have in the Turner-Sabonis pairing should’ve been last season and it needs to be now. Neither player is old enough to rent a vehicle and their individual skill sets are disparate enough to avoid treating each other like bumper cars while coexisting, but Indiana’s starting center is extension eligible and could be headed for restricted free agency while his supposed understudy is soon to follow.

Before putting a price tag on those potentially long-term decisions, Indiana’s front office needs as much information as possible to determine if they should invest in zigging at the same time as several of the other teams expected to be near the top of the Eastern Conference are increasingly zagging toward more versatile lineups showcasing multi-talented wings with size (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward in Boston, Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, Giannis Antetokounmpo plus shooters in Milwaukee, and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto).

If Sabonis continues to blossom and the team’s brass prefers to hold tight to their young assets, the Pacers are going to have to figure out how to best accommodate two talented bigs under the age of 23 who ideally play the same position — albeit differently.

“Someday, he’s a starter quality,” Pritchard told Pacers.com’s Mark Monteith of the Lithuanian center. “You have to figure out how to get him on the floor for 30 minutes; he’s just too good.”

Overall, the Pacers got outscored by 6.0 points per 100 possessions in the 269 minutes that the twin towers were on the floor together last season, a mark which should cast at least moderate doubt as to whether the scoring output of lineups featuring both bigs would be able to outpace their cumbersome closeouts over a larger sample size.

Consider this: When the pair of 22-year-old centers shared the floor last season, opponents launched 34.6 threes per 100 possessions (nearly the same as the Brooklyn Nets, who were second to only the league-leading Houston Rockets) and they shot just a shade below 40 percent on those attempts.

As such, doing more to incorporate simultaneously dynamic actions is going to be an easier fix than expecting one or the other of them to become a step quicker defending out on the perimeter.

At issue on offense, though, during the brief windows at the end of the first and third periods in which Turner and Sabonis manned the middle in tandem last season, were the usual suspects: spacing, spacing, and more spacing.

Put simply, they got in each other’s way.

Take this possession against the Boston Celtics when Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis opted to switch the Cory Joseph-Myles Turner pick-and-roll, for instance.

It goes almost without saying that Turner has a tendency to either meander in the lane or settle for turnaround jump shots when checked by smaller defenders, but it’s also not as if there is room for him to seal Rozier when Sabonis is parked on the opposite block and still in need of becoming more comfortable with his jumper.

The same is the case for Joseph as it pertains to his ability to use his shiftiness to make his way to the rim. With Sabonis acting like a roadblock and the pocket pass neutralized, Joseph ends up taking and missing a last resort mid-range two over the outstretched arm of Theis.

Another problem was Turner’s proclivity for standing obstructively in the paint without manufacturing an angle for dump-off passes when he wasn’t directly involved in the play.

Here, with a whole swath of defenders clogging the lane as a result of Turner just sort of chilling while Glenn Robinson III and Victor Oladipo inexplicably chose to occupy the same space in the same deep corner, the lefty center’s hook shot ended up firmly lodged between the rim and the backboard (wedgie!).

Now, spot the difference in the floor balance when Turner stations himself on the slot opposite of Collison with Sabonis rolling to the basket.

This shift in alignment, while simple, forces Damian Jones to have to choose between staying at home on Turner or bumping Sabonis. Once Jones made the agonizing decision to tag the roller, Collison whipped the ball to Turner for the wide open three.

Calling upon Turner and Sabonis to either both set-up from the elbows or set screens at or above the level of the three-point line would not only replicate this type of formation it would provide the still-developing skyscrapers with a general guideline of how to read and react to each other’s already existing strengths.

In order to yield better feedback during the duo’s delayed beta testing phase, here’s some suggestions from around the league on how the Pacers could go about keeping both centers in equal but opposite motion.

Borrow horns-45 from the Detroit Pistons

Horns isn’t exclusive to the Pistons, but the reads and passes Blake Griffin made last season as the popper could still, nonetheless, be an instructive film study for Turner.

Notice, below, how when Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon manages to turn Ish Smith while staying in front of Andre Drummond rolling to the basket out of the double-high ball screen, Mike Muscala immediately abandons the tag to closeout to Griffin.

Once Griffin recognizes the coverage, he instinctively reacts by tossing a one-handed bounce down the outer edge of the lane to Drummond almost like a bowler curving the bowling ball to increase his chances of a strike.

If Sabonis is Drummond in this scenario and the defense collapses, he would have the built-in option to pitch the ball to the corner — most likely to Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, or Doug McDermott, all of whom shot above 45 percent from the corners last season.

Turner, for many of the aforementioned reasons, wasn’t often positioned above Sabonis to throw these types of passes to the low post, but on the rare occasion that he was his timing was prone to being a beat off.

Tellingly, with regard to the minimal way in which they were employed to play off of one another in spot minutes last season, Indiana’s twin towers only assisted each other with a high-low pass once a piece last season.

Borrow horns flowing into twirl flowing into pick-and-pop from themselves

Yep, you read that mouthful of words correctly. This set from Nate McMillan is downright nifty, which is what makes it such a shame that the Pacers, for whatever reason, didn’t really seem to go to it last season when Turner and Sabonis were on the floor together.

With the four and the five in starting position on the elbows, the play develops with the ball-handler tossing the ball to the non-popping big, in this case Thad. At that point, in the twirl part of the action (though not shown in the accompanying clip), Bojan Bogdanovic normally curls around an off-ball screen set by Collison.

If Thad can’t hit the cutter, he waits for Collison with a dribble hand-off and Turner proceeds to screen the low-volume-high efficiency guard’s man before popping for the open shot from his sweet spot. Of course, it would be sweeter still if he could manage to get his feet set behind the 3-point line.

Given the ability of Sabonis to grease the wheels of the offense and create space with contact in dribble-hand off sets, this set would likely run just as, if not more, smoothly with the Lithuanian big man acting as the connection point.

Borrow horns flare from the Chicago Bulls:

Like horns, horns flare isn’t unique to the Bulls, but this particular example provides insight into how the Pacers could counter for the way in which opponents take away Turner’s touches out of the pick-and-pop with switches (see: Rozier).

Notice how when Chicago’s Kris Dunn comes off Lauri Markkanen’s screen with the intention of creating an open 3-point shot for the Finnish finisher, James Johnson switches assignments with Josh Richardson because, having not shown above the level of the screen, he doesn’t have a straight-line path to disrupt the passing lane to the popper with high hands.

However, since the action deliberately comes equipped with the added wrinkle to free up the shooter, Richardson gets slammed by Robin Lopez’s flare screen for Markkanen to fade to the three-point line as opposed to walling-off the pocket pass — as often happens to Turner in spread pick-and-roll.

Had Hassan Whiteside made any effort — like, at all — to close to Markkanen, Lopez (playing the role of Sabonis) could’ve slipped the screen to avoid resetting the offense.

Given that Turner’s touches per game last season (48.8) were roughly the same as the season prior (47.9), the Pacers need to do more stuff like this to safeguard his involvement — especially if his limited, but laser-like, scoring portfolio remains unchanged.

Borrow zipper flowing into horns from the Toronto Raptors

As Raptors Republic points out here, a common set in Toronto’s playbook involves preceding tandem ball screens set by Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka with a zipper cut for the ball-handler.

The Pacers already trigger plenty of their sideline out of bounds plays with a down screen for Oladipo to cut vertically from the baseline to the slot with his defender snagged, so transitioning into the second half of the action with Turner and Sabonis up top would be relatively seamless while taking further advantage of the high-octane guard’s ability to hit the nitrous button at a moment’s notice (ditto for Tyreke Evans as it pertains to his skill for pulling bodies to and from the ball with head fakes and hesitation dribbles).

For a different look than setting screens on both sides of the ball, the Pacers could opt for having Sabonis step out and set a ball screen before quickly darting to the rim while Turner drifts behind the 3-point line.

With Turner and Sabonis acting more like protective shields than bumpers in a pinball machine, Oladipo’s downhill momentum would have a better chance at being surrounded by options as opposed to crowded by defenders.

All of which is to say that it won’t be enough in terms of evaluation for the team’s decision makers to have “no problem” playing the pair of centers “25-30” minutes together next season unless they’re also prepared to do more to give them the elbow room they need to be comfortable playing side-by-side.

When it comes to gathering evidence on the viability of the Turner-Sabonis pairing, the future needs to be the present — even at the risk of the results indicating that it should swiftly become part of the past.