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Models for how the Pacers could manage crowded backcourt

Divvying up minutes for Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, and Cory Joseph could be tough sledding.

Indiana Pacers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Pacers have five guards under contract for the upcoming season: Victor Oladipo, Tyreke Evans, Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, and Aaron Holiday.

With two dynamic playmakers, a pesky defender, an efficient low-volume shooter, and a developing rookie, Indiana’s rotation of ball-handlers is harmoniously diverse but is nonetheless crowded.

Sure, most of them can reliably play off the ball as well as with it. And, yes, Kevin Pritchard imagined Holiday as the team’s third-string point guard. Just the same, there are still only 96 backcourt minutes available in any given 48-minute game, and Oladipo (34.0), Evans (30.9), Collison (29.2), and Joseph (27.0) combined to average over 120 last season with their respective teams.

Granted, Indiana’s total also exceeded the allotment with Stephenson (112), but that was largely because the hole at backup small forward called for the usage of three-guard lineups. For instance, when Bogdanovic and Collison subbed out midway through the first period, Joseph-Oladipo-Stephenson would routinely get run until the Croatian sharpshooter checked-in for Oladipo. In the second-quarter, Collison would sometimes return in place of Bogdanovic to play briefly with Joseph and Stephenson.

After inking Doug McDermott, it seems likely that those combinations will experience a cutback unless he or Bogdanovic moonlight some at reserve power fauxward or the match-up demands otherwise.

Here’s a generalized look (ignoring games that involved foul trouble, injuries, etc.) at the admittedly erratic rotation once Glenn Robinson III was cleared to attempt to ease his way back into condition after undergoing ankle surgery and missing the first half of the season.

In this particular example, outside of when McMillan opted to close the half with Collison-Oladipo-Stephenson, the windows of playing time for three-guard lineups were nailed shut because Bogdanovic and Robinson III weren’t on the floor or the bench at the same time.

When using this as a guideline to project next season’s minutes distribution, it also needs to be considered that lingering effects from injury limited Robinson III’s play-time in a way that should not be expected for McDermott — especially after signing a three-year, $22 million contract.

Additionally, early indicators point to Evans starting out primarily as a shot-creator for the second unit.

“Both (Evans) and Cory will play together,” McMillan said earlier this summer. “How we finish will be determined once we get into season.”

Taking all of these factors into account, it seems fair to assume that Bogdanovic will come out of the game earlier in order to facilitate McDermott playing a lengthier swath of minutes over the quarter break than was the case with Robinson III. If that happens, and the team prefers to close with Evans, Collison would be the more natural candidate to be the odd man out at the end of the half by virtue of the Croatian National Team star already having his minutes adjusted earlier by McDermott.

Bearing in mind that this is being surmised and doesn’t include situational adjustments, note the severity of the squeeze on Cory Joseph’s playing time to accommodate playing Evans with Oladipo. The shifty guard led the team in fourth-quarter minutes last season, so it’s possible that the value he adds diving on loose balls, earning key deflections, and vacuuming airspace at the back-end of games could bridge some of the gap. Even so, it will be a real challenge for him to approach anywhere near his average playing time from 2017-18 (27.0 mpg).

Concurrently, if for whatever reason Evans doesn’t turn out to be a regular fixture in the closing lineup and the team instead opts to finish halves with the regular starters, pay attention to the point in the game in which he and Oladipo would be sharing the floor together by default: A short stint near the end of the first quarter when teams have a tendency to play either bench or hybrid lineups.

Admittedly, given that the Pacers got outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Indiana’s first-time All-Star was on the bench last season, Nate McMillan most definitely should make every effort to ensure that either Oladipo or Evans is always on the floor to act as a scoring fulcrum. However, in addition to juicing the second unit, Evans also arguably provides the most reliable answer for how Oladipo can remain a scorer when teams try to force him into being a passer.

“You have to have two guys who can make plays,” Kevin Pritchard said while introducing Evans. “We saw last year in the playoffs, with Victor in the pick-and-roll, you can take him out of his best thing. They would soft double it. They would hard double it, but they would make him pass it. But if you have two playmakers on the court, with shooting and being able to space, it’s tough to defend.”

If playing the two straight-line drivers together is going to be the end-game in the playoffs, then it seems like getting them simultaneous reps against top talent should be a priority during the regular season.

Taking a page from the Rockets, Evans could sub out early and return late to handle the ball for the bench (i.e. Chris Paul) while Oladipo plays all but a few minutes of the first quarter before exchanging the baton again midway through the second frame (i.e. James Harden) and ultimately finishing the half side-by-side.

The benefits of this are threefold. Not only does it balance the need to avoid stranding the bench without a playmaker against matching the minutes of the Evans-Oladipo pairing to that of when the opposing team’s best lineups are more likely to be on the floor, it allows Evans and his sorted injury history to play shorter bursts.

On the flip side, there would only be around 32 minutes per game available in the backcourt for Collison and Joseph to split between them.

No matter what rotation model the Pacers choose, however, Evans and/or the combination of last season’s point guard rotation is going to have to be amenable to sacrifice, which emphasizes the role Nate McMillan played in establishing the team’s “wonderful culture” when all three players are set to play for new contracts.