Quick Note: Starting Oct. 1 I’m going to post a weekly Pacers column every Monday and occasionally Friday. The column will break down some of the biggest Pacer news of the week, plays I’ve liked and didn’t like and preview the upcoming matchups. I would also like to incorporate a mailbag piece to each column but for that I’ll need questions. I’ll remind people in my posts over the next couple weeks, but if you have at least a semi-related Pacer mailbag question you want answered click this Google link to submit them or clicking here.
When the Pacers use a nine-man rotation next season the team will showcase its deepest roster since the 2013-14 season. But of all the foreseeable issues that arise in Indiana, their lack of good defenders at the forward position could be the biggest issue they face.
Out of six forwards the Pacers have three with more than 53 games of NBA experience: Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Doug McDermott.
If you’re being generous you can add Domantas Sabonis, assuming he plays the four in the Myles Turner-Sabonis lineups. Then there’s T.J. Leaf and former G-League standout Ben Moore.
Among these forwards four are likely to be the rotation but only one of them is a proven above-average defender. The other three range from average to way below average depending on the night.
Last season Young was the Pacers’ best wing defender with a defensive rating of 104.8. He also tied for fifth in the league for most deflections per game with 3.6.
As the Pacers’ primary wing defender he was used in isolated plays and at the end of games. Just look back to see who was guarding LeBron James on the last play of game five of the NBA playoffs:
While Bogdanovic was used as a work-horse defender on the other team’s best forward.
Before last season Bogdanovic was considered a poor defender but he was able to nearly triple is defensive win shares with the Pacers. He did have the benefit of sharing the court with Young and Victor Oladipo, which made his life easier, but he was still able to hold his own.
Over the course of the season Bogdanovic held opponents to a 47.1 percent field goal percentage, just slightly higher than Young’s 45.9 percentage.
The problem for Indiana, though, is that the Eastern Conference added three all-star forwards (Kawhi Leonard in Toronto, Gordon Hayward in Boston and Blake Griffin in Detroit). In addition to that players like Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons will only continue to improve, making it even harder to defend wing players.
Bogdanovic’s successful defensive season can be contributed to the fact that outside of James, the East had very few truly exceptional forwards. It’s also worth noting that James exposed a lot of flaws in Bogdanovic’s post defense in the playoffs.
During the regular season, Bogdanovic allowed opponents to score 73.6 percent of their shots inside six feet of the hoop; in the playoffs that number increased to 75. By comparison, Young held players to 65.5 percent inside six feet during the regular and 45.5 in the postseason.
Next season more teams in the Eastern Conference will be able to play two good forwards and we could see more isolation post-ups on Bogdanovic. The Pacers’ solution should be to switch Young onto the forwards with strong post games, but here are some of the small forward/power forward combinations the Pacers will face:
Toronto: Serge Ibaka-Leonard (OG Anunoby)
Boston: Tatum-Hayward (Jaylen Brown)
Philadelphia: Dario Saric-Robert Covington (Simmons)
Washington: Kyle Oubre-Otto Porter
Detroit: Griffin-Stanley Johnson
Milwaukee: Khris Middleton-Antetokounmpo
The increase in talent will make it harder to hide Bogdanovic.
While I expect the Bogdanovic-Young combination to be effective against the Eastern Conference’s weaker teams they could easily be exposed by the conference’s strong ones.
This is all without considering the fact that the Pacers lack defensive depth at the position when they have to play McDermott, a player not known for his defense, and Sabonis, a traditional center, as the backups to Bogdanovic and Young.
Without a go-to defensive forward off the bench, Indiana is left with little options but to stick with the Bogdanovic/Young combination. Remember that if the Pacers had gotten just slightly better defense out of the small forward position, they just might have won a playoff series last season.
It could easily be the difference again.