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10 Questions for the 2018-19 Indiana Pacers

A look at some of the stuff the Pacers still may need to figure out to build on their momentum from last season.

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Original image via Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

With only five new faces guaranteed to be on the roster heading into training camp, the Pacers appear to have located a sweet spot in team-building wherein they conservatively addressed pressing needs without remaking the group that so quickly learned how and leaned into playing together last season.

Of course, nothing should be assumed (the way in which the 2017-18 squad obliterated their 30.5-win projection and pushed the eventual Eastern Conference Champions to seven games taught us that much, right?), and the new iteration still has plenty to suss out.

On that note, here’s 10 questions the 2018-19 Indiana Pacers need to answer.

Will the slew of one-year deals and expiring contracts be a double-edged sword?

Three cheers for Kevin Pritchard. Not only did he (presumably) manage to hit the upgrade button on Lance Stephenson (Tyreke Evans), Al Jefferson (Kyle O’Quinn), Glenn Robinson III (Doug McDermott), and Joe Young (Aaron Holiday), he did so while maintaining financial flexibility.

Looking ahead to 2019, Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott, Domantas Sabonis, Aaron Holiday, Alize Johnson, and T.J. Leaf (assuming the team’s decision-makers exercise the third-year option on his rookie contract) are the only players currently on the roster who will still be under contract, which means Indiana will have around $25 million in starting cap space without renouncing or waiving any players or picks.

Loaded with impending free agents motivated to perform for new contracts without many costly strings attached, the Pacers appear well-positioned to have their cake and eat it, too — that is, so long as the team-first culture that was established last season remains firmly rooted and the urge to stat-pad before hitting the market is barred from acting as a hindrance to the internal development of Indiana’s pair of still-developing skyscrapers.

“The biggest thing I tell guys who might ask is: We’ve created a different type of culture here,” Oladipo said of his pitch to prospective free agents earlier this summer. “Positive, feathery vibes only. I think that’s unique. I’ve never been a part of a team like that or an organization like that. I’m talking about, it’s positive from the bottom up. That’s the culture. That’s what you want to be a part of.”

That needs to carry over, because flexibility will give the Pacers the option to reset the talent around the team’s core at season’s end if need be, but it can’t retroactively feed Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis the ball.

Is a Houston-style rotation out of the question for Victor Oladipo and Tyreke Evans?

Certainly the goal should be to always have either Oladipo or Evans on the floor to act as a dynamic playmaker. The Pacers got outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Oladipo was on the bench last season, and the team’s aggregate bench net rating (minus-2.1) finished in the red for a second-consecutive season. 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 closing the half together.

This would allow Evans and his sorted injury history to play shorter bursts while balancing the need to ensure the bench is never without a fulcrum against matching some of his minutes with Oladipo’s when the opposing team’s best lineups are on the floor.

It’s win-win-win.

How will the wing defense hold up in the playoffs?

Slotting Bojan Bogdanovic’s improved footwork and admirable effort against the opposing team’s top wing threat enabled Oladipo’s ability to roam last season, and the Croatian National Team star definitely had his moments — from making it tough on DeMar DeRozan early in the season to holding LeBron to 2-of-7 shooting when he was his primary defender in Game 3 while exploding for 30 points.

Nevertheless, outside of that particularly memorable performance, LeBron shot above 50 percent from the field when defended by Bogdanovic. Worse, however, since — let’s face it — stopping the generational talent probably wasn’t a real option, was that the 29-year-old sharpshooter went 10-of-36 from three over those games.

Doug McDermott is on board to bear some of that burden in terms of mitigating fatigue and supplementing dry spells, but it remains to be seen whether the duo’s ability to tag team defending the wing will be a sustainable strategy in the playoffs against versatile spread lineups capable of splitting Thaddeus Young’s focus (i.e. Lowry-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Ibaka in Toronto, Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Horford in Boston).

What’s going to be the hierarchy of needs at back-up four?

Between experimenting with upping the minutes load of the Turner-Sabonis pairing, getting T.J. Leaf (or, maybe, Alize Johnson) reps following an underwhelming performance at Summer League, and perhaps allowing Bojan Bogdanovic the opportunity to moonlight some at power fauxward to unearth a possible lineup wrinkle, the back-up four spot is the least solidified position in Indiana’s rotation.

Assuming a key gets left under the mat for Kyle O’Quinn and his efficient production per-36 minutes to sling passes beside Sabonis, Nate McMillan is going to have to carefully assess whether the aforementioned needs have been satisfactorily met or ruled out before calling upon the “fifth big” for more than situational depth.

How will Myles Turner’s workouts translate to the regular season?

The almost daily deluge of videos documenting Myles Turner’s commitment to improving his strength, balance, and agility with weightlifting, yoga, and boxing make it easy to daydream about the potential of him being more fluid anchoring pick-and-roll coverage and defending in space.

Per Synergy, Turner surrendered 1.294 points per possession when defending the roll-man, a mark which ranked dead last among the 35 players with at least 60 such possessions.

Some of this was the product of Darren Collison’s pokey rearview pursuit as well as botched rotations, but consider what happened on this empty side roll against the Miami Heat.

Because no tag is coming from the weak side corner, it’s Turner’s responsibility to stay attached to the screener and take Bam Adebayo out of the play.

Instead, even though there were three strong side defenders available to temporarily muddle Wade’s path to the basket, Turner focused on containing the ball; thereby, leaving Adebayo completely unoccupied for the wide open alley-oop.

Before-and-after photos can instantly reveal the results of dropped weight and toned muscles (not to mention that the collection of clips featuring his ability to create for himself off the dribble are downright tantalizing), but there’s no accounting for whether he’ll be better prepared as the second-line defender to read the play and react with quicker feet until he gets out on the floor.

Has the time finally arrived to take more threes?

It’s two seasons running that the Pacers have ranked among the NBA’s top ten in three-point percentage and bottom five in three-point attempts per 100 possessions.

Relying heavily on mid-range jumpers came back to bite during the first-round of the playoffs against the Cavaliers when the team’s field goal percentage on open twos dropped from 47 percent in the regular season to 41 percent in the postseason.

With the option to surround Victor Oladipo or Tyreke Evans (both of whom shot above 35 percent on pull-up threes) with various combinations of Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Doug McDermott (all of whom shot above 45 percent from the corners) this shouldn’t continue to be a thing for a third-consecutive season.

Can Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis be effective playing together?

For all of the reasons previously discussed here, the moment is now for the Pacers to research and discover the reality of what they may have in the Turner-Sabonis pairing.

The duo, indeed, was plus-12 when they shared the floor without Lance Stephenson last season, but they did so in less than 115 minutes of action and the teeny sample size included some five-man units that featured Joe Young and/or Damien Wilkins. All of which serves to underscore that the twin towers typically only played in tandem in short bursts at the end of the first and third periods when teams have a tendency to play either bench or hybrid lineups.

Adding shooting will give them more room to operate (swapping Stephenson for Bogdanovic yielded positive results in less than 60 minutes played), but recurring issues with spacing were present even when Lance was on the bench that highlighted the need for tailored offense in order to be effective against starting-caliber units.

Will Alize Johnson get the Alex Poythress treatment?

After the Pacers converted the two-way contract of Alex Poythress to a guaranteed deal when the 45 days he could spend with an NBA franchise were set to expire, the mobile defender averaged less than four minutes per game and appeared in just 14 of the team’s last 45 games despite the fact that Indiana led by 20 or more points heading into the fourth quarter in five of the games in which he was listed as active.

Meanwhile, he was only sent to the Mad Ants on assignment for one game after signing his contract in December.

Alize Johnson’s case isn’t directly comparable given that he was drafted in the second round by the Pacers and signed a two-year deal with the first year fully guaranteed, but assuming he starts the season outside the rotation he could be in a similar predicament in terms of being shoehorned into developing his game in sparse garbage minutes.

Johnson averaged 12.4 points to go with 8.6 rebounds over five games at Summer League and impressed with his ability to switch across multiple positions, initiate transition offense, and come up with rebounds outside of his area.

Play the man, somewhere.

What happens if opponents stop prioritizing the drive against Tyreke Evans?

This is a typical example of the coverage Evans saw last season with the Grizzlies. With Pau Gasol dropping below the level of the screen to avoid having his lack of foot speed exposed and Danny Green going under the screener, the 28-year-old scorer has room to rise above the pick and pull the trigger on the lightly contested three.

After shooting above 40 percent on pull-up threes last season, however, nimble bigs may start to come out higher to temporarily make nice with him coming off the pick.

Evans has shot above 35 percent on threes off the catch and the dribble each of the last three seasons, but his field goal percentage inside the restricted are in 2017-18 (53.3 percent) only experienced a modest (still-below average) bump when compared to his prior two injury riddled campaigns (49.4 percent).

With various combinations of Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Doug McDermott available to be mixed and matched around his ability to attack downhill, the door is open for him to make strides finishing around the basket.

Will the energy be the same now that the element of surprise has been replaced by expectations?

As Nathan wrote in his breakdown of the regular season schedule, there were nights last season when the Pacers “were off” (oh, hello, 5-of-32 combined shooting effort from Oladipo and Bogdanovic against the Sixers), but “never a night that they took off” (yeah, so, they still won that game because they scored 29 points off 21 turnovers).

On the season, the palpability of their desire to outwork opponents wasn’t just at the core of their identity; it increased their margin for error, as was evidenced by the fact that there were eight non-playoff games in which they clawed back from deficits of 15 or more points.

Outside of fan-favorite Lance Stephenson, Indiana retained the remainder of their top eight players in terms of minutes played while making a few key upgrades. However, without the advantage of being able to catch opponents off guard, there also needs to be continuity to the nature of the brick-sized chip they bore on their shoulder.