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We still don’t know if Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis can play together and that’s okay

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Will the questions of the the two centers being able to play together ever be answered?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Indiana Pacers
Dallas Mavericks guard Devin Harris (34) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) and center Myles Turner (33) during the first quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Credit: Brian Spurlock
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly halfway through the season and Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are still the most interesting parts of the Indiana Pacers. On the court both players are showing improvements that Pacer fans could have only dreamed about. Off the court, the long-term fit and financial impact of Turner’s extension and the possibility of one for Sabonis are fascinating.

This summer Indiana has the opportunity to extend Sabonis just like they did with Turner just prior to the 2018-19 season. The front office will more than likely try to give Sabonis an identical contract to that of Turner’s, which originally seemed like a slight overpay that now seems like a discount.

Sabonis might not be willing to take a “discount,” even if he believes he shouldn’t make more than Turner. If Sabonis has a good agent, he’ll justify it by saying something like, “Just because Turner was willing to take less than he’s worth, why would my client?”

The money, though, is just one part of the Sabonis and Turner saga because for a while it seemed inevitable that one would have to be traded to maximize Indiana’s roster. The theory went something like this: “Why would the Pacers have two centers who can’t play together in crunch time, when they could flip one of them for a crunch time point guard or small forward?”

While it has yet to be proven that Turner and Sabonis can play crunch time together, individually they’ve both proven that they can led separate units on the team.

Turner anchors defense

Turner has turned into one of the best defensive players in NBA, helping the Pacers to record the second-best defensive rating in the NBA at 103.5. Last season it felt like Victor Oladipo and Thaddeus Young were the leaders of Indiana’s defense, which ranked 13th in the league at 108.1. This year, however, the change has become obvious.

With Turner’s highly improved perimeter defense and league leading 2.8 blocks per game, Indiana’s defense has turned into a modern version of the team under Roy Hibbert. The Pacers can switch pick and rolls with ease, run shooters off the three-point lineup right into Turner’s blocking hands and play more press defense with the confidence that Turner will be there to back them up.

Sabonis dominates bench unit offense

Sabonis has played most of his minutes this season with either Cory Joseph (784 minutes together), Doug McDermott (545) or Tyreke Evans (443). With each player he has produced a net rating of six or higher and has outscored opponents by at least 1.6 points.

It’s particularly worth looking at Sabonis’ numbers with Joseph where the pairing has outscored opponents by 3.9 points per game when on the court together.

This is due to both Sabonis’ superb rebounding -- he grabs 27.7 percent of all rebounds when he’s on the court -- and the Joseph-Sabonis pick and roll. Joseph is one of the savviest point guards in the league, he can consistently read a defense right and waits just long enough to get passes exactly right to Sabonis. Notice the slight hop-step just before he delivers the pass on this play, thus giving Sabonis time to set up.

Turner and Sabonis together

This is by far what’s most important to the Pacers when looking towards the future. Frankly the stats are giving mixed results. In 206 minutes together Sabonis and Turner have a positive net rating of 3.6, but those ratings are 96.5 on offense and 93.5 on defense. Neither data point seems realistic in the long run.

Together they have yet to play more than 28 minutes with any specific five-man lineup. Their top five lineups played in terms of minutes bring wildly different results. Just look at the chart for yourself.

Trying to cut through the noise in the data is hard but I think the most important statistic is the minutes that the two are playing with three guards. That’s what is most likely to be seen in playoffs because it’s the best way for the rotation to work while still maximizing the bench.

The coaching staff must understand this because three of the team’s four most-used lineups with Sabonis and Turner have involved three guards. Each of those said lineups have a positive net rating, but the only one really worth looking at is when both centers are on the court with Collison, Oladipo and Joseph.

This lineup has an offensive rating of 104.8 and a defensive rating of 90.8 over a 28 minutes span. They’ve also been able to shoot a solid 58.5 effective field goal percentage.

But the minutes with this lineup are so limited that we can’t know if it truly works. I’m not even sure if there’s a way to ever really understand if Sabonis and Turner can play together unless Indiana starts them together or lets them close out games together.

Right now that doesn’t seem be on the table for the Pacers because Nate McMillan plays each one situationally in big moments, which isn’t a bad idea. I guess at this point in the season there still isn’t enough of a sample size to determine if the two work well together but there are enough stats to show that, in separate lineups, they’re both pretty dominant forces.