The Indiana Pacers and Domantas Sabonis technically have until 6:00 PM on October 21 to come to terms on a rookie scale extension, but it appears that the two sides may already be too far apart to make that happen. According to Sam Amick of The Athletic, Indiana has “engaged in active trade talks” with several teams this week on their starting power forward.
If the two sides don’t reach an agreement before the deadline, Sabonis would become a restricted free agent, which means Indiana would be at risk of entering into a bidding war to retain his services next summer. On that front, a rival team looking to sign him to a potentially prickly offer sheet to play as their starting five wouldn’t have to be as wary of overpaying as the Pacers have to be right now with very little practical evidence of which to draw from on how their two centers fit together in tandem.
Earlier this month, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski indicated on NBA Countdown that Myles Turner’s contract, with an $18 million annual average value over four years, would “be a starting point” in negotiations. That figure is above what the market value for most centers was last summer (sans Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic), and likely highlights why it has been difficult for the two sides to meet in the middle: From internal locker-room dynamics to potential trade-ability, Indiana’s front office has every reason not to offer their center with the arguably lower ceiling a dollar more than Turner, and Sabonis, with the more reliable floor and easier skill-set to build an offense around, has every reason not to accept a dollar less — especially given this summer’s weak free agent pool.
Assuming concerns with long-term security or the potential cap squeeze from the NBA’s situation in China can’t bridge that gap, the benefit to seeking out trade partners in advance of Monday’s deadline is that rival teams will still be able to sign Sabonis to an extension without having to compete with other offers, leverage which the Pacers will lose if they wait until February’s trade deadline.
Sabonis averaged 14.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.9 assists last season in less than 25 minutes per game, but those numbers — along with his efficiency — took a hit in the postseason, as he too often found himself on the perimeter with weak-side defenders pulled middle. On the series, only 31 percent of his shots came from inside the restricted area, compared to 56 percent during the regular season, and his otherworldly field-goal percentage plummeted as a result (tumbling from 59 percent down to 41 percent). On top of redistributing his shot-profile, Boston’s scheme also limited his per game shot volume, at least with regard to Game 2 (1 point, 0-of-1 from the field).
Granted, some of that was a product of his own doing. With a preference for turning middle over his right shoulder to get back to his left, the Celtics were able to shoo the walking double-double away from the post by taking away his dominant hand and forcing him into awkward finishes.
Overall, as a scorer, in part due to floor spacing and in part due to dexterity issues, he didn’t so much have an effect on the series as much as the series affected him. And, beyond that, the minutes he played alongside Turner were ghastly on both ends of the floor.
To be fair, some of the usual suspects which plagued the duo in that series — spacing, spacing, and more spacing — have demonstrated some course correction in preseason play.
For instance, rather than setting double ball-screens at the elbows with Sabonis popping inside the 3-point line against a cross-match...
...they’ve extended that same action out beyond the arc so as to open up space for their cast of drivers.
This made my heart grow two sizes.— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) October 12, 2019
So simple, yet so much better. pic.twitter.com/fnHmdjNi3s
There’s also been more of an effort on Turner’s part to clear to the corner, rather than putting down roots in the dunker’s spot.
But...it comes and goes, and with the exception of a few spacing tweaks, the playbook for the two of them has largely felt like a copy-and-paste from last season’s edition instead of a specially tailored game plan centered around leveraging their size and diametric skill sets.
In this example, for instance, with Sabonis sure to finish with his left, why not shift Turner to the left-side short corner and have him lift to the top of the key in a roll-replace action instead of parking him in Thad’s old stomping grounds?
Sabonis got this shot to go over two defenders, but this spacing confuses me.— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) October 12, 2019
Just, why? pic.twitter.com/RsEA97ZUVg
It’s also been evident that they’re both still ironing out their responsibilities on defense when playing side-by-side, particularly in transition. Normally, if they’re ahead of the last offensive player, the second big back is the player responsible for loading to the ball with the intention of stopping middle penetration. In this case, that’s Turner, but Sabonis had already jumped the gun — perhaps out of his habit for playing the five.
Rather than protecting the basket as the first big back, Indiana’s lefty center created a moment of confusion as to who was guarding who when the task immediately at hand was to guard the team not the match-up. Once the ball was stopped, and it was necessary for both of them to guard their assignments, enough chaos had ensued that Bagley was able to shake free easily off the roll with Turner too high and no tagger in sight.
Perhaps some of that sorts itself out with time and repetitions, and, maybe, Sabonis would prove himself to be able to hold his own on the defensive end against starting fours while also extending his shooting range; but, time isn’t something the Pacers necessarily have if they want to position themselves to get the best return possible — though it should be noted here that players who were signed this summer won’t be eligible to be traded.
According to Amick, Indiana’s asking price in negotiations with several teams has been “too high.” With that said, if a deal were to materialize in the coming days, Indiana will already have two centers locked up for multiple years in Turner and Goga Bitadze who are arguably more capable of spreading the floor without sacrificing shot-blocking. And yet, they also will have traded away not only their only viable starting four (remind me again why Warren-Turner didn’t see more minutes in practice play together if there was even a chance that this would happen?), but also arguably the richest source of the skill that is in shortest supply on this roster: connectivity.
To that point, even as Sabonis’ numbers dwindled in the playoffs, his fingerprints still managed to be all over the offense. In less than 25 minutes per game, he led the team in assists (4.0) and was second only to Darren Collison in both touches (58.3) and passes (47.0) while bearing most of the burden for generating side-to-side action with dribble hand-offs and re-screens.
If moved, the Pacers will undoubtedly miss the way Sabonis crashes the glass and lubricates the offense, both at the elbows and in 4-on-3 situations when teams trap Oladipo, but they can’t risk over investing in an experiment that **might** work.