(Cream of the Crop is a recurring series that zeroes-in on something super cool that hasn’t been talked about enough. And, yes, we realize there is more than corn in Indiana, but this is Indy Cornrows and you have to let us live!)
From a team standpoint, not much has seemed new about the new-look Pacers. They have seven new faces, and they’ve played four new starting lineups as a result of various injuries, but their calculus for winning has mostly seemed like a retread from last season with the math less likely to add up.
Nate McMillan entered the season with an extremely modest goal of shooting 30 threes per game, and not only have they’ve failed to reach that bench-mark in any of their first six games, they’re attempting fewer threes on a per possession basis than last season while only sporadically getting to the line and continuing to play at a bottom-half of the league pace. That formula worked for last year’s bunch because they defended without fouling and had a higher defensive floor capable of killing possessions on one end of the floor and converting points off turnovers on the other. With two starting bigs and a propensity for racking up fouls, it remains to be seen if this crew can consistently add to the win column against a tougher schedule while attempting to employ that same equation, minus a few tweaks.
That said, though the overall workings of the sum of the parts may feel like a copy-and-paste, some of the parts are most definitely sporting a fresher look.
For that, let’s take a closer look at some shiny, new tricks.
Domantas Sabonis, refining his soft skills
It’s easy to associate Sabonis with brute strength. Like a raging rhinoceros with its head down and long-horn pointed, the 6-foot-11 big man’s chiseled exterior makes it seem as though opposing big men have no choice but to bounce off and watch sheepishly from beneath the basket whenever he lowers his shoulder and proceeds to jump hook on their heads.
(Ahem...maybe just sit this one out, DeAndre Jordan.)
Domas was an absolute force of nature last night pic.twitter.com/N80mgFaNkP— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) October 31, 2019
Of course, what makes his battering ram of a body that much more devastating to handle are his burgeoning handles. Sleeker without losing power, the slithery post-up threat adds force to the blows he delivers in the restricted area by dribbling into them from the perimeter. Put simply, the list of centers who can put the ball on the floor as the anchor leg of a weave action, throw an arm bar, and then twist and twirl their way into a basket with their weak hand is decidedly brief.
Sometimes, he even subtly mixes in the slightest of hesitations, just enough to convince the defense that he’s about to hand-off the ball to the opposite wing, before he continues his descent down the lane.
That said, some of his spry fighting spirit has been muted by his shift to the four. Being pigeon-holed into defending more on the perimeter hasn’t just resulted in him biting on pump fakes, it’s also left him with less opportunity to throw his weight around on the glass. Last season, according to the NBA’s box out stats, only five of the 48 players who averaged at least five box outs per game grabbed the rebound more often when they walled off the opposition. This season, at least prior to when Myles Turner went down with an ankle injury, he isn’t even in the conversation, with his average number of box outs plummeting from 5.9 to 2.0, despite playing increased minutes. In turn, his rebounding rate has paid the consequences, as have the Pacers. Sorry, but a team starting, and staggering, two centers shouldn’t rank 24th in opponent second-chance points per 100 possessions, as was the case when Turner was still in the lineup.
But, I digress. Figuring out a way to unleash the pent up ferocity that Sabonis attacked the boards with last season while still keeping Turner in position to benefit from his rim protection is a problem for another day; and yet, the memory of all of those bruising escapades (oh, hi, career-high rebounding game versus Cleveland) actually serves to underscore the overarching message of this section: He’s started to layer in some softness with his steamrolling.
You would barely need over two hands to count the number of times that Sabonis stopped-and-popped short of the restricted area last season, and when he did, he would often either come up short or be fed from an angle that would require him to take a dribble and then gather, sometimes resulting in an off-balance push shot.
With Brogdon penetrating deeper into the lane and making those same passes in-motion and on-target for a quick-hitting, straight up and down finish, the lefty big man’s shy touch has slowly worked up the courage to say hi.
Per the NBA’s shot-tracking data, in five games, he’s already connected on half as many of these floaters as he did all of last season, when he shot just 4-of-13. It’s still quite clearly in the beta testing phase, but if he can consistently add this to his game he’ll have another way to score off of dives against a collapsed defense, a potentially valuable wrinkle given that a visualization-based metric formulated by Andrew Patton of Nylon Calculus (which characterizes usage, efficiency, and the ability to bend the floor with some really nifty 3D charts) currently grades Sabonis out at third in 2020 rim gravity.
2020 Rim Gravity+ Ranks(!) Drummond has been mashing people at the rim. Did I extend a traditional top 10 to a 12 to include LeBron? Absolutely correct. Houston and Lakers are the only teams with multiple top 12 players. pic.twitter.com/JjASbGrpRv— Andrew Patton (@anpatt7) November 1, 2019
For instance, check out this freeze frame from the above clip. Not only is Sabonis commanding the attention of all five defenders, he’s drawing help away from the one spot on the floor that would require him to be able to throw a pass back over his left shoulder with his right hand in order to avoid having to stop and pivot, thereby buying the stunter time to recover.
As such, being able to consistently counter by elevating above and in front of the defense — rather than being confined to trucking through it — could very much come in handy in terms of offering light and shade as the season progresses.
Edmond Sumner, tapping the breaks
To watch Edmond Sumner motor from Point A to Point B is to witness the physical manifestation of an electric current zipping through a cord. During one particularly spectacular moment from preseason play in India, he scored a full-court layup versus defense in 3.5 seconds. That’s nuts! And yet, up until he broke his hand and suffered the latest in a long series of injury setbacks, the possessions where he harnessed his speed arguably spoke better for his long-term development.
Think of it this way: To this point, the lanky point guard with length for days has mostly been an explosive slasher who jets north-south until something gets in his way or he runs out of ideas. That’s why his assist-to-turnover ratio barely stayed in the black with the Mad Ants, and that’s why he, and by extension the ball en route to the backboard, can sometimes appear like a meteor hurling toward earth when a help defender steps over to trap the box. However, with increased opportunity to manipulate the pick-and-roll, he’s quietly started to exhibit some signs of shifting, in addition to penetrating, the defense.
For example, rather than automatically driving into a crowd and submitting himself to the dominion of his unruly limbs, look how he altered his weight here to get Luke Kennard off balance before receiving the screen and then used the tiniest change of speed to shake Derrick Rose as he turned the corner:
In a two-man setting, that’s harder to cover than when he would routinely get too deep with the Mad Ants, and it’s what makes it seem as though deploying him to trigger offense for the bench as a second-round pick is a viable option — assuming he can stay viably healthy.
As for the starters...
Malcolm Brogdon, taking the tough shots
Averaging 22.5 points and 9.7 assists over his first six games as Indiana’s primary ball-handler, Malcolm Brogdon has established himself not only as a point guard, but as a darn good point guard. Some of what he’s been doing in the role he envisioned for himself at his introductory press conference was foreseeable. His average of 10.1 drives per game last season ranked first in the league among guards with less than 3.5 minutes of possession time per game (min. 50 games played), so it was logical to think that his deceptively shifty downhill attacks would increase in number with increased opportunity to handle.
And, they have. Through the first two weeks of the season, Brogdon ranks third in the league at drives (18.3) and he’s attempting 7.2 shots per game within 10 feet of the basket. That’s more than Darren Collison and Cory Joseph combined for last season (4.5)!
As such, it was safe to assume that the 50-40-90 club member would open the Pacers up to more effective drive-and-dish chances. Less certain was how he would fare at dissuading defenders from prioritizing him as a driver. To that point, he isn’t just pulling the trigger on the off-the-dribble jump-shots that the defense gives him; he’s started actively seeking out opportunities to create something for himself.
Like, knocking down this step-back three in transition. For point of reference, he shot 1-of-4 (yes, FOUR) on these last season.
Taking a contested three versus Jarrett Allen on a switch? No problem.
Or, how about dribbling away from the basket and creating separation with his weak hand before letting loose against DeAndre Jordan in a drop.
These aren’t isolated incidents, either. Since joining the Pacers, and with more chances to pilot the pick-and-roll, Brogdon is shooting over 19.4 percent of his field goal attempts as pull-up threes (compared to 8 percent last season). Granted, his efficiency has suffered from the increase in difficulty, with his 31 percent conversion rate on unassisted triples weighing down his overall accuracy from behind the arc (34.6 percent), but today’s pain could turn out to be tomorrow’s gain if launching those shots keeps his driving game humming and translates into less defensive attention for Victor Oladipo at the nail.
Within reason, why not take advantage of the opportunity to test his release off the bounce now, while he has the benefit of increased possession time, and then reap the benefits of easier shots off the catch later, once the two-time All-Star returns?
Of course, when all else fails, it also doesn’t hurt to have a screener like Sabonis on your side who can counter an under with a re-screen and then finish with — yep, you guessed it — a floating jump shot.