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On the Pacers staggering Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis

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Why staggering the two talented bigs might be what’s best for both of them — and the team at-large.

Utah Jazz v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Doing his best impression of an offensive lineman, rookie center Goga Bitadze slid two full lateral steps on a screen with his team trailing the Memphis Grizzlies by one with 10:08 to play in the second quarter. Whistled for his second foul in a span of less than 20 seconds, the Georgian big man was immediately subbed out of the game and didn’t make a return appearance until garbage time. Six quarters later, he’s still waiting to go back in as more than a human victory cigar.

Granted, that foul was an egregious mistake, but it wasn’t so egregious as to glue him to the bench. Rather, it was more the culmination of an already developing trend in terms of the 20-year-old’s diminishing playing time. In fact, ever since Myles Turner acknowledged that he’s had to “sacrifice a little bit” in somewhat muted tones after the team’s 121-102 win over the Utah Jazz, Bitadze hasn’t logged more than five minutes of action in any of the last four games, including last night’s DNP versus Oklahoma City.

Instead, Nate McMillan has made a split decision, increasing the staggered minutes for his two starting centers. Starting with Monday’s narrow loss to Philly, Turner and Sabonis have averaged 14.8 minutes in tandem, compared to 22 over the nine games prior in which they were both available. Even accounting for foul trouble, that’s a sizable difference.

For his part, with Doug McDermott racking up 14 points versus the Thunder, and with Sabonis on the floor for each and every one of the sharpshooter’s made baskets, McMillan indicated following the win that at least part of the impetus for the great divide is to capitalize on the wavelength that exists between the two former bench mates.

“I’ve tried to get Domas back with that second group, as he was last year,” he said. “Because that’s a good group. Doug and Domas is a good combination.”

To date, the Pacers have outscored opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions in the 218 minutes that the dynamic duo has been on the floor together, a solid mark, to be sure. That said, while the pair did see increased floor time together last night as result of McDermott’s strong stretch of all-around play in the second half, it wasn’t exactly as if they hadn’t been playing together. On the season, McDermott has logged more action with Sabonis (218) than he has without him (214), and his usage rate has remained relatively the same in both instances thanks to his improved willingness to put the ball on the floor and T.J. McConnell, who has thrown him a team-high 108 passes and assisted on a team-high 20 of his baskets.

With palpable chemistry on dribble hand-offs and off-ball screens, there’s certainly reason to prioritize tapping into the McDermott-Sabonis connection, but there’s also certainly reasons beyond that to move forward with the change, particularly given the timing.

Let’s investigate.

Meet your match

Before diving deeper into the nitty-gritty of some on/off numbers, recall last night that the Pacers had a points in the paint problem spearheaded by Steven Adams and some really poor closeouts leading to easy drives. As assistant coach Popeye Jones pointed out at halftime, they were repeatedly late with weak-side defensive rotations after dribble penetration.

Here, for instance, with Malcolm Brogdon in need of Sabonis to trap the box against Chris Paul, T.J. Warren (as the low-man) needs to be sinking into the legs of Adams to make it at least appear as though he’s being guarded.

While Warren and Lamb were arguably most culpable for these sort of miscues, making that rotation and protecting out against kick-outs is, in theory, simpler with speedier lineups.

Making matters worse, Danilo Gallinari lit up the Turner-Sabonis combo from three on 4-of-4 shooting in the third-quarter, thereby providing yet another reason to downsize for the remainder of the game. So, on the one hand, there were definite match-up issues that called for the Pacers to stagger out their minutes; but, at the same time, many of those issues (oh, hi, defending stretch-fours) have also cropped up across several match-ups.

By the numbers

Thus far on the season, the Pacers have outscored opponents by 5.0 points per 100 possessions in the 274 minutes that Turner and Sabonis have been on the floor together.

That’s fine, but the net ratings with them playing solo at center are better (+7.11 in 326 minutes with Sabonis, and +10.1 in 125 with Turner). To be fair, those minutes are more likely to be played against bench lineups and/or hybrid units, but it’s also difficult to shake the feeling that they both hold each other back slightly when playing together.

Defensively, if Sabonis isn’t being pulled away from the glass and shoehorned into guarding out on the perimeter against stretch-fours, then Turner’s rim protection is being displaced. At the other end, even though Sabonis has already launched as many threes through 19 games as he did all of last season while improving from mid-range, there’s still plenty of incentive for opponents to cross-match the pairing, which limits Turner’s ability to drag opposing fives into space while also creating confusion in transition.

To their credit, they’re setting higher screens and doing more with double drags to mitigate *some* of the lingering issues with elbow room; but, they’re still both ideally centers, and an ideal way for them to share in the same position at the same time hasn’t exactly emerged, though the prospect of eventually surrounding them with Oladipo’s shooting and playmaking seems likely to help.

Until then, it makes sense to play each of them a little more without the other.

A piece of the action

Myles Turner’s sporadic involvement in the offense has long been a source of contention among fans, but it seems to have reached a fever pitch this season with increased scoring power added to the roster. On top of having four teammates averaging over 15 points per game, there’s been fewer screens to go around for his pick-and-pop game with Sabonis starting in place of Thaddeus Young, who primarily hung out in the dunker’s spot as a drop-off option.

Per Synergy, here are Turner’s most used actions from this year and last. As you can see, the order is exactly the same. The percentage of how frequently each has been used, however, is quite different.

*roll-man includes possessions used rolling, popping, and slipping

As a result, while also quite possibly battling lingering effects from the ankle injury that sidelined him for eight games, he’s once again had to fit into a more limited role around his teammates. Granted, his come-and-go feel and lack of counters for counters (be they pre-rotations or switches) no doubt factor, but he’s also averaging a measly 39.5 touches while attempting his fewest field goal attempts per game (9.6) since his rookie season.

This, on the heels of an offseason in which Kevin Pritchard revealed that the defensive stalwart voiced his desire to be “more of a two-way player.”

So, yes, he’s had to “sacrifice a little bit” from where he envisioned himself. And, yes, satisfying the needs and wants of both bigs is more workable when they aren’t on the floor at the same time. Tellingly, Turner has used 15 percent of the team’s possessions in the 274 minutes he’s played with Sabonis, compared to 23 percent in the 125 he hasn’t.

The rich get healthier

This is a small thing which likely didn’t have any direct impact on the decision to stagger Turner and Sabonis, but a team that’s won 14 of it’s last 18 games (albeit against a soft schedule) is about to add back yet another wing option. With Edmond Sumner cleared to return to action, decisions on his playing time will likely remain match-up specific until Oladipo comes back. However, increasing the solo minutes for each of the team’s starting bigs, at least in theory, makes it easier to play more ball-handlers, more often.

At least for now, then, it appears that the player holding the shortest end of the stick will most likely be Bitadze, and that’s probably what’s best for everyone — with the exception of him.