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Acquiring T.J. Warren shifts Pacers toward offense

For better or worse, T.J. Warren is what Thaddeus Young isn’t, and vice versa.

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Pacers have acquired bucket-getting tweener T.J. Warren and the No. 32 pick in tonight’s draft from the Phoenix Suns, reports ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Indiana will send out cash in the deal, and absorb the forward into their cap space.

Warren, who recently added 3-point shooting to his throwback arsenal of difficult bank shots, hanging floaters, and one-legged leaners, has the potential to make it more difficult for opposing fives to skip out on guarding Myles Turner (assuming his startling improvement from long-distance holds), while also providing the team with another player capable of creating his own shot outside of Victor Oladipo (and, to a lesser extent, Aaron Holiday).

“You’re seeing an offensive league and the rules are changing to give the offensive guy even more advantage,” Kevin Pritchard said at the team’s end-of-season presser. “So, I think we’ve got to look at the offensive side of the ball. We’ve got to bring players that do one of two things, or both. We need some creation. We need a guy who can break down a defense. And shot-making is always going to be paramount, but it’s more paramount than it’s ever been before. When you have four or five guys out there with one or two who can create and other guys who can really shoot, it’s almost impossible to stop a team.”

Both skills were in short supply during the playoffs, when the Pacers labored through prolonged scoring droughts and struggled to generate high-quality shots with Boston crowding the lane and/or trading defensive responsibilities.

Entering the season with a career mark of 28 percent from three, David West’s mentee shot a blistering 42 percent from behind the arc on an average of 4.2 attempts per game, thereby forcing opponents to close out to him off-ball and defend him as more than just a powerful driver. Per Synergy, defenders only ducked under screens for the trademark mid-range scorer on 9.7 percent of his possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler last season compared to 13.5 percent in 2017-18 and 17.3 percent in 2016-17. With his man trailing, and the other four defenders on the floor less free to stay home on everything else, Warren’s ability to pilot the pick-and-roll as a small-ball four could unlock some intriguing possibilities for the Pacers, especially if they manage to retain Bojan Bogdanovic.

Take this possession against the Dallas Mavericks, for example, and envision Victor Oladipo in the role of Josh Jackson with Bogdanovic stationed in the strong side corner. With Warren receiving an off-ball screen from Jackson ahead of the hand-off from Tyson Chandler (i.e Sabonis), the defense is forced to respond to a string of elements. If they switch, Warren can attack the slower big off the dribble. If they drop, and his defender gets even slightly snagged on the hand-off, increased stress will be on Oladipo’s man to tag Sabonis on the roll without abandoning the two-time All-Star behind the arc.

As for Turner, checkout this nifty double ball-screen. In particular, look at Rudy Gay’s eyes. He’s focused on the ball and expecting his man to pop as the first screener. He isn’t remotely prepared for Warren to wheel around to the opposite corner and spot-up from three. Consequently, LaMarcus Aldridge has to provide help on the cut while also keeping an eye on so-and-so as the ball-handler, which means he would have no choice but to concede Turner’s perimeter game if Indiana’s starting center were standing-in in place of DeAndre Ayton.

Unlike the majority of Indiana’s roster in the wake of Oladipo’s season-ending injury, he also doesn’t necessarily need a screen to be effective. Whether matched up with a slower forward or attacking a big off a switch, Warren scored an efficient 1.043 points per possession on isolations, per Synergy, which ranks in a comparable range to Tobias Harris during his time with the Clippers (0.992), albeit on lower volume.

Of course the downside to his ability to put his head down and attack is that his team isn’t likely to get anything else out of his plays if he fails to score.

When he isn’t being used as decoy, he has a tendency to come down with a nasty case of myopia. Only 25.3 percent of his pick-and-rolls led to shots for his teammates last season, and he passed on just 16.7 percent of his drives, the lowest rate in the league among players averaging at least five drives per game.

Granted, Warren has a knack for working the baseline and slipping in-between defenders, but as an undersized power forward his game would be more complete if he could also make plays for others — especially on nights when he’s matched up against bigger fours and his shot isn’t falling.

Rebounding is another area of concern in terms of his ability to be an impact player at the four position. The Suns ranked dead last in rebounding rate last season, and they were even worse with Warren on the floor, an ominous sign given that he played 99 percent of his minutes at power forward last season.

It also begs mentioning here that he failed to reach 50 games played for the third time in five seasons. Battling a bone bruise on his left ankle, the 25-year-old forward missed the final 33 games of the season (under somewhat mysterious circumstances) and ended up falling just five 3-point attempts shy of earning a $250,000 contract incentive bonus.

Still, if he can maintain his adaptation into a multi-level scorer and stay healthy, there’s reason to believe that his $50 million deal running through 2022 could end up being team-friendly on a team with an airtight defensive system and something to play for other than ping-pong balls.

For better or worse, T.J. Warren largely is what Thaddeus Young isn’t, less likely to invite cross-matches and more likely to get a bucket, but also more in need of the ball and less sturdy, both in terms of his defense as well as his durability.

Overall, the ceiling has the potential to be higher, but the floor might end up being a little more rickety.

According to Early Bird Rights, Warren is owed $10.8 million next season, $11.7 million in 2020-2021 (Oladipo’s contract year), and $12.6 million in 2021-2022.

Per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Indiana will still have close to $31 million in room following the trade. The Dallas Mavericks were also reportedly interested in obtaining Warren via trade.