The Indiana Pacers, without a doubt, increased their talent this offseason.
Malcolm Brogdon provides the most shooting and defense at point guard the Pacers have had in over a decade. T.J. Warren is a bucket-getter who can score at all three levels. Jeremy Lamb is as talented and stable of a bench piece as they come. Goga Bitadze is intriguing.
Yet, Nate McMillan is left with more questions than answers.
To go big or to go small?
Kevin Pritchard confirmed in his press conference introducing Warren and Lamb that the starting lineup would be as follows:
PF: Domantas Sabonis
C: Myles Turner
The pairing of Turner and Sabonis has objectively not worked in the first two years of its existence. It may have improved last year (from -8.8 NET rating to +2.8 rating) but it didn’t improve in the way you’d expect. In theory, the big man duo should work offensively, as Turner is more of a “stretch-4” than the team had in Thaddeous Young.
But Turner doesn’t quite know how to stretch the floor. He’s a good shooter, sure, but he doesn’t move well without the ball and has a tendency to clog the paint, making life difficult for Sabonis.
It’s actually defensively where the duo has statistically performed well, with a net-rating of 99.6. But I have a hard time believing this is sustainable. Turner’s best skill is defending the rim, but he’s also a much better perimeter defender than Sabonis. So when a team uses a power forward who plays on the perimeter, McMillan has to play Turner on him. Sabonis doesn’t have the lateral quickness to hang with smaller guys.
Take the Boston Celtics for example. If they start a frontcourt of Jayson Tatum and Enes Kanter, the Pacers would be forced to play Turner on Tatum and Sabonis on Kanter. This takes Turner away from his strongest skill and puts him out of his comfort zone. Turner may be a better perimeter defender than Sabonis, but he’s not an elite one. That matchup creates a lot of issues with no rim protection behind him.
It’s fine to try out the experiment, especially while Victor Oladipo is out, but only if you have a backup plan if it doesn’t work. The problem is that the Pacers don’t have true power forward on their roster that is starter caliber. Their next best option is to go small with Warren as the forward, but that brings up more questions than answers.
Turner would be able to mask Warren’s defensive inabilities, but the frontcourt duo would struggle rebounding, as they combined for only 11.2 rebounds per game combined last year. Sabonis would be able to clean up the boards for Warren, but he isn’t the defensive anchor Warren needs behind him.
The answer to this issue may be in flexibility. McMillan shouldn’t lock into a starting lineup that he must use every game. Take the Celtics for example again. Although Kanter is an elite rebounder, Tatum won’t give the Pacers issues on the glass. A Tatum-Kanter frontcourt gives Turner the ability to play defense in the paint, while Warren takes on the perimeter assignment of Tatum, and they won’t have to worry about a rebounding issue.
A team like the Philadelphia 76ers imposes a different issue. Al Horford has too much size for Warren to handle, but he isn’t agile enough to blow past Sabonis like other smaller forwards. A Sabonis-Turner duo should be able to hang against a team like the Sixers.
The Utah Jazz used their flexibility to their advantage last year, flip-flopping Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder at their starting power forward spot depending on the matchup. This is the blueprint the Pacers should follow.
What adjustments can be made if injuries occur?
The questions with the frontcourt are not the only issue that needs to be considered. What happens if Brogdon gets hurt? The easy solution would be to bring Aaron Holiday to the starting lineup, but that leaves the team with this bench unit:
PG: T.J. McConnell
SG: Edmond Sumner
SF: Doug McDermott
PF: TJ Leaf
That lineup has absolutely zero shot creation in it. It opens up slightly with the return of Oladipo, which would likely slide Lamb into Sumner’s spot, but that is still a frightening offensive lineup.
The other option is to keep Holiday with the second unit and to jump McConnell with the starters. This makes more sense in theory, but replacing Brogdon with McConnell creates a spacing issue with the starters. We’ve already addressed the spacing issue created by the frontcourt of Turner and Sabonis, adding a point guard with an inability to shoot behind the arc enhances that. Plus, Warren being the knockdown three-point shooter he was last year is no guarantee, due to the rather rapid spike in efficiency (22.2% in 2017-18 to 42.8% in 2018-19) and the small sample size (43 games in 2018-19).
The answer here may be with allowing Oladipo to run the point. A lineup of Oladipo-Lamb-Warren-Sabonis-Turner checks all the boxes (as long as the big man duo works itself out), and that allows Holiday to continue to operate with the second-unit. But that doesn’t answer the problem while Oladipo is injured. McMillan will have to come up with some clever rotations if Brogdon has to sit out while Oladipo is still hurt.
This offseason has given Pacers’ fans a lot of optimism. As it should. The team is more talented with a higher ceiling. But let’s face the facts: the offseason moves have created a much lower floor. Whether they reach that ceiling or hit that floor depends a lot on McMillan’s decisions and adjustments.