Every team has one, a tantalizing lineup wrinkle that begs to be fleshed out or further explored, but for whatever reason — be it youthful inexperience, one-dimensionality, or a positional logjam — just can’t seem to see the floor in larger chunks or with any regularity.
Two seasons ago, the coveted small sample size tease crown went to a lineup which included Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph, Victor Oladipo, and Lance Stephenson. Employed in short bursts to chip away at sizable deficits, that particular group only logged 66 minutes of action together, but they were the most lethal five-man combination the Pacers put on the floor during the fourth quarter (minimum 40 minutes played), outscoring opponents by a mammoth 33.2 points per 100 possessions. With Joseph pestering the point of attack and Oladipo buzzing around for steals, the unlikely unit pushed the pace by baiting opponents into taking tough shots while still keeping just enough scoring on the floor.
Using Bogdanovic at the four to compensate for the shaky shooting of Joseph and Stephenson was the key, which is why they rarely played together. In the absence of a clear option at back-up small forward, finagling ways to shift the Croatian sharpshooter to power fauxward was a tough ask, especially with Thaddeus Young already sponging up the majority of those minutes.
And so, the group essentially functioned like a rainy day fund, stashed away in case of emergency and collecting dust in the meantime.
Fast forward to last season, and it was the Turner-Sabonis pairing that stole the crown with the allure of what might be next mixed with the intrigue of things left unsaid (the possibility that a combination of internal development and a summer to prepare might produce better results).
With all of that in mind, along with the knowledge that groupings featuring both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis have now since graduated to mainstream status, we’re taking a stab at identifying next season’s most compelling lineup wrinkles with an eye toward Indiana’s lesser-discussed frontcourt combinations.
Who’s in: Malcolm Brogdon—Victor Oladipo—T.J. Warren—Myles Turner—Goga Bitadze
Assuming Nate McMillan sticks with his three-and-a-half big rotation (with either small-ball or T.J. Leaf representing the “half”), it’s possible that Bitadze will enter the game for Sabonis prior to odd numbered quarter breaks just as Sabonis did for Thad last season. If so, this substitution pattern could end up serving a dual-purpose in that it will afford Sabonis the opportunity to return sooner and feast against opposing benches, while also offering up a sneak peak at a potential contingency plan for staying big in spots in the event that the Pacers end up flipping the lefty center in a trade at some point in the future.
Bitadze isn’t as collected against double-teams or as intuitive making plays for others as Sabonis, and he’ll need some lessons in verticality to avoid getting into routine foul trouble, but he projects as the sort of floor-spacing, screen-and-roll shot-blocker who could enable the Pacers to eventually combat those pesky cross-matches from last season head on without giving up size or sacrificing rebounding.
For instance, checkout this possession against the Utah Jazz and consider what happened just prior. With stifling rim protector Rudy Gobert holding fast to his team’s standard drop coverage, Myles Turner drained three-consecutive jump shots out of the pick-and-pop, thereby prodding Jazz coach Quin Snyder to call a timeout. Down 14 with 4:09 to play in the second quarter, Gobert emerged from the huddle assigned to Thaddeus Young with Jae Crowder taking the reigns against Turner. Like clockwork, on the very next possession, Indiana stashed Turner in the dunker’s spot and kept on with the same tactic of attempting to pull Gobert into space, only with Young clanking the look wide right.
Thanks in large part to their ability to force turnovers and get easy buckets with Utah shooting a ghastly 8-of-31 from three, the Pacers managed to coast to a 33-point victory, but Turner was shut out from the action for the remainder of the frame and he only attempted two shots in the second-half before things got out of hand.
It was a mild precursor to what happened in the playoffs against Boston, when Aron Baynes, or whichever of the two bigs in play was less mobile or the lesser defender, matched-up with Thad instead of Turner, who ultimately finished the series with fewer shot attempts than his elder teammate.
Sabonis isn’t likely to shift that match-up calculus, given that he’s a load around the basket and attempted fewer than 20 threes last season, but...Bitadze might.
“He’s becoming a better shooter,” Pritchard said of the EuroLeague Rising Star Award winner, who shot 40 percent from three on an average of 1.7 attempts across all games in all leagues with both KK Mega Bemax and Buducnost. “He’s becoming a better roll guy, dive guy. He’s got really good hands. Some people think he’s a little like (Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic), but I think he plays more above the rim.”
He’ll have to adjust to stepping back to the NBA’s three-point line, and there’s potential for overlap in terms of the spots on the floor from which both he and Turner tend to get their jump shots; and yet, imagine what would be possible if the Pacers had a viable option to play five-out while keeping two rim protectors with recovery speed on the floor.
“Some of the things we value is toughness and he’s going to come in and compete,” Pritchard explained. “He’s really long. He affects the game above the rim. When we set our defense, if you ask (assistant coach) Dan Burke, the No. 1 thing is a shot blocker, so we value that, we really value that.”
Using this possession from a head-to-head clash between Bitadze’s two former teams as a point of reference, check out the spacing here when the defense commits two defenders to the ball and then pay attention to how the 20-year-old takes advantage of the 4-on-3 opportunity.
Besides just looking really cool, acting decisively as a release valve is critical to cutting back on the stagnancy and offensive resets that have a tendency to occur when teams try to force Oladipo into being a passer and Sabonis isn’t on-hand.
Like the Lithuanian big man, Goga has a natural feel for immediately moving to the open spot on the floor after releasing from a screen or slipping. Here, although he isn’t always the most willing or accurate passer, Bitadze puts the ball on the deck in stride off a bounce pass and whips out a fake floater.
Granted, his target didn’t exactly have the hops or the hang-time to handle the pass and convert the lob, but it seems fair to expect a different result if that had been Turner’s 6-foot-11 frame crashing to the basket.
One more thing: What you just saw was a very young man doing a very skilled thing in a very large body, and it wasn’t even an isolated incident.
Watch here as he directs traffic at the top of the key off a broken play and changes direction with a behind-the-back dribble before lubricating the offense with a dribble hand-off and rolling to the rim.
Not only is that legit, his overall sense for when to attack or dive versus when to drag his man out into deep waters suggests that opponents might have a tougher time figuring out where to “hide” their behemoth rim protectors in drop schemes, especially if Turner ups his volume of corner threes.
To that point, showing growth in his ability to take and make shots like this, where the fiery 20-year-old steps back behind the arc and looks as comfortable popping as he normally does spotting-up or trailing, would make him that much more interchangeable with Turner while also enlarging the floor for the driving games of Oladipo, Brogdon, and Warren.
Keep your eyes peeled for these two.
If Leaf earns a bigger role at training camp or McMillan develops more of an appetite for downsizing, minutes for the Turner-Bitadze tandem will be fewer and farther between than those of Turner-Sabonis over the last two seasons, but perhaps equally interest-piquing.
Downsizing around Sabonis
Who’s in: Victor Oladipo—Malcolm Brogdon—Jeremy Lamb—T.J. Warren—Domantas Sabonis
One of the most curious things that emerged from this summer’s free agent period is how quickly Pritchard’s stated desire to upgrade the team’s passing game seemingly fell by the wayside.
“We want to get faster,” Kevin Pritchard said at the team’s end of season press conference prior to free agency. “I really want to do a deep dive on the guys who create and...I love a great passing team. Passing is contagious and there were times this past year where the ball really moved — we had an unselfish team — but if we can get another passer or creator out there with Victor, I think that gives us a lot of opportunities.”
It could be that was only said as a form of build-up in anticipation of signing Ricky Rubio before Pandora's box unexpectedly opened and paved the way for them to swoop-in for the better fit that is Malcolm Brogdon. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it largely didn’t happen — at least not on the whole, barring internal development. In actuality, with all due respect to the possibility that Brogdon’s driving game will open them up to more kick-outs and swing-swing threes, there’s a strong argument to be made that Sabonis is the only above-average passer for his position on this roster in terms of difficulty.
Bitadze, like Lamb and Warren, is more of a play finisher, and while Turner has shown improvement at keeping his head on a swivel and finding the open man, he doesn’t connect both sides of the floor or pass shooters and cutters open to the degree that Sabonis is capable. That, along with the lefty big man’s steadier rebounding numbers, makes him the strongest candidate to man the middle and keep the ball moving for a small-ball lineup featuring Brogdon’s skills as an off-ball initiator as well as multiple score-first wings.
Both of those things will be paramount when Warren swings to power forward. 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. On top of that, the Suns ranked dead last in rebounding rate last season, and they were even worse with Warren on the floor.
That said, the 25-year-old tweener’s ability to pilot the pick-and-roll as a small-ball four could unlock some intriguing possibilities for the Pacers.
Take this possession against the Dallas Mavericks, for example, and envision Oladipo in the role of Josh Jackson with Brogdon or Lamb 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.
Given that Thad only logged six (yes, SIX) possessions of pick-and-roll derived offense last season compared to 115 for Warren in 38 fewer games, at a minimum that’s putting an opposing four in the position to have to fight over a screen as the on-ball defender in a way that wasn’t readily accessible for the Pacers a few months ago.
The same goes for the dunker’s spot. With Myles launching fewer than 20 corners threes on the season and Bogdanovic playing less than five percent of his minutes at the four, is it any wonder that Sabonis’ numbers dipped in the playoffs when this is what he was seeing on the roll?
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).
To be fair, some of that was a product of his own doing. With a preference for turning middle from the left block, 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.
Still, imagine the spacing on that same possession with the four-man spreading to the corner or engaging in dummy, off-ball screening action on the weakside.
Distracting goalies is workable with Warren, assuming his adaptation into a multi-level scorer holds. After all, he shot a career-best 42.8 percent from three on 4.2 attempts per game last season, and he’s a more credible threat to shoot coming off a screen than the rest of Indiana’s options at power forward. In contrast to last season, it also bodes well that there will presumably be players on the floor other than Oladipo who can attack at the end of the shot-clock or against a switch in the form of Warren and Lamb.
The defensive end is where things could get dicey. Like that aforementioned group from two seasons ago that featured Bogdanovic and Sabonis in the frontcourt, forcing live-ball turnovers with cleanly perimeter pressure will have to cure the multitude of sins that Turner’s shot-blocking won’t be there to wash away.
As it pertains to Warren, Indiana’s airtight system has a knack for masking weak links with refined team-defense and drilled effort. Think of it this way: If you were told before the start of last season that the Pacers would switch a pindown out of necessity, switch back, and avoid giving up a corner three out of a quick swing-swing reversal, how many guesses would you have needed to determine that Doug McDermott, T.J. Leaf, and Sabonis were the key actors involved?
Of course, even well-timed rotations will have their limit if teams start purposefully targeting Warren without the safety net of Turner’s more expansive wingspan and better timing in sight. Indiana’s defense still shined last season when Turner went to the bench, but his absence showed up in spades in the games that he missed and McDermott became unplayable versus Boston in the playoffs.
As might be the case with the made-over roster at-large, they’ll have to count on scoring to cash the checks their defense might prove to uncharacteristically write.
“You’re seeing an offensive league and the rules are changing to give the offensive guy even more advantage,” said Pritchard, prior to the team’s dramatic offseason. “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.”
Whether deployed to change the makeup of a game or as a means to do tomorrow’s research today, both of these groups have the potential to put points on the board with improved spacing while providing the Pacers with the flexibility to play big or small — if they see the floor.
In that regard, maybe, just maybe, the time has come for the future to become the present, even if only in small doses.