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Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers

What’s the Ceiling of a Sabonis-Centric Pacers?

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Caught somewhere in between contention and 8th-seed purgatory, the Pacers have hit a crossroads of sorts.

The organization has long been built on stability; making the playoffs in 25 of the last 31 seasons. Nearly always beset by injuries, but also underwhelming with five consecutive first round exits and six total playoff wins in five years, the Indiana Pacers are rocking the boat.

As the front office starts to reface the identity of the roster, starting with the coaching search, there’s a tangible perception that Indiana will not be starting two bigs on opening day of the 2021 season.

Upon recent national reporting, as well as rumblings heard throughout Indiana during the summer, changes are on the horizon.

Mirror Check

Even outside of the speculation around Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner, the Pacers have a plethora of questions they’re going to need to answer or try to this off-season.

  1. Where is the team right now? Well, we’ve sure hammered home this question with regularity since August 24th; Barring outlier internal development, 46-50 wins with a chance to give a competitive series and potentially reach the second round if healthy.
  2. Where do the Pacers want to be? This is trickier and more speculative, because believe it or not, I’m not Kevin Pritchard or part of the front office! However, I think that KP’s post-mortem in tandem with the statements made after firing Nate McMillan signify that the Pacers desire to reach contending status.
  3. What is contending status? I personally view contention for the Pacers as such; if they made the Conference Finals, I wouldn’t be surprised. I doubt this team will/can make moves that make them a surefire bet to reach the Finals (aka trading for or signing a top 5 player) so contention is a little different. Similar to those mid-90’s teams, they likely won’t have quite the top-end talent, but through balanced roster building and shrewd moves, they could be a staple as a team that reaches the Eastern Conference Finals and can go all in for a Finals run if things go right.
  4. How do the Pacers reach that status? This is where we can get into the meat of the discussion. We’re assuming that Domantas Sabonis is the lone center moving forward and he’s really who we’re focusing on. So when building a team to be a contender, so much more contextually goes into it, but I’ll break it down like this to start; a team almost certainly has to have a Top 10 offense and defense, or be an outlier on one end (Top 3).

Since the 2000-2001 season, only 17.5% (14/80) of teams that have made the Conference Finals have made it without being either Top 10 on both sides of the ball or with a historic level offense or defense. SO, think the 7 seconds or less Suns, the Larry Brown Pistons (The Flip Saunders teams were really good offensively with a slight defensive dip,) the mid 2010’s Pacers and Grizzlies who were defensive juggernauts, or the Flick the Switch Cavs who only played defense from March onwards and occasionally on TNT.

This leads me to our overarching questions; can you build a Top 10 offense and defense around Domas? Or, can an outlier offense be implemented around him? How would you go about doing it?

As for an outlier defense....

Rim Protection Quandary

One of the biggest questions with Domas as the lone big; how do you build an above average defense around him?

Sabonis, while a solid positional defender, lacks the verticality or length to be a rim deterrent. Per B-Ball Index and Synergy tracking data, opponents finish at the rim 3.6% better than the expected FG%, placing Sabonis in the bottom third of bigs who played 800+ minutes (Rotation-level).

Coupled with his limited perimeter mobility, it’s clear that the next Pacers coach will have to get creative crafting the defense.

The most important thing to think about with rim protection is the contextual importance of it. Blocking shots is great and can grab some SportsCenter Top 10 attention, but what you really notice with the great rim protectors is shot alteration or rim deterrence. In essence, impacting shots or drives to the rim with their presence and not even having to block the shot because the driver isn’t thinking of attempting.

This season, Myles Turner and Sabonis both played against the Chicago Bulls as the lone center. While you have to be careful with one game sample size, we can glean quite a bit about rim protection from these two games.

The first shot chart is the Bulls’ against Domas, the second against Myles.
NBA.com/stats and NBA.com/stats

The contrasts in Chicago’s shooting shows us quite a bit in terms of where they were attacking. When going back through the film of both those games, you get a more pixelized image.

Sabonis’ positioning and contest are adequate, but Tomas Satoransky, largely an average finisher from floater range, is completely undeterred. Why?

He’s not in a great leaping position/stance, but even so, he gets MAYBE six inches off the floor when he contests. If Domas had longer arms, that’d be less of a concern. Sabonis stands at nearly 6’11, yet has a wingspan of 6’10.5. For the record, that’s a smaller wingspan than wing players like Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram who are both significantly shorter than him. This isn’t a death knell to his overall game, but it greatly depletes his ability to be a rim deterrent.

Again, Satoransky glides to the rim without a second thought. He misses the bunny, but the result is still the same. Part of the issue is Domas caught in no man’s land, the place where big men die in pick and roll. There are so few guys who can actually cover their man and the ballhandler at the same time; trying to cover both leads to plays like this. Luke Kornet isn’t an imposing lob threat so contesting Satoransky at the rim or cutting off his drive seems like the way to go. Hence the name no man’s land, trying to do two things results in doing neither.

Watch this play.

Does Myles block a shot? No. So you may miss out on what he does.

A play doesn’t even happen because Myles steps up and forces Satoransky to kick out to a 27% shooter in Kris Dunn. That’s ideal defense even though Dunn hit the shot.

Again, Myles doesn’t even need to contest, simply shows on Satoransky and BAM, Dunn brick from the corner.

Myles Turner’s presence is one of the primary driving factors in the Pacers finishing in the top 6 in defensive rating the past two seasons. Countless poor closeouts, whiffed coverages, and botched rotations have gone unpunished because of Myles’ skillset and intuition.

Sabonis’ defensive rebounding and ability to box out are incredibly important as seen in the playoffs. But, he has legitimate limitations that hinder how a defensive scheme can be built. There’s always room for improvement (especially in his PnR defense) but there is a ceiling.

TJ Warren at the 4

One of the ways to mitigate a lack of rim protection from your center is weakside rim protetcion aka a four who’s long that can cleanup if the center plays smart D. This is where we’ve got a predicament.

T.J. Warren exploded in the bubble and largely played the four. While I think much of his supernova ascension was due to skill development and some outlier performances, he just feels even more unleashed at the 4.

He’s got more of an advantage taking on bigger/slower wings and forwards off the dribble allowing for a greater deal of efficient self-creation. He can still get his at the three spot of course as he did all year, but I think it’s hard to ignore the offensive advantages.

However, the defense is where we start head scratching.

T.J. really improved as a defender this season and was probably the best perimeter defender on the team outside of Justin Holiday. But, he offers zero relative impact as a weakside rim protector. So while he will defend his position at an average to above average level, the rim is still inviting opposing drivers to slam the ball into oblivion.

Defensive Options

At the expense of copping out, I think the answer is a little bit of everything. If the Pacers put four plus defenders in the starting/closing lineup around Sabonis and they all are bought into a system, they can make it work.

The 2018-19 Trailblazers are a solid example. Jusuf Nurkic and Sach Collins are both better all around defenders and rim protectors than Domas, but CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard make up one of the worse defensive backcourts in basketball. They ran a pretty passive drop scheme that tried to push PnR ballhandlers into long-range twos by going over screens and dropping their center on ball screens.

They finished the season 8th in Defensive Rating despite not having a ton of great defenders. However, they struggled defensively in the postseason when top tier players could take advantage of their scheme and hit some a steady rate of those shots and punish the Blazers in pick and roll.

Dan Burke typically utilized a drop for Domas and he rarely came up to the level of the ball-screen. While it may seem counterintuitive to bring a big all the way out on the perimeter, there can be real merits to wrinkling it into a defensive scheme.

Not every Pick and Roll will be blitzed or should be blitzed, but if executed properly, can give ballhandlers headaches. With proper backline rotations to cover the roll man and good closeouts, you can aggressively attack an offense.

Lastly, expect switching. I ponder the importance of switching and it’s place in the NBA quite often. I don’t think it’s lazy or bad per se, but I’ve found that it’s often an overused term; the idea is better than the result. I’m not here to switch shame, rather to point out that switching done for the sake of switching is where you have problems. If swithcing is well coached and implemented, then by all means, it can do wonders for your defense. But, here’s the problem, there are so few teams that have the ability or personnel to actually switch with regularity.

Can you switch a lineup of Victor Oladipo/Malcolm Brogdon/Justin Holiday/T.J. Warren with Domas sticking the 5 or trapping and rotating the back end? I mean sure. But, you have to think about the context. Would you want to switch a ball screen set by Marcus Smart for Kemba Walker? Vic’s on Kemba and Malcolm on Smart. Theoretically it sounds great, two similarly sized wing/guard players switching easily.

Well, as you probably know from watching the Pacers, Malcolm struggles guarding smaller and quicker guards. So I’d posit you don’t want to switch that. We can run the gambit looking through scenarios like this, but the point is that the matchup you get as a result of the switch is so integral to whether or not you should switch.

Switching isn’t the be all end all, but having the ability to do it and mix things up adds yet another wrinkle. Versatility is the key! As seen with the current Raptors, throwing a myriad of looks to keep the offense off balance is instrumental in forming a solid defense.

A defense built around Domas, or rather built to minimize his limitations, doesn’t have the potential of a defense hinged by Myles. But, you can craft a defense that’s probably above league average and MAYBE even a top 10 defense with the right personnel, chemistry, and coaching. All in all, five guys who can play defense on a string and rotate well together means a great deal more to team defense than one lockdown player.

Enhancing the Offense

The Pacers are grounded in defense; the team has finished with a postive relative defensive rating in all but four seasons since 1993-94. That’s an absurd level of consistency. Conversely, in the past 20 seasons, the Pacers have finished with an offensive rating above league average four times. With a likely lighter defense, how can the Pacers facilitate one of the best offenses in the league?

In the past era of Pacers basketball, the offense was hindered by personnel. This era is different. The offense has struggled with stagnancy, spacing, and late-game scoring; make no mistake, the pieces are in place for the most efficient and dynamic offense since Larry Bird stepped down as coach.

Sabonis’ Scalability

When looking at the offense, and particularly as it pertains to Domas, his scalability is key (an idea formulated by Ben Taylor.)

Essentially, how a player’s role/playstyle scales up with higher levels of winning or competition on better teams. You can score an average efficiency 25 points as the #1 option on a 6-seed, but how well does your game translate to a contending team? Does your efficiency dip in the same role or can you still maintain levels of efficiency that drive an offense? If not, can you morph into a lesser role but be more efficient?

(Ben does the theory more justice than I can so me sure to check out his work as it’s greatly influenced mine and just about anyone in NBA writing/analysis currently.)

So how does Domantas Sabonis’ game scale on a say 52-58 win team that meets our definition of title contender? Incredibly well.

Something that makes Domas’ offensive game so special is that he can be the central hub of the offensive without being the leading shot taker or scorer, always having a hand in what the offense is doing. He averaged 88 touches per game, in the 99th percentile of NBA players per B-Ball Index. However, he’s not racking up 2004-05 Jermaine O’Neal levels of ball domination (A then league leading 36.2% usage rate). Sabonis clocks in at just under 24% usage, which is not even first on the Pacers.

Pretend the Pacers offense is emblematic of a cardiovascular system. The main driver of offense, we’ll say Malcolm here, is the heart. The secondary driver of the offense, we’ll say T.J. Warren (pre-bubble, next year is up in the air), is the aorta, pumping directly off the heart. All of the outlet arteries, veins, and blood vessels are shooters, cutters, and other ballhandlers. Domas is the blood, connecting the entire system and keeping it alive, always circulating oxygen (the ball) and keeping it in motion.

Regardless of the players around him, Sabonis will keep the ball flowing. With better players or better fitting players with improved offensive principles, the sky is the limit for how he can continue to impact offense. A stronger heart, aorta, or peripheral vessels only improve the efficiency of circulation.

Off-Ball Motion

I pioneered this year’s offense as the “Drive and Die,” as often times, after the first or second option in the set, isolations galore. The Pacers have enough offensive talent to operate an above average offense, but incorporating off-ball motion and cutting could greatly open things up.

Something the Pacers commonly did was a give and go with Sabonis from the high post. It works here and largely was an effective play all season, but notice what’s going on off the ball. Nothing.

Both Brogdon and Warren are spacing and Myles is in the dunker’s spot. The Raptors couldn’t care less that there are shooters open and collapse on the paint. While Aaron scores of thsi action, this is emblematic of the Pacers halfcourt offense.

The Raptors scheme to take away everything in the paint and then close out at warp speed, but their ability to lockdown in the paint (and my god they did this game), is due in large part to knwoing where Indy’s off ball players will be. If Myles goes and sets a screen for T.J. or T.J. sets a screen for Malcolm and they replace each other, it adds another layer that the Raptors have to worry about. It sounds simple, but forcing the defense to worry about more than the primary and secondary action can cause defensive miscues or at least new ways to contort the defense and get better looks.

Here’s another prime example. While the Vic/Domas two man game in the PnR results in the basket, look at the weak side. You could easily run an action between T.J. and Aaron replacing each other or screening in order to create an even better option off the PnR. If Porzingis is higher up in his drop, there’s a better secondary option. Notice how Tim Hardaway Jr. stunts in to prevent the Vic drive. With off ball movement in place, he’s less likely to be able to provide that help.

It’s important to note too that off ball action for the sake of having it isn’t the point. You’ve got to be committed 100% to the action and having it mean something. If you don’t commit to the action, neither will the defense, at least not in a meaningful way that will provide an advantage.

It’s important to have spacing and shooters at the ready in sets, but creating more dynamic sets that involve more than two or three players on the court could do a world of good for the offense ability to generate in the half court. The Pacers have good shooters, get them better shots!

Winning on the Margins

There’s a general perception that Domantas Sabonis has “peaked” and is what he’s going to be. He just turned 24 this calendar year! Many bigs don’t reach their prime until their late 20’s/early 30’s. It’s easy to get caught up in Domas not being a game changing defender, his lack of a three (Not for long), and game that isn’t predicated by athleticism or flash.

The subtle nuances of his play style and the not so subtle left hand dominance in his post repertoire and soul snatching screens set Domas apart. He stands out as an afront to heliocentric sovereignty.

So what is the ceiling?

There’s one in place made of glass, crafted by narratives and expectations. Don’t be shocked if Sabonis and the Pacers find a way to smash through it.

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