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Can the Pacers unlock Myles Turner?

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After standing pat, the Pacers need to establish the center they reportedly almost traded as a 6-foot-11 shooting guard.

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images

At his introductory press conference, long before the NBA’s trade freeze was lifted, new head coach Nate Bjorkgren said he was “very comfortable” playing Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner together. In the same interview, however, he described a whirling defensive approach, intended to be mobilized as an attack mechanism, that would be paired alongside a multi-faceted offense emphasizing extra possessions and creating opportunities out of disruption with multiple ball-handlers. None of which seems quite compatible with having two bigs on the floor — especially in the wake of what T.J. Warren’s explosion in the bubble hinted was possible for the Pacers with a smaller lineup, even while deploying one-dimensional, one-and-done schemes.

And yet, for absurd asking price reasons, none of the major trade solutions that would have facilitated downsizing the frontcourt more sustainably, without getting crushed on the glass or sacrificing playmaking, managed to materialize in the transaction market. As a result, the Pacers are rolling it back, banking on the coaching change, whatever roster continuity amounts to be in a new system, and improved health to level up in the Eastern Conference.

Nevertheless, perhaps there’s another factor that could balance out some of the positional weirdness on a roster brimming at the rim with mostly combo guards and centers. For his career, Myles Turner has only hit the 36 percent mark from behind the arc once. This past season, when he raised his volume, he converted just 34 percent of those tries.

Consequently, in many ways, his status in the league as a stretch-big, who teams respect even when he isn’t shooting, is still somewhat theoretical. In the playoffs, for example, playing five-out with fixed spacing after forcing a switch wasn’t enough to dissuade the Heat from clamping down on driving lanes and communicating their unbelief that the Pacers could win on the back of their center shooting jump-shots.

Worse still is that he was playing exclusively at the five in that series — not existing on the periphery of actions involving Sabonis, where he so rarely has the chance to drag opposing rim protectors out to sea and the need for credible spacing becomes more paramount.

Therefore, after once again taking a backseat in touches and reportedly being offered to the Celtics in a potential sign-and-trade deal for Gordon Hayward, here’s what needs to happen for Myles Turner to be actualized as a three-point shooting, play finisher.

Stop running the floor like a big

For 6-foot-11 shooting guards, there are two types of shots that can cause chaos with minimal assembly required: step-in threes and slide away threes. Why? Because transition defenses generally send the first big back to protect the basket while the other loads to the ball. As a result, the emphasis on stopping dribble penetration and taking away seams has a tendency to create pockets of space for sizable trailers to jog into open shots.

The only problem is that Myles oftentimes runs from rim-to-rim, rather than from arc-to-arc. Think of it this way: On comparable transition frequency, Kristaps Porzingis attempted threes times as many transition threes last season as Turner despite playing in five fewer games. The gap is similarly wide when measured against Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, who launched 1.2 transition threes per game, albeit on a faster treadmill of opportunities.

via Synergy Shot-Chart

Granted, Turner doesn’t have the benefit of playing off of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s gravity or Luka Doncic’s passing wizardry, but he could still make better use of his towering release while opening the floor up for others if he were to treat the paint like a no-fly zone. Regardless of how this possessions ends, there’s no reason to follow T.J. McConnell down the rabbit hole, here — especially without gaining inside position on the glass.

If the Pacers are going to achieve playing faster with two bigs in the starting lineup, then the focus for Turner has to be on fanning out around the arc and spacing himself in relation to his teammates in these situations. Not only to capitalize on shots that are easy to manufacture, but also to encourage the threat of what they set up. Imagine on this play, for instance, that there’s an imaginary stop sign at the three-point line, and instead of turning the ball over on the move, Turner immediately pulls the trigger from deep.

Now all of the sudden, on the next transition trip, maybe there’s a newfound awareness to extend out to his spot on the floor, rather than staying lower than the ball.

Move from the paint to the perimeter

When Nate Bjorkgren was with the Bakersfield Jam, this was how he created intelligent spacing with two bigs on the floor at the same time. With Xavier Munford dribbling off the high pick, notice how Mac Koshwal rolls from the perimeter to the paint at the same time as the other big cuts to the top of the key.

In addition to exacting pressure on the opposing four to make a choice between taking the screener and staying at home at the three-point line, that simple action opens up a slew of possibilities that could easily be replicated by Indiana’s frontcourt. If Sabonis rolls and Turner replaces, then Warren could sneak behind the defense. Choose to stick with Turner, and Sabonis is rumbling down the lane 2-on-1. Commit to him on the roll, however, and be prepared to contend with him as a weak-side passer.

There’s just one little hiccup: Although making use of those types of equal but opposite cuts achieves the goal of vacating the dunker’s spot, the defense’s reaction to the movement — especially in the heat of the playoffs — is only going to be as great as the shooter is lethal. If Turner doesn’t establish himself as a marksman, than the decision to prioritize the pressure Sabonis is putting on the rim isn’t going to be as much of a tossup.

Get pinned into shots

For that reason, in order to avoid pressing the same buttons too often, Bjorkgren may also want to draw on some of his past experience with the Raptors. Admittedly, the comparisons between Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and the Turner-Sabonis pairing aren’t perfect. Ibaka shot 38 percent from deep last season, compared to 34 percent for Turner, and Gasol tends to pop on his possessions as the screener (50 percent), whereas Sabonis more often moves toward the basket with rolls (60.5) and slips (5.2). Nevertheless, the structure of this particular play, designed to generate a three for Ibaka out of inside-out offense, still seems like a fit for Indiana’s dual-center lineups. Following a quick cut through from the deep corner around the low-post, watch how Kyle Lowry enters the ball from the wing and then sets a top-pin for Ibaka to orbit into a shot.

In addition to activating Sabonis as a vehicle for assists, that’s pulling a Freaky Friday over on two defenders of different sizes. Of course, due to injuries and how rarely the Raptors found it necessary to size up last season, Gasol wasn’t actually in on those plays that often as a hub last season. However, given the results of this possession, when Sabonis motioned for Turner to lift into open space and T.J. Warren set his mind on shooting no matter what, it’s probably safe to say that the same wouldn’t be the case for the Pacers.

After all, creating elbow room, even with more pristine positioning, isn’t enough unless the ball also gets where it needs to go.

Let the ball fly

Beyond passing Myles Turner the darn ball, however, Myles Turner also needs to shoot the darn ball. This past season, while being marginalized in the offense, Turner shot on a lower percentage of his touches (23.1 percent) than he did as a rookie (25.0 percent). To be fair, some of that can probably be attributed to keeping the ball moving, but he also can’t be looking away from the rim when he’s this open.

Or, be turning down airspace from behind screens, as would be the case if he were plugged into the aforementioned set from Toronto, as well as others.

Put simply: No more throwing grenades to T.J. McConnell in the corner, when the opportunity is there to shoot over the top of a switch.

With minor tweaks, Nate Bjorkgren can easily find spots for Turner to get 5-6 threes per game, but only if he shoots with confidence.

Fire away, Myles. Fire away.

Don’t get caught on the wrong foot

Outside of set plays, Turner is arguably better used playing off of the action than within it. During the playoffs, he averaged 0.8 assists to 2.3 turnovers, and it wasn’t solely because his teammates failed to convert shots. In the first round, no player from any series averaged a lower number of potential assists on his same volume of passes. When Sabonis is healthy and back on the floor, Turner doesn’t need to try and be the trigger man, but he still has to make quick reads of the defense to expand the floor for others — especially at solo five.

To that point, gaining a better understanding of when to pop and when to roll, would go a long way toward improving his feel for the game as well as the team’s functional spacing. Why move toward the defense, here, only to move away, when the initial coverage is begging him to step-out to three?

Per Synergy’s play-type shot charts, Turner only hit on 31 percent of his pick-and-pop threes last year, but those attempts were still worth more points (0.93) than any shot of his from in-between the paint and three-point line (0.792). Plus, the longer shot distance has the potential to stretch the defense a few extra steps. All of which brings up an interesting question about player development and coaching. Beyond making better reads, either Bjorkgren needs to design the offense with higher screens so that Turner’s footwork pattern still allows him to stay outside the 3-point line when he steps into his shot, or Turner needs to change his routine and recognize where he is on the floor to make sure his feet end up outside the 3-point line even while playing with guards who are more prone to playing downhill as opposed to east-west.

Bottom line: These long, mid-range twos, where leaving points and spacing on the table is deemed as an acceptable trade-off for simply finding an open spot on the floor need to become a distant memory of a bygone-era under Nate McMillan.

Defensively, questions remain as to how a double-big lineup will hold up morphing between schemes when teams start going after the corners against various types of man mixed with zone; however, in the event that Turner can look and act like a 6-foot-11 shooting guard, who finishes plays without having pressure to make them, then the rest of the roster, as unbalanced as it may seem, makes more sense.

This past season, in games against Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Miami, and Philadelphia, the Pacers struggled to produce offense when Turner and Sabonis were on the floor at the same time, scoring a measly 101 points per 100 possessions. But, if Turner can evolve into a legitimate off-ball shooting threat, then maybe the Heat don’t feel comfortable straying off of him to clog driving lanes. And, maybe, Warren can still be deployed in some of the diverse ways he was inside the bubble, albeit not against opposing fours, only with Sabonis on hand to operate as a hub and clean up the glass. And, maybe, just maybe, playing faster can even be feasible, if the other four players on the floor are capable of both starting and finishing the break, with Turner acting like a stop-release.

That’s why, for better or worse, what was an unconsummated trade has the potential to reveal what Myles Turner is to this team moving forward. If the Pacers can unlock him, he’ll be key to unlocking the Pacers.

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