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State of the Pacers

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An overarching view of the Indiana Pacers and their intermediate future

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

For just the third time in 11 years, the Indiana Pacers sit below .500 at the All-Star Break. As Tom, Caitlin, and I detailed on The Indy Cornrows Podcast numerous times headed into the 2021 season, this year is pivotal for both the franchise and front office. Just inside the play-in with the tenth seed in the Eastern Conference, where approximately are the Pacers?

Before diving in and taking stock of the various facets of the organization, it’s important to note the oddity that is this NBA season. The season started later than usual after the shortest off-season in major sports history. The schedule itself was shortened to 72 games, but those games are condensed, resulting in numerous back-to-backs. That makes for an already awkward season without even accounting for the implementation of the League’s Health & Safety Protocols and its impact on day-to-day operation.

For a team that has been rather synonymous with stability, the Pacers have had quite the upheaval internally on top of all this; hiring a coach from outside the organization for the first time in over a decade, losing a top executive in the front office, and trading one of the faces of the franchise a month into the season.

That being said, the Pacers can still be assessed, albeit with some nuance in regards to the levity of the circumstances.

Evaluating Nate Bjorkgren

When analyzing the initial impact of Nate Bjorkgren’s brief tenure, it’s pertinent to keep in mind why a coaching transition was made; in a press release prior to the season, Kevin Pritchard said of Bjorkgren “He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous. We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward.”

In subsequent availabilities, those statements have been echoed and built upon. Noted has been Bjorkgren’s flexibility, X’s and O’s and on-court strategy, as well as his ability to build relationships with players.

What can we make of what Nate Bjorkgren brings schematically?

This is where things get murky; first thing’s first, T.J. Warren has played 4 games and Caris LeVert has yet to suit up for the Pacers after he was acquired in the James Harden trade and Victor Oladipo was traded to the Houston Rockets. This season has been starkly split by the Oladipo trade and gives enough of a sample size from early returns to conceive notions, but it’s too early draw full conclusions.

Pacers Efficiency Difference

Pre/Post Trade Record Net Rating Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
Pre/Post Trade Record Net Rating Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
Before VO Trade 7 Wins - 4 Losses 4.8 112.6 107.8
League Rank 5th 8th 9th
After VO Trade 9 Wins - 15 Losses -2.1 110.2 112.3
League Rank 21st 21st 17th

To start the year with Indiana, Victor Oladipo provided significant impact on both ends of the court. Shedding him from the rotation without an immediate replacement due to Caris LeVert’s diagnosis and surgery created a sizeable talent gap.

Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott have taken the majority of the opportunity to stick in the starting lineup. While they are two of the better bench players in the league, some of their flaws become more apparent in a larger role.

Gravity - essentially the pull a player’s offensive ability/shot making has on a defense - is what’s missing. While Victor was not back to his All-NBA highs, he was routinely a threat to score off the catch or drive to the rim and create his own shot or a shot for a teammate. Having that third playmaker other than Domantas Sabonis or Malcolm Brogdon cultivated the ball movement and motion that was a staple early on in the season.

Fast forward to the past month of Pacers basketball; the overall off-ball movement and flow of the offense has diminished. This is where that loss of playmaking and shot creation come into play.

Where teams used to hard double Domas in the post on the catch, they are now starting to load up the paint and cheat onto him after he makes his initial move in the post.

Sabonis makes this shot, but you can see how content the Knicks are to sink down and suffocate the paint.

Often, the Pacers offense gets their initial advantage in a successful possession by drawing a double on Domas. Due to the lack of a true primary intiator on the team who can bend defenses at will, this is a vital part of the Pacers succedding offensively. This wrinkle hasn’t single handedly derailed the offense, but it highlights some of the current issues with the nature of missing two of the top players and shot creators on the roster.

Both Brogdon and Turner make motions as if they’re going to cut, but don’t. While you could argue on whether or not Domas should pass out, if he can’t punish players on the block 1 on 1, then he’s not going to draw double teams. With no movement off the ball and the Celtics not helping, Sabonis is in a bit of a bind.

The Point: Process Over Results. With so many caveats and a great deal of awkwardness in the season, looking at how things happen is maybe more important than looking at the outcome itself.

From what we saw early on, the offense was more dynamic. There has been a concerted effort to rework the shot profile of the team; The Pacers are first in location effective field goal percentage per Cleaning the Glass after ranking 21st last season (Loc. EFG% is a metric that gauges the overall efficiency of a team’s shot profile if they shot from league average on all shots).

The ATO’s and SLOB’s have improved (although color me curious on whether or not we start to see some new one’s post-break).

Left Image (2021 ATOs) Right Image (2020 ATOs)

The offense has shown flashes, is in a rut due to a dearth of shot-making, could certainly make some tweaks, but overall I’m not overly concerned by what I’ve seen on that end and how that pertains to a maximized roster.

I have more questions and confusions in regard to the Pacers’ defense. After nearly two decades of typically conservative, but disciplined defense cultivated by former assistant Dan Burke, the Pacers have embraced a malleable multi-look scheme. This experimentation has led to mixed results.

While effective, and above average before the trade, the defense has struggled since. There have been stretches that it looked good; the box-and-1 against Steph Curry in the first Golden State game, one of the more impressive wins of the season. But, the defense has also undegrone significant lapses. Again, it’s difficult to assess how much of the struggles of the defense are due to the lack of a sizable wing/forward. However, I’d posit that the schemes exacerbate the deficiencies of the roster at times.

Domantas Sabonis is routinely used to pressure the ball, which on it’s own isn’t a bad thing, and there are times when that can be a useful and successful strategy. But, pressuring Andre Drummond or * insert non-spacing big who isn’t setting a screen here * is confusing.

Chasing non-shooters over a screen; also confusing. Ben Simmons had a clear path to the lane in pick and roll the majority of the night in the most recent game against the Sixers.

I often think about the defense and how the season has gone. Is it better to stick with what you’re doing, waiting for the roster to be healthy to use the scheme you initially put in place envisioning them in (at least envisioned Warren in)? Or, is it better to switch things up mid-season, tone down the aggression, and employ some of the more conservative approaches seen in years prior?

As has been noted around the league by various organizations, practices are few and far between this season. It’s already difficult to implement a new system in the middle of a season, adding the complexity of this season to the mix complicates things.

I don’t have a definite answer; there’s room to change things up, but how much things can or should be changed is murky. There’s low hanging fruit (pressure for the sake of pressure, Jeremy Lamb playing the 4) that would be easiest to trim. I’m extremely intrigued to see what, if anything, changes up schematically during the second half of the season.

The only aspect of Nate Bjorkgren’s coaching that has been a significant blight is the rotation and minutes distribution.

Domantas Sabonis is fourth in the NBA in minutes per game, first in defensive miles, and fourth in distance travelled per game. Malcolm Brogdon is 14th in minutes per game, tied for fifth in offensive miles per game, and tied for eighth in total distance travelled per game. In tandem with the Pacers ranking dead last in the NBA in bench minutes played per game (15.9 mpg), that leads to a real quandary.

While it’s clear that the Pacers are intent on making the playoffs this season, it could be argued that more minutes allocated to the bench or a redistribution of minutes could benefit the team. Sabonis and Brogdon routinely gas out late in game and are overtaxed. They don’t need a 20% reduction in minutes, maybe they just don’t play entire quarter stretches.

At some point, a four minute spell from JaKarr Sampson in place of minutes 36-40 for Sabonis is more valuable to the actual on-court process. Domas is clearly a more important player, but there’s a regression of energy that occurs for both Sabonis and Brogdon. Finding those few minutes and that delicate balance of playing your primary options just the right amount to maximize their energy and ability is tough, and has certainly been a work in progress in the first 35 games.

Nate Bjorkgren talked in his introductory presser about not being afraid to play 10 or 11 guys routinely, however that hasn’t been the case much outside garbage time minutes. Edmond Sumner has gotten more burn off the bench lately, but that’s coincided with a decrease in Aaron Holiday’s minutes (More on this later). Goga Bitadze saw a stretch of time where he got consistent minutes, then DNP coach’s decisioned five of the last nine games.

Does every bench player need to play 15 minutes per game? No. But, there certainly are opportunities for 10-11 players to play routine minutes without having a negative impact on winning.

Nate Bjorkgren has coached 35 games as the Pacers head coach, let’s wait to pass formative judgements until more data is collected and tape is recorded. There’s been both positives and negatives as in any coaching situation; patience is necessary.

Changes Coming & Trade Deadline

Given how the season has unfolded thus far, and how it may in the coming months, the Pacers are tasked with addressing right now while also looking ahead to the next few years.

This is purely speculation, but based on Kevin Pritchard’s pressers and general context, I don’t anticipate the Turner/Sabonis pairing to be split up until they’ve gotten the opportunity to perform together in the playoffs. Given the substantive talks with Boston regarding Myles Turner, the Pacers are hearing out any calls. Unless they’re completely blown away by an offer, it’s hard to see anything coming to fruition by the deadline.

A conversation could be had about both Turner and Sabonis being at perhaps their highest value; both are having career years and are on multi-year contracts that are fair value. A counter-argument can be made that the Pacers need to play differently from major markets to reach a higher level of competition. Perhaps utilizing a double-big lineup in it’s maximized form and with a healthy roster is that avenue?

T.J. Warren’s Contract

T.J. Warren’s current contract expires at the end of the 2021-2022 NBA season. He’s extension eligible this summer and the max the Pacers can offer him is $15.2 million the first year of the extension.

That is well shy of what Warren is going to earn on the open market barring a drastic shift in his play. He plays arguably the most valuable position in the league, scores well from all three levels, is a solid defender, and is still only 27.

Enter Doug McDermott.

McDermott is putting together a career year and has diversified his scoring repertoire. While he’s having a down year as a shooter, he’s going to get paid in the off-season. It won’t be easy for the Pacers to retain him, especially looking forward to eventually paying T.J. Warren which I would surmise is a priority for the front office.

Looking back on last year’s free agency, Joe Harris was paid 4 yrs/$75 m. While he’s a notch above McDermott as a shooter and less of a defensive negative, it’s important to take into account that shooting is at a premium in the league. McDermott is pretty unlikely to get that much of a payday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets more than the full Mid-Level Exception. In a free agency class that has dwindled in talent as extensions have been signed, McDermott who is squarely in his prime, will be a hot commodity on the open market as an unrestricted free agent.

TJ McConnell is also on an expiring deal and is having a fantastic year off the bench, often playing starter’s minutes for the Pacers. He’ll be available at a likely lower cost than McDermott simply because he is a harder player to fit into a team contextually due to his size and infrequent shooting (Although he fits so well in Indiana). Considering how important he has been to the Pacers this season, it’s hard to envision him not being re-signed, but a lot can change in the remaining half of the season.

Regardless, it will be extremely difficult to keep both McConnell and McDermott while still maintaining the flexibility to re-sign T.J. Warren in the 2022. The Pacers will have roughly ~$12.6 m this off-season to work with without going over the luxury threshold,

Aaron Holiday

Both McConnell and Sumner have surpassed Aaron Holiday on the depth chart. McConnell has played less than 20 minutes per game twice since returning from paternity leave. Sumner has really come on of late and provided burst iwth his length and athleticism, better fitting the defensive scheme and doing damage in transition.

What’s interesting is the timing of Holiday losing minutes; He logged single digit minutes in the two games before the break, his only games with less than 10 minuites played this season. It’s not that McConnell and Sumner were unworthy of the playing time, but Holiday had started to break from his shooting slump around the middle of February.

In the seven games from February 13th to March 1st, Aaron put up 11 points per game on 57% True shooting and canning 50% of his threes, while also playing better defensively.

Holiday has really struggled to find comfortability in his role that seems to morph more than anyone’s on the team as injuries take place.

What is his place with the Pacers moving forward? The team is in need of forward/wing depth that is better suited to the defensive scheme and that can provide more in a smaller offensive role. Last year, there were reports of outside interest in Holiday, although the Pacers were reportedly unwilling to move him.

There is a logjam for minutes with the amount of combo guards and small wings in the rotation. With Aaron seemingly on the outside looking in, it would make sense to see what the market is for him, although his value has likely dipped since this tiem last year due to his struggles this season. It’s tough, because his potential and what he can bring to the team if he reaches a semblance of it likely scales better to playoff basketball and is overall more valuable than what TJ McConnell brings. But, TJ has outplayed him plain and straight and the team does not seem content giving Aaron much leeway to run offense, as he’s been primarily a spot up shooter and play finisher this year.

I would love to see him get more on-ball reps and opportunities to work on his playmaking, but it’s hard to picture that taking place currently.

Goga Bitadze

The Pacers need to make a decision sooner rather than later on whether or not they view Goga Bitadze as part of their future. He’s played in 16 of 23 games he suited up for this season and has shown improvement across the board. However, six of those appearances came in largely garbage time.

Goga was dominant in G-League play when he was sent down for a stint last season, showing he’s clearly surpassed that level of play. He needs consistent rotation minutes to develop, otherwise he’s just sitting on the bench in limbo waiting for his next shot at legitimate in-game reps. Just playing 8-10 minutes per game nightly and knowing he’d get those opportunities would be huge for him.

He will not always make winning plays or even be a positive, but he’s not on track to get to a point where he’s a consistently positive player without the opportunity to routinely play through mistakes and develop. Especially considering the lack of practice time this season, Goga’s in-game reps are vital for him taking the next step as a player.

After spending the 18th pick on Bitadze in 2019, they can’t afford to either not give him an opportunity to develop, or trade him for a package that makes more sense for their team outlook.

Expectations

The first two weeks of March will be a significant test of the current iteration of the Pacers. Seven of the eight games before the March 25th trade deadline are against teams .500 or above, including three games against Miami. Whether or not they make any sort of move by the trade deadline could be predicated by what happens to start this half of the season.

I personally doubt that a move is made by the Pacers; they’ve already made a significant move this season. But, it’s not out of the realm of possibility and things can change quickly!

Also of note, as detailed by J. Michael of the Indy Star, it could be quite some time before T.J. Warren returns to the court. Will the team’s perceived playoff viability and conference standings in late March/early April impact when Warren returns or how he’s eased back into games?

Building off of that, what does the organization view as it’s goal for this season? Again, nothing is barred, but this March will tell us a lot about what the team is capable of this year. If they’re able to win 5 or 6 of the 11 remaining games in March, that changes things, as the schedule until the playoffs is much more forgiving. But, the team could be 5 games below .500 at the end of the month and I wouldn’t be too shocked.

With Caris LeVert returning soon, the Pacers have a lot to look forward to and many avenues for growth and experimentation. In order to take a step forward, this team probably needed the slight step back it’s taken early this year.