With 15 games left to play and only 22 wins, the remainder of this season for the Pacers should be about building habits and evaluating the roster, mixing and matching combinations to determine what fits while focusing on player development. For that reason, the under-25 crowd, of which the team has accumulated talent from trades and the draft while also hitting on the fringes with two-way deals, still has potential to progress forward, even though the team has stepped back from last season in the standings.
In what has been a disappointing season now headed into a future with more possibilities, let’s take a look at what to watch for as it winds to a close, identifying an area where each of those players can still improve.
Chris Duarte - Jump in with both feet
Look at how much has changed since Chris Duarte committed this turnover against the Sacramento Kings in early November. Opting not to stagger Caris LeVert and T.J. McConnell as primary ball-handlers in a game for which Malcolm Brogdon wasn’t available, Duarte is pressed into navigating the pick-and-roll for an oddly composed hybrid lineup featuring four players who no longer play for the Pacers. With Brad Wanamaker and Torrey Craig dotting the perimeter, multiple defenders are crowding the paint as Domantas Sabonis presses toward the rim, ultimately producing a mid-air, wraparound pass from Duarte to Tyrese Haliburton, who wouldn’t yet be teammates for another three months.
Since the trade, Duarte has only shared the floor with Haliburton for 73 minutes as a result of managing toe soreness and returning to a bench role, but the long-term idea of the former finding the latter as the purer initiator, while also spacing for each other when their roles are reversed, is compelling. After all, when not overextended as a standstill, spread pick-and-roll creator, Duarte can dribble, pass, and shoot; he just has a tendency to grapple with the nuances of when to drive, when to pass, and when to shoot.
To that point, perhaps there is some clarity to be found in the next step of his development with what type of steps he purposes to take. For example, in both of these plays he’s operating more naturally as a secondary ball-handler out of a wing hand-off. Here, though, notice the way in which he springs in front of Chris Paul, keeping his feet and giving himself more time, as well as options, to survey the floor before locating the opposite corner.
Now, watch what happens when, with his man still parallel to his hip, he attacks too deep and leaps into a crowd, struggling to adjust for the late kick-out.
Granted, the off-ball cutting that was present against Phoenix didn’t occur in Dallas, but for a player with a tendency to stare down his targets, Duarte can’t maintain as much control, nor create as many passing angles, from the air as the ground. Without posing the same threat as Haliburton from floater range or with eye manipulation, going with a jump stop more often has the potential to streamline some of his decision-making with stability.
Tyrese Haliburton - Dig deeper
Boomerang passes, in which the ball-handler passes the ball on and then gets it back, are a common tactic for attacking mismatches. That’s why, when Lance Stephenson went 0-for-5 on jump-shots during overtime of Indiana’s 129-125 loss to OKC, Haliburton functioned at times like a mirror, merely reflecting the action to the player with the favorable matchup.
In essence, it was the right play for the wrong shooter. By nature, Haliburton plays a deferential style of basketball, rarely forcing up bad shots and often choosing to make the extra pass. In some instances, however, he can be too generous, ceding open looks for his teammates to make less effectual plays on the move.
And yet, while some of what he surrenders in accommodation can certainly be chalked up to mindset, there are also spots where his limitations, whether real or perceived, result in him being overly selective. Take this possession against the Magic, for example. With Terry Taylor setting a screen in the middle of the floor for the 22-year-old point guard to come off looking to catch downhill, Haliburton wants no part of challenging Wendell Carter Jr. within the flow of the offense, instead, tossing the ball back to Buddy Hield after never setting foot in the lane.
To be fair, if Taylor hadn’t been fouled in the paint, it appears as though Tyrese was priming to get the ball back and then attack (a la Lance); however, based on similar encounters with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, he’s generally more likely to avoid length with lateral movement or record scratches than to charge toward it. All of which is to say that, while he doesn’t yet have the physical strength to get and maintain the same shoulder-to-chest advantage as Brogdon, there’s reason to think he would do his overall game a favor by sacrificing some of his pass-first mentality in favor of getting a few dribbles deeper, so as to force the defense to commit.
Isaiah Jackson — Free to roam
For a player who is averaging more than six fouls per 36 minutes, staying on the floor and avoiding needless contact is the most obvious area for improvement, if for no other reason than to reveal what other improvement areas might become visible over longer stretches of consistent minutes. To that point, perhaps there is some meaning in this mistake.
Switching everything at the five position, look who’s defending Gary Harris at the top of the key after Jackson trades assignments with Buddy on the wing hand-off. Nobody, right?
Don’t get it twisted. This isn’t a matter of simultaneously executing incongruent coverages, as can be the case with Goga (more later!). Rather, Jackson appears to be reading Oshae’s exaggerated stunt at the nail as a kick-out switch and has a tendency to get lost, fixating more on the ball than his man. All of which brings to question whether, in consideration with his ability to cover ground, there might be potential in assigning him to lower usage wings, where he could roam the baseline and better protect his fouls outside the action.
After all, although the reasons for doing so were different, there’s plenty of past precedent with regard to cross-matching this season. For spurts, Sabonis didn’t defend Rudy Gobert (Kelan Martin), Kristaps Porzingis (Justin Holiday), or Nikola Vucevic (Oshae Brissett), which shielded him from being hunted at solo five. In this case, however, Jackson comparatively would offer more in mobility, while also taking on a simpler role.
Similar to Jalen Smith, there’s reason to mix in minutes with him at the four as well as five for the rest of the season, especially if the former, at least from a defensive standpoint, allows for extended playing time and subsequently more of both.
Terry Taylor — Pop around
Whether quickly slipping out of picks against switches or screening his own man to create paths to the basket against drop coverage, Terry Taylor has punched above what his stature suggests this season, inhaling rebounds around the basket while operating as a 6-foot-5 roll-man and occasional makeshift center. With a larger supply of young bigs with differing skills now available, however, more of what playing time he gets has been pushed to his more natural four position, where depending upon who else is on the floor, he at times is expected to offer even more variety as the screener.
Consider what happened in Orlando, for example. When the Austin Peay product is on the floor, it isn’t uncommon for him to receive a down screen before initiating a double drag, but only rarely is he the big who steps out to the three-point line, popping on just 15 percent of the plays he’s finished as the screener, per Synergy. For the season, Taylor has attempted fewer than 30 threes between the Pacers (11) and Mad Ants (18), but possessions don’t have to halt when he catches the ball regardless of volume, so long as he can make snap decisions to veer into hand-offs or do this around bigger forwards.
With how much the Pacers are shuffling frontcourt combinations, the more ways they can keep opponents off-balance, generating guesswork with roll versus pop variability, the better.
Jalen Smith — Be cornered
Since being traded to Indiana, Jalen has impressed firing away from deep, attempting 3.9 threes per game and hitting them at a 41 percent clip, while also showing some flashes of touch along the baseline when attacking closeouts; however, defenses don’t seem overly concerned with leaving him open when he doesn’t have the ball.
Of course, continuing to take and make shots will help, but perhaps there is something to be said for causing confusion even while being ignored. For instance, though it isn’t entirely clear if this off-ball action was by design or improvised, cutting baseline to the strong-side corner during pick-and-roll has the potential to put active stress on the low help defender.
Didn't quite get his feet set behind the line, but Jalen Smith is apparently Danny Green now -- cutting baseline to the strong-side corner during pick-and-roll.— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) March 7, 2022
Can't say I expected to write that sentence. pic.twitter.com/iDjCmkhGPv
After all, imagine if this was Isaiah Jackson as a lob threat instead of Goga. In most cases, the threat of Jackson’s vertical pop is going to draw help from Porzingis on the back-side, allowing Jalen to sneak to the corner in what Danny Green made popular during the 2014 NBA Finals as a Danny Green cut.
Granted, he didn’t quite get his feet set behind the line, but that movement mitigates the cheating ways of defenders, maybe even eventually removing the tagger and opening space for the roller, more so than being stationary.
Duane Washington Jr. — Catch my drift
In several respects, whether lulling defenders to sleep with changes of speed and subtle but effective shoulder shakes or slipping to the rim with wrong-footed layups, Duane isn’t just a shooter, but maintaining spacing for others is where he is most likely to distinguish himself from other fringe options on the roster. Remember, the Ohio State product set a franchise rookie record with seven threes in New Orleans and drained four in under five minutes against the Clippers. Put simply, he can heat up from range in a hurry.
That said, he can only make shots so long as he stays visible to his teammates, selectively sliding along the three-point line to create passing angles when defenses focus elsewhere. Here, for example, he lifts up from the corner, when he should stay down as an outlet for Malcolm Brogdon.
Generally speaking, when defenses go in to provide help on the roller, as is reasonable to expect with Jackson as the screener, shooters can create longer closeouts by shaking out of the corner. In this case, however, Cleveland is in 3-2 zone, which means Washington is effectively vacating open space to shade himself. As a floor spacer, he also has to know when and how to be a floor drifter.
Oshae Brissett — Set the curve
Much to his credit, Oshae Brissett rarely stands still. Whether filling cracks on defense or finding cracks on offense, his energy typically finds the ball.
Oshae can struggle to hold his own on the perimeter and gives up strength against bigs down low, but his back-line instincts, as far as knowing when to pounce and when not to, are typically as keen as his sense for cutting. Fills cracks on defense and finds cracks on offense. pic.twitter.com/WRaTpyzwxm— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) February 17, 2022
And yet, the same beguiling liveliness that so often functions to keep possessions alive can also backfire if not curbed — or, rather, curved. For example, look at what happened at the other end of the floor when he crashed the offensive glass and came up empty in Orlando.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pacers have given up 139.9 points per 100 transition plays since the trade — a mark which ranks 28th in the league. Given that the team also ranks 28th in turnover rate, not all of that can be pinned on being overly aggressive in pursuit of second chances, let alone Oshae. Still, there needs to be more emphasis on minimizing unnecessary movements and decisions. In that regard, if he runs on a curve, looping up toward the free throw line as opposed to crashing on a straight line, the potential benefit of his instincts could perhaps be in better balance with getting back.
Goga Bitadze — Start talking
For the most part, with the defense continuing to slide even while taking on new and different forms, the Pacers have pivoted from jumping out above the level of screens to switching, including at the five position. Of course, this is done more judiciously when Goga Bitadze is playing at center than is typically the case with Jalen Smith and Isaiah Jackson, but the shift between coverages is rarely seamless.
For example, look at this possession from the start of the fourth quarter against Cleveland. Prior to when Darius Garland started requiring double teams as a result of what he hath wrought against Smith in isolation, the first-time All-Star had all kinds of time to check the wind and drain an open three, with Malcolm Brogdon switching onto the screener at the same time as Bitadze was proceeding to backpedal in a drop.
Following the timeout that was immediately called in response, Jackson replaced Bitadze, who never reentered the game, as the team instead ruled in favor of switching, which — out of necessity — eventually escalated into overdue trapping. That said, it isn’t as if that ‘2 on the roller’ advantage was an isolated incident. Generally speaking, when opponents run a pindown into a dribble hand-off (i.e. Chicago), which is one of the most common actions in the NBA, the Pacers will typically switch the hand-off, but Goga leans toward maintaining contact with his assignment, again, operating as though he is the dropper.
And, occasionally, eliciting puzzled looks from his teammates.
In many ways, while Goga clearly needs to either assimilate to the game-plan or be louder and more vocal with his coverage call so as to provide his on-ball teammate with time to react, those possessions are also somewhat emblematic of why the team’s identity on defense this season has largely been that of a non-identity: sparsely appearing connected while attempting to patch obvious holes on the perimeter and wavering between whatever pick-and-roll coverage suits whichever big is on the floor.