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Five stats that will define the start of the 2022-23 Pacers season

And why each matters.

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NBA: Detroit Pistons at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Next season for the Pacers — not unlike the end of last season for the Pacers — isn’t trending toward optimizing winning in the playoffs as much as growing young talent and building habits. With training camp less than a week away, James Johnson (35), T.J. McConnell (30), Daniel Theis (30), Buddy Hield (29), and Myles Turner (26) are currently the only players over the age of 25 on the roster, and it remains to be seen whether any or all of them will still be part of the team when the season starts, let alone finishes. Still, for as long as each remains in the fold, there is much to be considered about how to evaluate the progress of a rebuilding team, both from the standpoint of internal development as well as potentially aiming to rebuild trade values while also identifying potential needs.

On that note, here’s five numbers to watch.

46.4The 3-point field-goal percentage of Jalen Smith over his first seven games with the Pacers

For the remainder of the season, he shot 32.7 percent on 3.7 attempts per game, which is only slightly better than his career mark (31.7 percent), albeit on higher volume. Of course, volume and accuracy aren’t the only data points that determine “spacing.” But, when talking about Myles Turner’s potential emergence at solo five, it begs asking how often the longest tenured member of the Pacers will be defended by fives.

For instance, think back to some specific match-ups when last he was the main starting big man. When the team went to Utah, look at who Rudy Gobert is guarding, or rather sagging off from (Thaddeus Young), and then look at who isn’t being used as the screener (Turner).

Meanwhile, the same scenario would also oftentimes play out in Philadelphia, where once upon a time, the threat of Ben Simmons switching onto the ball would likewise marginalize Turner from the offense, as Thad would yet again be defended by the opposing center.

Even when the Sixers pivoted to putting Simmons directly onto the ball, Turner still wasn’t checked by the five. Instead, Joel Embiid just matched up with Thad, likely in hopes of maintaining a shorter radius around the basket.

By comparison, some opponents last season also cross-matched the Jalen Smith-Isaiah Jackson pairing, as the opposing five (such as Jarrett Allen) would defend against the former, even though he was technically operating as a “stretch” four.

As such, given that Smith has already been designated as the team’s “starting power forward,” his performance from the 3-point line could end up having a trickle down effect on both Myles Turner and Tyrese Haliburton, particularly if the goal is to boost the former’s trade value. Think of it this way: If Smith can shoot the 3-ball at a respectable clip, as was the case over his first seven games, then Turner will have a better chance at staying involved and consistently forcing opposing fives to defend in space.

On the flip side, if Smith’s accuracy stubbornly hovers around his career mark, then a team like Philadelphia might respond by falling back into old, familiar patterns, assigning Embiid to Smith in the corner, a la Jarrett Allen, while defending Turner with P.J. Tucker and switching out to the ball against Haliburton. After all, Smith only attempted 12 of his 65 spot-up field goal attempts last season after putting the ball on the floor. As of now, what he’s able to do with the ball in his hands doesn’t exactly provide reason for opponents to pause from straying in the event of any regression on no-dribble jumpers.

Consequently, if Haliburton is overly selective or grapples to find traction against length, while at the same time, Turner is slow to recognize the inside advantage, then the potential is there for time to be a flat circle. Perhaps, hearkening back to the days, long before Domantas Sabonis had entered the starting lineup, when Thad was being deployed as the screener in certain match-ups, largely because he was being defended by the opposing rim protector. For that reason, if Turner wants to hold out for a max contract, as has been reported, and doesn’t plan on signing an extension at present, then the way in which he is viewed by other teams could end up being at least partially tied to how both he and Jalen are defended and by whom.

40.9 — The percentage of Myles Turner’s possessions in which he rolled as the screener

For frame of reference, Turner has never rolled on more than 50 percent of his possessions as the screener, including pre-Sabonis when he was the main starting big.

Meanwhile, Haliburton’s rim frequency with the Pacers last season ranked in the 39th percentile among guards, per Cleaning the Glass. Generally speaking, in a pick-and-roll construct, there’s a case to be made for opposites as partners. As in, if the ball-handler is someone who likes to turn the corner and get to the rim, they should be paired with a screener who pops (like Turner). Conversely, if it’s someone who dribbles off the pick and prefers to survey, then maybe the more compatible screener will be someone who dives (hence, the pursuit of Deandre Ayton). For Haliburton, whose game is built on range, touch, and feel, the cat-and-mouse game he plays in keeping defenders off-balance with the unpredictability of finding nylon with his floater or toggling between early and late lobs or skip passes is arguably more deceptive alongside the presence of roll gravity.

That’s how he manages to dish up assists like this, much to the surprise of even his own teammate (hi, Buddy), despite the fact that four defenders are standing in the lane at the point in which he plants his foot to launch from nearly outside the elbow.

In that regard, if teams prove to be dissuaded from cross-matching Turner at the five, then the focus should shift from whether the 26-year-old can knockdown shots while floating around the perimeter to how willing and able he is to move toward the basket.

Tellingly, with opponents routinely committing extra defenders to Sabonis on the roll, Turner’s conversion rate from long distance was somewhat of a bellwether, as he shot 42 percent from three in wins, compared to 28 percent in losses. Now, with Sabonis out of the picture, if Turner is playing more often within the action, he’s going to be the player responsible for pressuring the basket in need of finding a balance between setting picks that actually stick and quickly using a hop-step to make himself available as a target.

Last season, none of the guards who played at least 500 total minutes with Turner got to the rim more often when he was at solo five than when he was off the floor.

Moving forward, regardless of whether the aim for the Pacers is to retain Turner beyond next season or to rebuild his value, increasing how often and effectively he rolls — particularly alongside Haliburton and when bumped — will likely serve either outcome.

144.4 — The number of points the Pacers surrendered per 100 transition plays following the trade deadline, the most of any team in the league

In contrast to the prior section, one potential side benefit of possessions where the Pacers intentionally call for high middle 1-5 pick-and-pop is the way in which the action allows for the big to get back more quickly in transition. Logically speaking, the length of the court is shorter from the top of the key (where the popper typically moves) than what’s the case from under the basket (where the roller finishes).

That said, the Pacers are still going to have to find a way to alleviate the math problem that was evident at the end of last season against teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors, who ranked first and second, respectively, in both offensive rebounding rate and transition frequency. For the Pacers, who ranked 25th in opponent offensive rebounding rate after the trade deadline while also posting the worst transition defense in the league, those games were like running into a buzz saw, resulting in losses of 40, 30, and 33 points.

Granted, the Pacers were also a top-five offensive rebounding team, which allowed them to compensate for what they surrendered in second chance points per game with a net gain (+1.6), but those pursuits weren’t always exercised with prudence.

For example, when Tyrese Haliburton drives baseline, here, look at how Buddy Hield wanders back into the frame, presumably hunting a rebound in no man’s land on a shot from the corner that tends to exhibit a weak-side ricochet bias, when he should’ve been staying high to protect against a quick outlet.

Instead, all five Pacers are flattened out, effectively operating as though they are starting behind a hypothetical starting line.

In the end, Terry Taylor (as the shooter!) somehow manages to be the first player back, where he basically just backs out of the way.

As it pertains to next season, the goalpost shouldn’t be set at whether the Pacers can win games over kryptonite teams like Toronto and Memphis, but if they are going to remain aggressive in pursuing the offensive glass to mitigate what they give up on the defensive glass, then better attention to detail as far as maintaining floor balance and minimizing unnecessary movement needs to be demonstrated. Otherwise, they may have to rely on Aaron Nesmith to stop 4-on-1 fast breaks all by himself (uh, wow!).

(remembers how many fouls he averaged in summer league)

(proceeds to cross fingers really hard)

23 — Where the Pacers ranked in transition frequency following the trade deadline, compared to 27th prior to the trade deadline

If that doesn’t work, and the Pacers continue to defend like a sieve in transition, then the other answer is to fight fire with fire, playing more often in the open floor. After all, that’s what this young core is built to do, right? Let’s submit the following into evidence.

  • Tyrese Haliburton practically jumps out of his skin when the ball isn’t advanced quickly.
  • Bennedict Mathurin has the ability to outrun multiple defenders without the ball.
  • And Isaiah Jackson, even when getting back on defense (yes, defense), seemingly can’t help himself from keeping his hands at the ready as a pass recipient.

There’s more method to playing fast than just running fast (securing rebounds helps!), but at least the roster is stocked with players, including T.J. McConnell, Kendall Brown, and Buddy Hield, who are wired to hunt opportunities that make defenses pay early.

As the numbers indicate, though, Indiana only saw a modest bump in transition frequency after the trade deadline last season, jumping from 27th (13.3%) to 23rd (13.9%), according to Cleaning the Glass. And, here’s the thing: that’s actually a higher rate than any of Rick Carlisle’s last six teams in Dallas, all of which languished among the bottom-five of the league. Given the team’s emphasis on upgrading the roster’s athleticism in the draft, it appears as though everyone involved is on board with crafting an identity that plays to those strengths. But, now that fingers can no longer be pointed at the methodical playstyles of Malcolm Brogdon and Luka Doncic, the overall dynamic between Carlisle and letting go of the reins should be illuminating — good, bad, or otherwise.

38 - Where Tyrese Haliburton’s usage rate in games with the Pacers last season (19.5) ranked among the 39 players who averaged at least five minutes of possession

Since the 2011-12 season, only four backcourt players have been named to an All-Star team with a usage rate under 20 percent: Chris Paul, on a Suns team that won 64 games last season (19.7); Steve Nash, at age 38, during his final season in Phoenix (19.0); Kyle Lowry, when the Raptors went on to win the NBA Championship (19.1); and Kyle Korver, as an injury replacement on a Conference-best Hawks team (13.9).

Needless to say, while it may be too early to project Haliburton as an All-Star next season, it begs pointing out how rare it is for pass-first or low-usage guards to be selected, especially when they don’t play on teams with top-flight records. Last season, despite never logging minutes with Myles Turner or T.J. Warren and only appearing in eight games with Malcolm Brogdon, Haliburton led the team in field-goal attempts just three times.

By nature, Indiana’s star guard plays an inclusive 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. This, for example, with Steven Adams backpedaling to cover the lob, has to be a shot — not a kick-out for Oshae Brissett to create separation against Jaren Jackson Jr.

Every now and again, those types of decisions also popped up during crunch-time. Think back to when Lance Stephenson shot 0-of-5 during overtime against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Or, when the offense tilted to Brogdon over the final six minutes in Detroit, with the result being one-and-done isolations. In both instances, as was also the case when Hield dribbled the ball off his leg at the end of the game against Sacramento, Haliburton was deferring to the veterans on the floor, while mostly playing away from the ball.

For the season, the Pacers had the worst win-loss percentage in clutch games of any team in the league, ranking 30th before the trade deadline, as well as 29th afterwards. Again, in the context of a rebuild, it isn’t so much a problem to be losing competitively (which might even be ideal, tbh) as it is the way in which they go about doing it.

Whether in the first five minutes of the game or when the clock is winding down, Haliburton doesn’t always have to be taking all of the shots, as someone else might emerge in that role (Mathurin?) and every game should be treated as unique unto itself, but he needs to show he has the perception to make the right read — including when the shot should be his.

What happens when opponents stay home on the shooters surrounding him and dare him to beat them from floater range? In a season defined by discovery, that’s what the Pacers, as much as growing the roster together and arguably independent of showcasing veterans to other teams, need to find out and prioritize.