October 17, 2018

Brace yourselves, folks. Victor Oladipo is probably an All-Star. He’s putting up ludicrous numbers, averaging 23.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists, a healthy 1.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, and a robust 48 percent shooting from the floor. He’s scoring from all over, impacting the game on both ends and carrying the Indiana Pacers to an offense rating towards the top of the league.

The Pacers are hovering around .500 through the first-quarter of the season, and a fairly comfy schedule between now and mid-January makes it difficult to envision them fading off too quickly. While Oladipo’s great play is buoying a young, well-blended roster towards a respectable record, something just doesn’t feel right about watching them play. Two of their best young players, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, conceptually play the same position. Bojan Bogdanovic is one of the worst defenders in the league, adding next to nothing when he isn’t gunning threes. Coach Nate McMillan is jamming the pick-and-roll and an abundance of contested two’s down his team’s throat.

Give the front office a ton of credit. These Pacers are deep, they have no holes a player off their bench cannot plug, and they’re young enough to have their best days ahead of them. In a year many thought would be best-served retooling following the departure of All-Star Paul George, they’re making a legitimate push for a playoff spot.

Still, something feels amiss. Myles Turner, the thought-to-be next “Unicorn” the franchise could build around, can barely get a touch in the fourth-quarter despite shooting an absurd 53 percent on pick-and-pop jumpers this season. Their defense is struggling in the paint, and opponents have let it fly from deep thus far. That’s a difficult combination for any group to sustain, especially without a litany of prolific scorers on the other end.

So, just how serious should we be about this team’s ability to get a solid playoff berth or more? Based on their offense, it’s hard to say just what pieces need tinkering, and the defensive answers may not be on this roster. Caught in this nebulous between competing and rebuilding, it’s hard to predict if this team will be buyers or sellers when their trade phone rings.

Nate McMillan was hired by the Pacers with the intention of modernizing and speeding-up an offense that was a whole lot of blah under Frank Vogel. Part of that transformation has come with play design, some with roster and rotation overhaul, and some with a greater emphasis of where and when to take open looks. For the second consecutive season the Pacers could be a top-five three-point shooting team in terms of percentage. A great deal of that has to do with how many open looks they generate: NBA.com’s Player Tracking data reveals that Indy shoots a league-high 45 percent on “open” threes and generates the fourth-most open shots of any offense in the league, trailing only Houston, Cleveland and the pick-and-roll heavy Mavericks.

The Pacers have fallen in love with ball screen offense. Specifically, they’ve used it to create a fair load of touches for their screeners, dropping them into the post or getting them open with easy chances to finish at the rim. Indiana gets a league-leading 12.5 percent of their offense from the roll man, per NBA.com and Synergy Sports. The next closest team is below 8.5 percent, nearly a 33 percent difference in production. Equating for roughly 11 attempts per game, it’s vital to compare that with the only 8.4 attempts per game they get on open threes, the sixth-lowest number of open treys taken per game in the league.

Finding a balance in offensive production based on scoring personnel is difficult. McMillan has been careful early in his work with Indiana to not over-emphasize the three-point shot. He doesn’t have the right personnel to be gunners, and those shots are only the right ones to take when they get the defense to commit to the lane. How do those lanes for more open threes get created? By hitting the roller frequently out of ball screen sets, forcing help defense to collapse earlier and commit to big men knifing towards the rim.

Still, it’s surprising this doesn’t open more lanes for threes for the Pacers. Being bottom-five in the league in three-point attempts is a strange mix for a team so heavily inclined to use ball screens, and it indicates a team that should be higher in offensive rebounding metrics (17th in the league) and free throw attempts (18th in the league).

The symbiotic relationship between how they use those ball screens and how they develop their three-pointers in the half-court is what’s key. The Pacers have hammered home a ton of empty side ball screens for the likes of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, getting them clean looks at the rim without having to worry about back-side defenders cheating the pass to the rolling big.

Many of their sets are designed, either out of a ball screen or a dribble handoff, to get those centers on the left offensive side of the floor. Turner is a good pick-and-pop player from that wing and mid-range that sucks his defender away from the rim. Sabonis, meanwhile, is a left-handed finisher who gets to his strong hand each time for a bucket:

Combine this with a slew of ball handlers attacking the lane with their dominant hand (their right) and the Pacers trap defenses in a no-win scenario. That’s especially true when Oladipo is standing in that empty corner. Opposing wings will try to jam him the ball to ease the responsibilities on Sabonis’ defender. Vic will just counter that by jutting backdoor and hammering home a two-handed masterpiece:

Most teams have to shift their defensive rotations for an empty side roll, as the Miami Heat did when Turner was involved in those pick-and-pop scenarios. The screener’s defender will give less help on the initial ball screen, with one of the three defenders on the strong side of the floor stepping up to deter the ball from getting to the rim. Every type of ball screen coverage has its weaknesses, and every position where a screen is set creates certain advantages. Running an empty-side pick is designed almost exclusively for the screener, so defenses in touch with a scouting report and seeing the play develop will seek for ways to take the screener out of the play

The most obvious solution: don’t allow the ball handler to put pressure on the screener’s defender, usually done by squeezing the strong side and forcing a pass to where there are too many bodies in the way of a clean drive at the rim. Help defenders might then leave the top wing unoccupied, and that’s a dangerous place to leave open against a team of shooters:

Even when the ball screens aren’t on an empty side, Indy has good enough spacing towards the corners to leave defenses scrambled when they chase Turner as he jaunts to the perimeter for a high-percentage elbow jumper. Per Matt Moore of CBS sports, Turner has an effective field goal percentage just south of 60 on pick-and-pop opportunities.

That’s a massive threat, and defenses in touch with the scouting report will scramble out to Turner to force him to be a playmaker. Thus far he’s proven both willing and able:

These situations create a ton of wide-open three point looks, and they’re all available because the Pacers use that pick-and-roll so much. If Turner was less of a threat, and a credible one they went to time and time again, these sets wouldn’t generate the clean looks the Pacers need. So while it’s easy to criticize their lack of three-point attempts on the surface, there is a calculated plan that’s working well within their offensive scheme.

The down side to that selection: shooting above 40 percent from three on a season is nearly unheard of at the NBA level, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that production from three to dip. If it does down to league-average rates, the Pacers will lose around five points per game, and unless they increase their volume from deep they won’t have enough scoring elsewhere to make up for that. It’s why I’m more willing to sell than buy Pacers stock at the moment; when they go cold, McMillan doesn’t distribute the shots well enough spatially to get enough points to hang around.

To a certain degree, they’re the anti-Houston Rockets, valuing quality over quantity to such a degree that they take an inordinate amount of two-pointers. A recent study on shot selection revealed the Pacers would add more than eight points per game if they had the same shot selection as the Rockets… and that’s if they shot the ball at league average level. With their top-notch three-point shooting, that number could skyrocket even more. Being enthused about just what the ole’ ball coach is dialing up is a difficult exercise.

Indiana’s shot distribution through their first quarter of the season shows when McMillan provides a green light from three is the biggest indicator to why they shoot the ball so well from a percentage standpoint. Below is their shot distribution based on time remaining on the shot clock:

The Pacers are straight gunning early on possessions, taking about five threes per game before six seconds tick off the shot clock. Compare that to the final seven seconds of a possession, where they’re taking 4.6 threes. Indy takes at least twice as many twos as they do threes in every range of the shot clock except for the 22-18 second range, where their shot distribution inches closer to that of the Rockets than their overall totals. In layman’s terms, the light is greenest before the defense gets set or when the offense doesn’t call a play at all.

Bogdanovic in particular is akin for running to the line in transition and spotting up from three:

McMillan has picked up the tempo this year for his Pacers squad to allow them to get this type of advantage in transition. Indy is a top-ten team in terms of pace, an improvement from 18th a season ago while juggling Paul George isolation ball late in clocks. Without those isolation possessions and ball-stops, point guards are experiencing great assist metrics. Better than that, they’re taking care of the rock; Cleaning the Glass puts them among the three-lowest turnover rates in the league. The on-off ratings for Darren Collison color just how well the point guard is playing, with an absurd 120 offensive rating and an unbelievable plus-15.3 points per 100 possessions added when he’s on the court. His numbers are especially strong in transition as well – he’s the catalyst for getting those shooters green light looks early in the clock.

But none of this goes to explain just why McMillan has settled on this type of balance for his team’s offense. Every rotation player, save Jefferson, shoots north of 33 percent from deep and is what would be considered a plus three-point shooter. Even if their pick-and-pop usage is seen as a way to suck in defenders so the treys they do take are more open, they still hammer it to death and have little in the way of variance. Quite frankly the roster doesn’t have enough talent to compensate over the long-term for the numerical disadvantages this type of scheme creates in relation to their opponents. The league is changing, and it’s sad to watch a team with this many good shooters lag behind a change that would so clearly play into their strengths.

As for the team’s defense, a healthy Turner has made all the difference from a statistical standpoint. Opponents shoot 7.3 percent worse at the rim when he’s in the game than when he rests, per Cleaning the Glass metrics. That’s consistent with every zone on the floor, an unsurprising tidbit when you consider his backups, Domantas Sabonis and Al Jefferson, aren’t exactly defensive stoppers.

The Pacers have a sturdy 103.6 defensive rating when Turner is on the court, and that leaps up to 108.6 points per 100 possessions ceded when he exits the game. Myles has shown a propensity for both blocking shots and mastering verticality as players drive towards the rim. His arms are routinely straight up while he puffs out his chest to both absorb contact and add a degree of difficulty to any layup:

Even his rotation to drop off Robin Lopez here and protect the rim on those empty-side rolls is savvy beyond his years. The strong defensive numbers even come when he’s trying to blanket the mistakes of the sleepy-footed Bogdanovic and the undersized Collison. That three-man lineup hasn’t been awful for Indiana thus far, boasting a respectable 103.2 defensive rating in the 302 minutes they’ve shared the floor.

Turner does his part, yet the Pacers still bleed in the paint. No team allows opponents to shoot a higher percentage inside of six feet, and that mark is approaching 66 percent according to NBA.com’s defensive tracking metrics. And while Al Jefferson has predictably been among the league’s worst rim protectors by almost any defensive tool, he doesn’t log enough minutes to have a profound effect on their porosity.

One theory: the young big man isn’t an elite communicator on the defensive side of the ball yet. When sharing the floor with other non-defenders and youngsters it’s too heavy of a burden for his unpolished mind to take control of his four teammates. Sometimes he even struggles with simply matching up in semi-transition situations, and that can leave the rim unguarded as he gets sucked into shooting bigs:

Indiana’s defense isn’t far below league average metrics, so pushing a panic button is definitely premature. Still, in evaluating their solid start it’s hard to know if they’re succeeding in spite of bad defensive numbers, or if they’ll stabilize and actually get better as the season goes on. Turner’s skills are better than his reputation; he really struggles switching onto smaller guards or knowing when to challenge three-point shooters, but there’s enough rim protection there for the field goal percentage numbers to stabilize.

A group like this, filled with rag-tag rentals and retreads nobody else seemed to want, is easy to underestimate. Collison is still a shifty, creative point guard that can get in the lane and space the floor. Oladipo looks infinitely more comfortable this season than he did in Oklahoma City, and is taking it to stiffer 2-guards. Thad Young has been underrated his whole career. It’s just a fun group to cheer for… everyone loves a good underdog story.

The strong early-season success may be tricking the front office into keeping some of these pieces together longer than they should. It’s been a long time since Indiana was a free agent player, and that’s unlikely to change even with a solidly competent young core. As of now only the Phoenix Suns have more cap space, and with roughly $6 million to swallow before hitting the salary cap, Indiana has some flexibility that they’d be best-served utilizing.

The question becomes how they’ll look to do so. The early-season evaluation periods for front offices are coming to an end, and we’re less than two weeks away from the December 15th date where 2017 free agent signees become trade eligible. So will the Pacers be looking to add another piece, either a foundational player via trade or some smaller role player that adds to their depth? Or will this team look to facilitate in hopes of adding more picks and other young dynamos they’ll want with their core?

Few teams will have as much flexibility as the Pacers in the summer of 2018, both financially and in terms of roster freedom. Three players – Collison, Bogdanovic and Al Jefferson – have partial guarantees that the team could easily swallow if needed (Jefferson’s at $4 million is more than double the guarantees of either). That will allow the Pacers to be super aggressive around draft night, knowing they can use any of them as a trade chip to teams that might need to shed some salary immediately, with little to no consequence. Once July hits they’ll have decisions to make on all three players, but Pritchard will be in the driver’s seat on every personnel decision they have to make.

Beyond that, only Glenn Robinson III is a free agent this summer, and Myles Turner will be extension eligible. The long-term decisions on those two don’t seem too complicated, nor will they handcuff the team in negotiations or moves elsewhere.

But the Pacers still might not be best-served in the long-term with Turner and Oladipo as their two main players. There are more than a half-dozen teams in the Eastern Conference alone with more formidable duos at the top, and the aforementioned free agent issues make it hard for the Pacers to bank on finding the next piece anywhere other than trades. Granted the front office has always done well drafting relative to their position (they’ve poached Paul George, Danny Granger and Myles Turner out of mid-to-low first-round picks), but it’s hard to bank on that strategy when at least two of the building blocks are already in the building.

Indy would be wise to kick the tires on a Marc Gasol deal. It would likely cost them Myles Turner, but if it won’t bankrupt their draft pick inventory or cost them another flexible salary it might be the right type of deal for a small-market team to be aggressive with. Impending free agents like Boogie Cousins or DeAndre Jordan bring too much of a gamble to trade for; these Pacers are built to be risk-averse right now, and that type of unpredictability would undermine their biggest strength – flexibility.

Free agency might gift legitimate shots at guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Isaiah Thomas at decently discounted rates, but there are a lot of steps between now and generating nearly $30 million needed to chase or absorb a superstar. Indy can generate up to $58 million in cap space next summer if Thad Young and Cory Joseph both decline their player options, and for a franchise like theirs using that space to take on good players via trade makes the most sense.

Young is a big key to predicting the team’s future. If he stays past the 2018 trade deadline, the Pacers likely want to keep him around long-term and don’t have too many bold plans to shake up the roster. The other option would be to move him now, before the team is at the mercy of his player option and while his value is relatively high. It would take the right contender dropping the right amount to procure Young away from Indiana (say, Derrick Favors and a lotto-protected first from Utah) but the team might be best-served staying on the front end of his departure. Young will be 30 this summer and will have to choose between seeking one more payday or finding a home he can legitimately compete for a title quickly.

Indy can make moves; they have the flexibility to turn their situation any way they want to. The trade market, free agency, keeping this group together… being buyers at the deadline or sellers, the rest of the league is their oyster. And while the early results are more encouraging than expected, it’s hard to imagine that this is what the front office envisioned as an end game when they redesigned the roster.

Expect more changes, savor the underdogs while they’re here, and don’t let that weird feeling about their offense get to you as much as it gets to me.


Adam Spinella

Adam is a college basketball coach at the Division III level. He is a contributor for other NBA and coaching sites such as NBA Math, FastModel Sports and Basketball Intelligence.

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