Among the 15 franchises in the Eastern Conference, only two of them, the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, were originally considered “tanking” teams this season. The other 13 were expected to jostle for postseason position this year and most of them have not disappointed in what is developing into an exciting race for playoff seeding and the play-in game.
The race in the East is tight, with the New York Knicks currently in 12th place, but are only a game and a half behind the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers who now hold the seventh and eighth seeds, respectively.
Behind the Knicks in 13th place are the Indiana Pacers, a team that is seemingly out of place at the bottom of the standings. While they are just a game behind New York, their 13-18 win-loss record is far from what was expected from them coming into this season, especially when taking into consideration the individual talent on their roster.
The Pacers have two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis, two-time blocks leader Myles Turner, 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, and the talented scorer Caris LeVert on their team, yet the potential on their roster has not translated into wins.
This is now the third season that Sabonis, Turner, and Brogdon have played together for Indiana, though instead of growing together, the only constant of their tenure has been their steady decline year after year
In 2020, the Pacers were a promising fourth seed in the Eastern Conference before the Miami Heat swept them en route to their most recent NBA Finals appearance. They followed it up with a strong start to last season with a 6-2 record, though nagging injuries to Brogdon and Turner eventually took their toll on the team. Indiana only made it as far as the second play-in game where the Washington Wizards sent them home with a 142-115 blowout.
Their struggles have persisted this season and it has become more obvious than ever that their skill sets do not mesh well with one another. In the modern NBA, teams cannot get away with playing two big men like Sabonis and Turner together.
The 6’11 Sabonis has a skillful offensive game that consists of crafty left-handed post moves and a reliable mid-range jumper. He is also a talented passer, arguably the second best among current big men next to reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic, and is coming off a ‘21-’22 campaign that saw him average a team-high 6.7 assists per game. The Gonzaga alumnus also led the Pacers with 12 rebounds per game together with 20.3 points a night last season.
For all his aforementioned talents, Sabonis’ fit on any team is challenged by his lack of a consistent three-point shot (Career 31.8% shooter) and inability to protect the rim due to his below-average athleticism (By NBA standards). His ideal frontcourt partner is an excellent interior defender with an ability to switch (Which Turner is) who can also hit three-pointers at an elite rate (Which Turner is not yet).
Turner’s ability to block shots at an elite rate (2.9 blocks per game this season) and hit threes at a decent clip (35.3% for his career) have made him an attractive trade asset around the league.
While he could theoretically mesh with Sabonis as an ancillary piece, especially if he can get his three-point shooting closer to 40%, he has publicly stated that he is more than a role player. Turner has shared that he believes that he has the potential to do more, which does not bode well for Indiana as presently constructed, while he has also not shown a consistent offensive arsenal.
The public manner by which Turner has voiced his discontent and the persistent trade rumors that have followed him over the past few years make it seem like a trade out of Indiana is imminent, though it would be a mistake for the Pacers.
The 6’11 Turner is clearly the more coveted asset around the league, even if Sabonis is already a two-time NBA All-Star. Prioritizing Sabonis in trade talks and keeping Turner alongside Brogdon and LeVert could prove to be the better strategy for the Pacers here.
Turner does not require as much usage on offense as Sabonis in order to be effective, which should be a major factor that they consider since Brogdon and especially LeVert both need the ball in their hands to operate on the perimeter. These three could form the foundation of a dynamic run-and-gun team and the rest of their roster already fits the bill.
Indiana has several wing players–Chris Duarte, Justin Holiday, Oshae Brissett, Jeremy Lamb, Torrey Craig, and TJ Warren–who would all thrive in a faster system as versatile role players who can fill multiple roles.
By no means is this a knock on Sabonis, but instead an acknowledgement of the pieces that the Pacers have to work with. It is easier to trade a young, multiple-time All-Star compared with overhauling an entire roster, and he has already stated that he wants to play elsewhere.
This iteration of the Pacers is clearly not working, and while a trade for one of their main pieces already seems imminent, it may go down as addition by subtraction. A reduction in the number of ball-dominant players on their team can lead to greater efficiency and spacing.
All is not lost this season for Indiana and this franchise is fortunate to have players whom other teams covet, something that should allow them to reconstruct their roster on the fly.