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Film Study: Does the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner pairing work ... or not?

Indiana's big men haven't always meshed together perfectly on the court

The last great Indiana Pacers team started a frontline — David West and Roy Hibbert — that attempted 20 total 3-pointers all season. Fast-forward six seasons later and starting two bigs together — even though they’ve combined to shoot almost 300 3s through 65 games — is a dicey proposition.

Talent is paramount, but fit matters. In modern NBA offenses, shooting and spacing are critical.

Domantas Sabonis was a back-up center in first two seasons with Indiana, playing just 698 (19%) of his 3,650 minutes alongside starting center Myles Turner. But Sabonis clearly earned a promotion. This season, he started at power forward, saw his minutes jump *from 24.8 to 34.8 per game and earned his first All-Star berth.

(* Sabonis and teammate Aaron Holiday are two of the 11 players who have played in at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons and have averaged at least 10 more minutes per game this season than they did last season.)

Though the Pacers’ season was suspended after 65 games, Sabonis and Turner have played more minutes together (1,069) than they did over the last two seasons combined. Per game, they’ve played three times as many minutes together (19.8) as they did last season (6.7).

The Pacers’ offense in those 1,069 minutes has not been good. Indiana has scored 105.7 points per 100 possessions with Sabonis and Turner on the floor together, a mark that ranks 479th among 595 two-man combinations that have played at least 500 minutes together. In those minutes, the Pacers have been worse than average in *effective field goal percentage and, despite their size, both free throw rate (FTA/FGA) and offensive rebounding percentage.

(* Effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA)

Whether Turner is on the floor or not, Sabonis is the hub of the Pacers’ offense — the Nikola Jokic of the Eastern Conference (though Bam Adebayo also qualifies) and a not-so-unreasonable facsimile of his Hall-of-Fame father. The younger Sabonis leads the league in both elbow touches (8.5) and screen assists (7.0) per game.

But a passing-and-screening hub like Sabonis is best surrounded by shooters. The Pacers’ when-everybody’s-healthy starting lineup includes just one player who has shot the league average (35.7%) or better from 3-point range: T.J. Warren (37.5%). He has taken only 21.2% of his shots, a rate that ranks 191st among 229 players with at least 300 total field goal attempts, from beyond the arc.

The Pacers’ when-healthy starting guards — Malcolm Brogdon (31.3%) and Victor Oladipo (30.4%) — have dealt with injuries and have been better shooters in the past. But given the lack of guys who are comfortable shooting from deep, the Indiana starting lineup remains a clunky group offensively.

When it works …

When Sabonis is setting a high screen or handing off to one of the Pacers’ guards, Turner is sometimes around the paint.

Myles Turner in the paint

That can have the ball-handler dribbling into a crowd or just not getting all the way to the basket. There’s a big difference between shots in the restricted area (made 63% of the time, league-wide) and runners/floaters from outside the restricted area (40%).

But most often, Turner is standing in the corner in an attempt to create space for the Sabonis-centered actions in the middle of the floor.

Myles Turner in the corner

That’s not an ideal use of Turner’s skill set, but he’s a willing spacer (he gets to his spot and doesn’t wander inside the arc) and that arrangement can work. Sabonis has shot better with Turner on the floor (56%) than he has with Turner off the floor (52%), only seeing a small drop in the percentage of his shots that have come in the restricted area (55% with Turner on, 59% with Turner off).

Play 1. On a sideline out-of-bounds play, Turner bumps Kristaps Porzingis with a cross-screen that allows Sabonis to establish good post position. He then knocks Porzingis under the basket and finishes on the other side.

Number to know: According to Second Spectrum tracking, Sabonis ranks ninth with 6.1 post-ups per game. According to Synergy tracking, the 0.91 points per possession he’s scored on post-ups ranks 19th among 30 players who have averaged at least two post-up possessions per game.

Play 2. After Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis expertly defend a Sabonis-Victor Oladipo two-man game, Sabonis gets the ball to Aaron Holiday and sets a screen on the left side of the floor. Jayson Tatum sinks into the paint on the weak side and Holiday makes a terrific skip pass to Turner for a right-corner 3.

Number to know: Turner has taken 44.3% of his shots from 3-point range, up from 25.1% last season. That’s the seventh biggest jump among 200 players with at least 250 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons. His rate hasn’t been much higher with Sabonis on the floor (46.1%) than it’s been with him off the floor (42.3%).

Play 3. With Sabonis and Turner on the floor, the Pacers have a size advantage against the Celtics. Here, Turner uses it for one of his 20 put-back buckets this season.

Number to know: The Pacers are one of four teams that rank in the bottom 10 in both offensive rebounding percentage and defensive rebounding percentage.

Play 4. On a Oladipo-Sabonis pick-and-roll, Semi Ojeleye doesn’t fully commit to tagging from the weak side and Oladipo hits the rolling Sabonis with a between-the-legs bounce pass.

Number to know: Sabonis has averaged a league-high 5.6 roll-man possessions per game.

Play 5. Against the Celtics, it might not matter as much, but having Turner in the strong-side corner when Sabonis rolls to the basket means that the weak-side help is coming from a guard or small forward. Finishing over a smaller defender (Kemba Walker on this play) is easier than finishing against Turner’s man helping in the paint.

Number to know: The 1.11 points per possession that Sabonis has scored on roll-man possessions ranks 15th among 27 players who have averaged at least 2.5 per game.

When it doesn’t …

Alas, Turner has shot just 34.4% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, a mark that ranks 59th among 67 players who have attempted at least 200. When he’s been on the floor with Sabonis, the Pacers have taken only 60% of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range. They rank 27th overall in that regard, but they’ve seen a big jump (to 67%) in minutes when Sabonis or Turner have been on the floor without the other.

When it comes down to it, defenses won’t give Turner much respect as a floor-spacer, making it tougher for the Pacers to get good shots around Sabonis at the top of the floor, especially because he doesn’t space to the 3-point line himself.

Play 1. Smart denies the hand-off from Sabonis to Oladipo, so Oladipo cuts back the other way and collapses the defense. He makes a terrific wraparound pass to Turner in the left corner, but Turner passes up the open 3, the Pacers lose their advantage, and T.J. Warren misses a heave from the right wing.

Number to know: The Pacers rank last in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (31.1%), and are in the bottom five for the fourth straight season.

Play 2. With the score tied late, the Pacers get Walker switched onto the ball for an Oladipo-Sabonis pick-and-roll. Hayward leaves Turner alone in the corner to rotate over to Sabonis’ short roll. Sabonis kicks to the open Turner, but Hayward runs him off the initial shot and he misses the side-step 3-pointer.

Number to know: Sabonis and Turner have played 90 “clutch” minutes together this season after playing just nine clutch minutes together through Sabonis’ first two seasons with the Pacers.

Play 3. With the Pacers now down two points, the same thing happens on the next possession. This time, Turner slides down the baseline, drawing the attention of Smart. That leaves Aaron Holiday open on the weak side, but by the time Sabonis’ pass gets there, Tatum recovers. Both Holiday and Oladipo have Sabonis open beyond the arc, but neither passes him the ball (he’s a 25% 3-point shooter) and Oladipo misses a contested, pull-up 3 as the shot clock expires.

Number to know: The Pacers rank 23rd in clutch offense, having scored 104.1 points per 100 possessions with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.

Sabonis and the subs

Coach Nate McMillan hasn’t staggered the minutes of Sabonis and Turner so that one of the two has been on the floor at all (non-garbage) times, because he’s wanted to give rookie center Goga Bitadze some meaningful burn. But the Pacers will usually begin the second and fourth quarters with Sabonis on the floor alongside four reserves.

The Pacers’ second most-used lineup — T.J. McConnell, Aaron Holiday, Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott and Sabonis — is the league’s only lineup made up mostly of reserves that has played at least 200 minutes this season. It’s not the Mavs’ dominant Dirk Nowitzki-plus-bench second unit (for which McDermott played a role) of two seasons ago, but its been somewhat effective, outscoring opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions, more efficient offensively than the starters.

The lineup includes another guard — McConnell — who can’t shoot. But it also includes two wings — McDermott (44.5%) and Justin Holiday (42.4%) — who rank in the top 10 in 3-point percentage. Putting four perimeter players around Sabonis unleashes more of his skills as an offensive hub.

Play 1. On a McConnell/Sabonis pick-and-roll, McDermott is in the left-corner spot that Turner often occupies. McConnell gets into the paint with his speed and kicks out to a quick-release 3 from McDermott.

Number to know: McConnell ranks fifth in assist-turnover ratio (3.67). He’s recorded assists on 40.6% of his possessions, the highest rate among 307 players who have averaged at least 15 minutes in 25 games or more.

Play 2. McDermott occupies that left corner a lot too. Here, he takes his preferred path out of that corner to take a hand-off from Sabonis and drain a pull-up 3-pointer.

Number to know: Though six other Pacers have played more minutes alongside Sabonis than McDermott has (813), Sabonis’ 74 assists to McDermott are the most he has to any teammate.

Play 3. When J.J. Barea prevents that same hand-off from Sabonis to McDermott, the big man pitches to McConnell in the corner and follows up with a screen. McConnell gets into the paint, draws Willie Cauley-Stein over, and tosses a soft alley-oop to a rolling Sabonis.

Number to know: According to Second Spectrum tracking, McConnell and McDermott have averaged 4.57 and 4.56 miles per hour, respectively. Those are the third-and fifth-fastest rates among 285 players who have played at least 750 minutes.

Play 4. When the Mavs deny the initial “floppy” action, Sabonis flashes to the ball. After letting both McConnell and Justin Holiday go by, he initiates a hand-off with McDermott, coming from the top of the arc. With Dorian Finney-Smith getting bumped by the screen and Porzingis in drop coverage, McDermott steps into a pull-up jumper from just above the elbow.

Number to know: McDermott ranks fifth in the league in 3-point percentage, but more than half of Sabonis’ assists to him (39/74) have been on 2-point buckets.

Play 5. When McDermott curls around a Sabonis screen to the top of the arc, he’s met by both Derrick Favors (hedging off Sabonis) and Jrue Holiday (pinching off McConnell). He pitches back to McConnell who attacks the seam of the defense, gets Favors turned around, and kicks back to Sabonis. McDermott doesn’t stop moving and Sabonis hits him with a wicked, one-handed bounce pass for a layup.

Number to know: McDermott has been assisted on 93.4% of his buckets, the third highest rate among 164 players with at least 200 field goals.

Defense matters!

Lineup functionality and success is about more than just offense, and the Sabonis-Turner combination has worked defensively. The two bigs will each have their moments where they look too slow to defend the perimeter, but the seventh-ranked Indiana defense has been better with both on the floor (103.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) than it has with only one of the two (108.3). And that’s with the opponent more likely to have its starters on the floor against the Pacers’ own starting group than it is when only one of Indy’s two bigs are in the game.

While the Indiana starting lineup might not be the most swift of foot, it puts in work defensively. In 605 total minutes with Brogdon, Warren, Sabonis and Turner on the floor, the Pacers have allowed less than a point per possession. That’s the best mark among 52 non-Milwaukee four-man groups that have played at least 500 minutes together.

The Pacers’ defense starts in transition. According to Second Spectrum tracking, only 13.4% of their opponents’ shots, the league’s lowest opponent rate, have come in the first six seconds of the shot clock. And according to Synergy tracking, they’ve allowed 1.05 points per possession, the league’s second-best mark, in transition.

Turner being on the perimeter on offense can allow him to more quickly get back in transition and protect the rim. Though they have a size advantage against a lot of opponents, the Pacers rank 27th in offensive rebounding percentage, because their bigs do not crash the glass.

Play 1. After Sabonis gets blocked by Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe pushes the ball up the floor. Oladipo stays in front of him, and when he loses his footing, Sabonis has recovered back to challenge Bledsoe at the rim. Bledsoe kicks the ball out to Khris Middleton and Warren rotates over. Turner then rotates out to Wesley Matthews in the corner and when Matthews tries to beat Turner baseline, he’s met by Oladipo. When Bledsoe dives to the rim behind Oladipo, Turner slides over to contest his floater.

Number to know: Opponents have shot 52.6% at the rim when Turner has been there to protect it. That’s the eighth-best rim-protection mark among 34 players who have defended at least five shots at the rim per game.

Play 2. Turner switches a Luka Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll. Though he doesn’t bite for the step-back hesitation move, he does get beat by a left-to-right crossover. But Oladipo is there in the paint to draw a charge.

Number to know: Oladipo has drawn 0.9 charges per 36 minutes, second-most among 397 players who have played at least 250 minutes this season.

Play 3. The Pacers commit a turnover, but get back before the Mavs can make anything of it. Sabonis eventually switches another screen and the 7-foot-3 Porzingis tries to back down the 6-foot Aaron Holiday. But he doesn’t get very far and Holiday forces a tough mid-range jumper.

Number to know: Though the starting lineup held the Mavs’ No. 1 offense to just 40 points on 44 possessions in the Pacers’ second-to-last game before the season was suspended, Indiana ranks just 17th defensively (having allowed 113.1 points per 100 possessions in 19 games) against the league’s top-10 offenses.

Play 4. Turner switches another Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll. Holiday sinks into the paint to help Warren in the post against Porzingis, but is able to recover when Doncic throws a skip pass to Courtney Lee in the left corner. When he runs Lee off the 3-point line, Sabonis rotates over to contest the baseline jumper. Turner then rotates down to bump Sabonis’ man (Maxi Kleber) off the rebound.

Number to know: Opponents have shot 59.6% at the rim when Sabonis has been there to protect it. That mark ranks 25th among the 34 players who have defended at least five shots at the rim per game.

Play 5. Holiday is able to stay with Tim Hardaway Jr. when he slips out of a screen for Doncic (with a back-screen from Porzingis). When Porzingis flips the screen, Turner hedges and both Oladipo and Sabonis quickly rotate to meet Porzingis’ roll into the paint. Two Mavs are now open on the weak side, but Holiday anticipates and intercepts Porzingis’ off-balance kick out to Kleber.

Number to know: The Pacers are in position to rank in the top 10 defensively for the seventh time in the last nine seasons.

What’s the verdict, then?

It seems unlikely that the Pacers will keep both Sabonis and Turner through the ends of their current contracts. Sabonis’ four-year, $75-million extension kicks in next season, while Turner still has three years and $54 million left on his deal. With Brogdon owed $65 million over the next three seasons and Oladipo eligible for an extension this fall, the Pacers will have to explore some options.

This season has given them some data to work with in regard to the viability of their frontline, though Oladipo’s absence for the first 47 games (and rustiness upon his return) has prevented us from seeing this edition of the Pacers at full strength.

Even with a healthy backcourt, the offensive fit of the Pacers’ starting lineup is not great. They’d certainly have a higher ceiling with more speed and better shooting around Sabonis. But finding the perfect complement on the frontline is much easier said than done and, with Turner and a top-10 defense, the Pacers can keep themselves competitive as is.

There’s hope that Oladipo can play when the season resumes. That would make Indiana one of the more interesting teams to watch in Orlando.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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