Mark's Mailbag: Keys to Good Chemistry, Oladipo for Most Improved?

Q. Lots of chemistry with this young team already. What would you attribute this to? Why has this been missing on past teams? Thanks

— Andrew

A. It's difficult to put together a team with great chemistry, and usually takes time. Think how long it took those conference finalist teams under Larry Brown and Larry Bird to come together.

This team seems to have taken a shortcut, however, and it's partly by happenstance. The Pacers weren't looking to trade Paul George, but when his agent made the request, Kevin Pritchard's hand was forced. It turned out the best deal he could get was for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, and they happen to be two young, hungry players - and better than most people imagined.

Older Pacers were let go as well. They were decent guys and all, but some weren't happy with their playing time and grumbled a bit, and some simply had laid-back personalities and didn't contribute to chemistry off the court. The past couple of teams didn't have bad chemistry, but it wasn't great, either, and there was a general lack of leadership. That role was thrust upon George, but it just wasn't his nature to lead. That left a void.

That group has been replaced by the likes of Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Damien Wilkins, and rookie TJ Leaf. Pritchard and his front office staff deserve credit for those acquisitions. All of them are happy to be with the Pacers, satisfied with their roles and enthusiastic about contributing to a winning environment. Adding Wilkins was particularly savvy, given his age (37). He was brought in to be a sage, and has done that well, as my story after the San Antonio game described.

You could sense the chemistry within the group from the first day of training camp, which is why I was more optimistic about this season's record than most people. The last Pacers team to have a special chemistry was during the latter half of the 2012-13 season and the first half or so of the 2013-14 season. Ultimately, success and publicity went to the head of some of the players in 2014 and distracted them. George went on Jimmy Kimmel's show and got starry-eyed for a while. He bounced back after the All-Star break, but Roy Hibbert became disenchanted with his scoring opportunities, spoke up with his infamous "we've got some selfish dudes on this team" quote and went into a shell. Lance Stephenson also went off the rails a bit while pursuing an All-Star spot and new contract.

That tells you how fragile chemistry can be. It's difficult to get everybody on the same page, and it doesn't take much for two or three players to start writing in the margins. Human nature is a powerful force, and often at odds with team chemistry. But I would be surprised if this group doesn't maintain a healthy outlook all season. If it eventually has as much success as the conference finalists of a few years ago did, new challenges will arise. But until then it should be a fun ride.

Q. How was Sabonis thought of as a "throw-in"? He was a lottery pick, and is showing the talent that made him a lotto guy.

— Scott

A. That surprised me, too. Some people just aren't capable of patience or projection, I guess.

Sabonis averaged 5.9 points as a rookie in OKC last season, hitting just under 40 percent of his field goal attempts. He was taken out of the starting lineup late in the season and was a non-factor in the playoffs, appearing for just six total minutes in two of the games. That left an unfavorable last impression.

But, what was so difficult about recognizing the fact he was 20 years old and playing in an offense that treated him as an afterthought? His raw strength and mobility, his hand-eye coordination, his attitude and his bloodlines all were evident. I could see those qualities in the YouTube clips I began watching after the trade.

Kevin Pritchard said the Pacers had Sabonis ranked sixth in the 2016 draft. OKC took him 11th. I don't know what the Thunder front office staff thought of him at the end of last season, but it seems he had shown enough for them to maintain optimism. They wanted George, however, and must have thought they had to give up something meaningful to keep the Pacers from taking another team's offer. They were no doubt happy to move Oladipo's contract, and he was expendable anyway with George arriving. Sabonis must have seemed expendable to them as well.

The majority opinion, both nationally and locally, seemed to be that Thunder management had fleeced the Pacers, getting a perennial All-Star for a highly-paid player who averaged about 15 points a game and an unproven rookie. I saw it from the other end of the spectrum, and said so many times – that the Thunder gave up two young former lottery picks for a player who might only turn out to be a one-season rental.

The trade made sense from the beginning, and seems like a no-brainer now.

Q. What's going on with our boy Lance? Coach has taken the ball out of his hands. But why? He's not a jump shooter, needs to create.

— Scott

Q. Why is Lance so quiet? Is his game just off? The rotation? When do we expect him to heat up and how will Coach adapt to help the cause?

— Ray

A. Stephenson's slow start is the biggest mystery of the season, so far. It defies logic, and has taken me by surprise.

It seems like the perfect situation for him. He's back with the franchise that nurtured him and offers the greatest comfort zone. He has the security of a contract that takes him through this season and next season, at the Pacers' option. He's fine with his role off the bench, and was expected to get starter's minutes if he played well. He was going to be used to his best advantage, with the ball in his hands. And, he had played so well last season, when he dropped in for the final six games and the playoffs.

For whatever reason, he hasn't found a rhythm yet. He isn't shooting well, and that seems to have affected the rest of his game. He said he was too hyped for the opening game against Brooklyn, when he hit just 6-of-19 shots. He promised to play in a pass-first mode the second game against Portland, but hit just 1-of-5 shots. He hasn't had a good game yet, hitting just 13-of-50 field goal attempts, including 3-of-17 3-pointers.

I don't put any blame on the coaching staff, however. It's up to Stephenson to hit shots. They've allowed him to play the way he plays best, moving Cory Joseph off the ball when he's in the game, but it hasn't helped. I don't know what can be done other than to keep giving him opportunities. His minutes have dropped somewhat, but that's his own fault for not playing better.

You never know what's going on in a player's personal life that might be affecting performance, but Lance has shown no indication of a problem. I did overhear him say he's "mentally exhausted" after a recent practice, but that might be the result of his slow start, not the cause of it.

I think it will work out eventually. He's played too well in the past to suddenly drop off like this. I know some people in the Pacers' front office considered him the team's best player before the season began – right now, not long-term. He had a bad season in Charlotte, but he wasn't used to his best advantage there. He'll have that opportunity here. Maybe he needs to sit down with his "daddy," Larry Bird, for a chat.

Q. With how well Sabonis has been playing, any chance the Pacers trade Myles Turner?

— Brian

A. Whoa! Did not expect this one.

Turner was regarded as the Pacers' best player and leader heading into the season, then contributed 21 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots to the opening-night win over Brooklyn? And you want to trade him?

Better to find out how he and Sabonis play together. Nate McMillan tried it for a few minutes in the first game, and will try it again when Turner returns. It should be interesting to see, given the way Sabonis has played. Together, they would address what is perhaps the Pacers' greatest concern, rebounding.

Any player is tradeable for the right offer, but it would take an awfully good one to pry Turner away while on his rookie contract. Same goes for Sabonis.

Q. Do you think they can win 45 games?

— Kevin

A. I do. My preseason prediction was 40-42 wins. My instinct was to go higher, to around 45, but all those predictions for 30-34 wins gave me pause. I even heard one on the radio for 20-25 wins. I didn't think the people making those predictions were plugged in as well as me, but I did wonder if I was being overly optimistic – as I was last year when, like most people, I thought they would win about 50.

Winning 45 games or so will require good health, of course, and they aren't off to a good start in that regard with Turner and Glenn Robinson III out. But if they can get through the season with their core intact for most games, I think they can get to 45.

If you break down the starting lineup, it should be judged as superior to last season. The backcourt is better, I think, keeping in mind Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles shared the shooting guard position most of the season. Thad Young should be the same player as last season. Turner should be a better player than last season. Bojan Bogdanovic is not as good as Paul George, obviously, but that's one position out of five.

I think the bench is better. Last season's reserves included a few veteran players who were injured or were inconsistent. This group, when Turner and Robinson III return, should be deeper and bring a better attitude. They're all happy to be with the Pacers at the moment, and that will be a major plus as the season goes along.

So, if last season's team won 42 games, I don't see why this one doesn't win more.

Q. Sabonis has impressed a lot of Indy fans the first several games. Do you believe he can stay consistent playing with second unit?

— James

A. I believe he has the kind of game that can fit anywhere, as long as he's allowed to play to his strengths. He doesn't need shots to be effective; he could be asked to do nothing but set screens and grab rebounds and wouldn't complain. He can score in a variety of ways, though, so he should be valuable to any team on the planet.

He had a great chemistry going with Lance Stephenson in the preseason on the second unit. Stephenson has been the Pacers' best guard in pick-and-rolls, and Sabonis is a master screen-setter and roller. Who knows, playing with Sabonis again (after Myles Turner returns) might help revive Stephenson.

Then again, Sabonis might keep his starting position after Turner returns and stay with that unit. I don't expect that to happen, at least right away, but either way he'll play starter-quality minutes.

Q. I feel like our biggest need as a legit contender is a better bench and another perimeter shooter. Thoughts?

— Kanga

A. I think the bench will be strong after Turner and Robinson return from their injuries. You're going to have injuries throughout the course of the season, but when nearly everyone is on hand, the Pacers' depth seems better than average.

Consider that the second unit's playing rotation would consist of Stephenson, Joseph, Robinson, Sabonis and perhaps TJ Leaf and/or Al Jefferson. Damien Wilkins can be used in a pinch, and Joe Young has shown enough improvement that he might be capable of contributing, too.

They should have 3-point shooting covered as well. Turner and Robinson will provide legitimate threats when they return, and there are plenty of others. The Pacers' issue with 3-point shooting relates more to quantity than quality. They ranked high in 3-point percentage last season, but low in attempts. A similar trend is shaping up now. Through six games, they have attempted 18 fewer 3-pointers than opponents.

The problem so far has been Bogdanovic and Stephenson, both of whom are shooting below their norm from the 3-point line. Bogdanovic hit 3-of-5 on Sunday, but is just 6-of-20 for the season. He's been much better than that throughout his career, and likely will regain his norm. Stephenson hit 5-of-8 3-pointers after joining the Pacers last season, and 7-of-18 in the playoffs. He's just 3-of-17 so far, and almost (but not quite) has to improve.

Q. How is Myles's progress? It's not usual that a concussion takes so long to recover.

— @fiveears

A. He is in the concussion protocol, which means he's going through the steps required to return to playing again. That is a positive sign in itself.

I don't expect him to play Tuesday or Wednesday, but perhaps on Friday at Philadelphia. He's going to need time to get back in shape and find a rhythm again, however.

He was at practice on Saturday and in the locker room after Sunday's game. He was smiling and interacting in a lively manner with teammates on both occasions, so my guess – again, a guess – is that he'll back within a week.

Q. Do you think eventually Turner/Sabonis could start together???

— Francisco

A. A lot of people have been asking this question. It's only natural given the say Sabonis has played. I put it to Nate McMillan following practice on Saturday. You might have seen the story by now. In short, he was very clear in his desire to try that lineup.

Q. How much fun is it watching this team play?

— Daniel

A. Truthfully, I have fun watching every team play. It's always interesting to me, even if a team is struggling.

This team, however, is more fun than most. It's at a sweet spot, with young, hungry players who are supplemented by capable and mature veterans. Their attitude has been great to this point, and their style of play is more entertaining than last season.

The fans are happy as well, and that adds to the enjoyment. It helps create a buzz, and fills up The Fieldhouse. And, the mailbag questions aren't as depressing, right?

Q. How much of Dipo's fast start do you think is sustainable?

— James

A. Most of it. I don't think he's going to average 25.5 points, as he is after the first six games, as Turner's return will absorb some of the scoring. But I'm confident he will average more than 20.

He says he doesn't have a chip on his shoulder, he has a brick. Or something heavy like that. He'll be motivated all season to prove something. The challenge will be for him not to get too caught up in scoring, but so far he's forced shots in just one game, the loss to Portland.

Q. Any possibility of trying Thad at 3? With GRob out it would seem to be a worthwhile experiment to try splitting his minutes between 3 and 4.

— Frank

A. I asked Nate McMillan that a few days ago. He said they tried Young at three last season, and it didn't go well. He was clear in stating that he considers Young a "four."

I could see Young playing "three" against certain opponents. It would make for an intriguing frontline if he were paired with Turner and Sabonis, although Young would have trouble defending a lot of small forwards. For now, with Turner out, it's more likely Young will get minutes at five than three.

Q. Is Victor going to get Most Improved Player? Will the Pacers make the playoffs? Will we trade for a small forward by the deadline?

— Dcansino (via Twitter)

A. I'm throwing a flag for piling on!

I'll dismiss the last question first. I have no idea. Neither does Kevin Pritchard. It's a bit early to talk about trades, obviously. If you're concerned about Bogdanovic, he's got enough of a track record to inspire confidence he'll play better, as he did on Sunday against San Antonio. Robinson will return at some point, so that position, while not a strength, will be adequately covered.

As for Oladipo winning the Most Improved Player award, it's a distinct possibility. That award generally doesn't go to the player who has improved his skills the most, but to the one who increases his scoring average the most, and Oladipo's is trending nicely.

The Pacers' previous winners of the MIP award offer a template.

Jalen Rose's scoring average had improved from 11.1 points to 18.2 when he won the award. Jermaine O'Neal's average went from 12.9 to 19.0. Danny Granger's improved from 19.6 to 25.8, although his honor in a sense was for two-year improvement. Two seasons before he won the award, he had averaged 13.9 points. Paul George's averaged improved from 12.1 to 17.4.

As you can see, each of them improved his scoring average by at least 5.3 points from the previous season. Oladipo averaged 15.9 points for Oklahoma City last season, and as I state earlier, I think he'll average more than 20 points this season. It would help his cause if the Pacers exceed expectations as well.

The Pacers have another MIP candidate in Sabonis, however. He averaged 5.9 points last season. I expect his scoring average – now at 13 points – to be in double figures. His rebounding average — now 10.2 — could reach double figures as well.

Maybe the two Thunder Cats can share the honor.

As for the Pacers making the playoffs, I consider it a real possibility. At this very moment, in the afterglow of the win over San Antonio, it even seems likely. But there's a long way to go.

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Some mailbag questions have been edited for length and clarity.