That eagerly awaited (by fans) and much publicized (by media) experiment of playing Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis together lasted all of 73 seconds in the Pacers' four preseason games.
Coach Nate McMillan isn't planning a serious trial run in the regular season, either. And, frankly, he's a little tired of talking about it.
"That lineup is not really a strength of ours when teams are playing small basketball," McMillan said following Saturday's Pacers' practice at St. Vincent Center. "There's been a lot of conversation about Myles and Domas...they play the same position. We can play that lineup some when teams have bigger (lineups) out there and we're able to match up with those teams. But that hasn't been a strong combination when those two have been out on the floor. You have two centers and one of them is trying to play the four spot."
Turner and Sabonis played together for 268 minutes in 51 games last season. The combination offered far more intrigue than results, as a 48-win team that outscored opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions over the course of the season was outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when they played together.
Still, given Sabonis' superlative production off the bench and the potential rewards of having two 6-foot-11, 22-year-old lottery picks playing together, it seemed only natural to wonder whether they could flourish together given the opportunity.
Asked about it in his season-ending press conference last May, Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers' President of Basketball Operations, said, "I don't think there's any doubt they can." Asked about it in training camp, Victor Oladipo said, "If we can pull that off it will be scary."
Turner (who sat out Saturday's practice with a mild ankle sprain) and Sabonis have consistently voiced a desire for it as well, and Sabonis structured some of his off-season workouts to become more agile and better able to defend on the perimeter so that they could play together.
Their only appearance together in the exhibition games, however, came at Cleveland on Monday. And even in that brief span, the results were mixed. Sabonis entered the game with 3:44 left in the first quarter. Moments later, he was beat off the dribble by Cavs forward Sam Dekker. But Turner blocked the shot and Sabonis grabbed the rebound.
Turner was taken out of the game with 2:31 remaining in the period, and that was that.
Sabonis' ability to defend on the perimeter is the major obstacle to him playing with Turner, as was revealed immediately in Cleveland. McMillan isn't eager to see it play out too often in the real games, so he plans to save the pairing for opponents who "go big." He believes with LeBron James having moved to the Western Conference more teams will do that, such as Detroit playing Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin together, Toronto going with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka and Philadelphia utilizing Joel Embiid and Dario Saric.
Playing Sabonis at the "four" position also takes him away from his primary strengths. He is the Pacers' best post-up player and flourishes in pick-and-roll sets with his ability to set a solid screen, catch the ball in traffic and score while taking contact.
He can play center on offense while Turner moves to the perimeter, and they could then switch roles on defense, with Turner - the team's best shot-blocker – defending centers. But, again, that means Sabonis must defend away from the basket and risk getting beat off the dribble Dekker-like - and perhaps picking up fouls while trying to keep up with quicker players.
One of McMillan's primary dilemmas heading into the season will be how to get Sabonis on the court for starter-quantity minutes without disrupting the team's chemistry or peace of mind. When Turner and Sabonis play together, forwards Thaddeus Young and TJ Leaf sacrifice playing time. If they don't, they take minutes from one another. And it's reasonable to wonder how long each of them will be satisfied playing half of every game as they did in the preseason.
Turner averaged 7.7 points on 35 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds in 22.8 minutes during his three preseason appearances. Sabonis averaged 15.2 points on 45 percent shooting and a team-high 11.8 rebounds in 23 minutes, producing a double-double in each of his four games. Turner, though, played more minutes against starters than Sabonis and totaled eight blocked shots while Sabonis had two.
Regardless of how Sabonis is used, it only figures something will have to give eventually because, as Pritchard said last May, Sabonis is “just too good” not to play nearly 30 minutes per game.
“I felt great in preseason,” Sabonis said Saturday.
“I put in the hard work this summer and can’t wait for the season to come.”
He says he’s fine with whatever role is assigned to him, however - a mature attitude that should make McMillan’s juggling act a little easier.
“I thought maybe (playing with Turner) would have a couple more minutes but I didn’t expect anything too crazy,” he said. “Coach knows what’s best for the team. No matter what lineup Myles and I are in, we’re going to come out and play hard.”
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