Pacers Prepared for Griffin-less Pistons

Oct. 23, 2019 - Pacers coach Nate McMillan and point guard Malcolm Brogdon discuss opening the 2019-20 season at home against a Pistons team without injured All-Star Blake Griffin.

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Pacers Prepared for Griffin-less Pistons

Oct. 23, 2019 - Pacers coach Nate McMillan and point guard Malcolm Brogdon discuss opening the 2019-20 season at home against a Pistons team without injured All-Star Blake Griffin.
Oct 23, 2019  |  01:06

"The Sky's the Limit": Pacers Optimistic Ahead of Opener

Oct. 21, 2019 - Two days ahead of hosting the Pistons for Opening Night presented by Kroger, the Pacers discuss how good they think they can be this season and the keys to slowing down Detroit.
Oct 21, 2019  |  01:51

"Cloud Lifted" as Pacers, Sabonis Agree to Extension

Oct. 22, 2019 - Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis, general manager Chad Buchanan, and head coach Nate McMillan discuss Sabonis agreeing to a long-term extension with Indiana.
Oct 22, 2019  |  02:00

New-Look Pacers Looking to Prove Something

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Nate McMillan calls it "a year of proving it."

It, in this case, is whether the Pacers can move beyond the first round of the playoffs this season after getting stuck there each of the past four years. Can an overhauled team with so many new bodies find immediate success, even with the early absence of its only all-star player?

League-wide analysts don't necessarily believe. Former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy and former All-Star Grant Hill are on record predicting something in the neighborhood of a .500 record and a borderline playoff berth, a not uncommon estimate.

Neither McMillan nor the players have offered specific goals for the season, but advancing in the playoffs is a given. Doing so will require a rapid transformation and continued improvement from most of the individuals on a roster with just one player — reserve Justin Holiday — older than 27.

Forecasts, of course, are made with the assumption of reasonably good health and other forms of fate, and the Pacers know all too well how that doesn't always work out. But the argument for a 50-plus win season is strong in a best-case scenario. Surely last season's team would have won more than 50 games if Victor Oladipo had not missed 46 of them. His return remains uncertain as the season begins, but he is practicing with the team and engaging in scrimmages. And when he returns, he'll join a potentially more athletic and talented team than the past two seasons.

Break it down.

Malcolm Brogdon should be an upgrade at point guard, being younger, taller, and stronger than Darren Collison. He'll be a better defender and at least an equal shooter.

Oladipo, if he plays in more than 36 games, should bring an upgrade to the other guard position and Jeremy Lamb likely will be a more productive fill-in than Wesley Matthews.

Center Myles Turner should be improved from last season. He's 23 years old and coming off a summer with the U.S. team in World Cup play and will have some of the burden of the dirty work around the basket taken off his shoulders.

Small forward T.J. Warren is younger and more athletic than Bojan Bogdanovic at small forward, and an equally good shooter. He's also better at creating a shot and more assertive attacking the rim. And, he should be at least an equal defender.

Domantas Sabonis replaces Thaddeus Young at the other forward position, and here's where comparisons get complicated. They're different players. Young could run the floor and defend on the perimeter better than Sabonis, but Sabonis is a far better rebounder, a better perimeter shooter and brings a genuine low-post scoring threat.

The bench also seems upgraded. One could argue there's too much depth, with established veterans running with the third unit, but injuries and illnesses have a way of solving that issue.

Given all that, why wouldn't the Pacers be better?

Chemistry, perhaps. Successful teams aren't scraped together and microwaved, they need time to meld from time in the fire. The Pacers' 15-man roster includes seven new players and the starting five is four-fifths remade, so it would be unreasonable to expect a ready-made winner right out of the box.

McMillan pointed out Tuesday that some of the players have been together less than a month. He would have loved an eight-game preseason to better strip off the virtual name tags. The best he could do was play the starters in all four games and have them scrimmage more than usual in practice.

He acknowledges his team will be a work in progress early in the season and then will become another work in progress after Oladipo returns. So, while McMillan and the players are preseason-ly optimistic, they also are being realistic.

"We have a lot to work on," Brogdon said. "I think we have talent, I think we have scoring, I think we can be a great defensive team...we just have to put it together."

Goga Bitadze dances in team huddle

Photo Credit: Matt Kryger

The starters have been etched in stone, or at least written in marking pen on a whiteboard, since July: Brogdon, Lamb, Warren, Sabonis, and Turner, with the understanding Lamb goes to the bench when Oladipo returns. The rest of the rotation isn't so easily defined, and even on Tuesday McMillan wasn't ready to give one. He wasn't even willing to commit to a number. He prefers a nine-man rotation, as he used most of last season, but concedes he could go to 10.

That's better than having an obvious but limited rotation. Aaron Holiday starts off as the backup point guard, but T.J. McConnell will be pushing him throughout the season. Edmond Sumner will back up Lamb, but what happens to the promising Sumner when Lamb goes to the bench remains to be seen. Doug McDermott backs up Warren, T.J. Leaf backs up Sabonis, and rookie Goga Bitadze backs up Turner. That's 10, even without Oladipo.

McConnell and Justin Holiday will be among the 13-man group that dresses for games, with Alize Johnson and JaKarr Sampson waiting in the wings.

What else could go wrong? Health, for sure. The Pacers know all too well the impact injuries and other roster-thinning mishaps can have. And, Oladipo aside, two starters have a recent history of issues. Brogdon missed 21 games in the regular season and playoffs last season with Milwaukee because of plantar fasciitis. Warren has yet to play more than 66 games in his five NBA seasons and played in just 43 last season with Phoenix, although it seems he was held out of some of those while healthy enough to play to give time to younger players.

A lot could go right for this group, however. Aside from the apparent talent upgrade, the Pacers are longer — by five inches in the starting lineup. That matters in a variety of ways, most notably with rebounding, which is a — maybe the — priority heading into the season. The Pacers have ranked between 22nd and 26th in the NBA in rebounding the past three years, but help is on the way. Sabonis' increased role as a starter should help address that, and Brogdon should bring improvement to his position.

"We're bigger and stronger and we've got guys who can crash," Turner said. "I think we will be a better rebounding team."

Better rebounding should lead to more 3-point shots, another area in dire need of improvement. The Pacers have ranked 26th or worse in 3-point attempts the past three seasons, a stat made additionally frustrating by the fact they were one of the league's best shooting teams — fifth from 3-point range last season, for example.

More defensive rebounds should lead to more transition opportunities, which should lead to more 3-point attempts. Offensive rebounds often lead to open 3-pointers as well because the defense is scrambled after a shot goes up. Remember, a few of the most crucial 3-pointers in the history of the Pacers' franchise have come off offensive rebounds, such as Byron Scott's game-winning three in Game 1 of a playoff series in Orlando in 1994, Reggie Miller's overtime-forcing three in Game 4 of a playoff victory in New York in 1998 and Travis Best's game-winning three in Game 5 of a playoff series against Milwaukee in 2000.

The Pacers should have enough 3-point shooters to take advantage of those rebounds. Based on last season's percentages, Brogdon, McDermott, Sabonis, Turner, and Warren should shoot at or near a 40-percent rate. Bitadze showed an improving 3-point shot in EuroLeague play and hit two-of-three attempts in his only preseason game.

With that supply of shooters, McMillan has set a goal of 30 3-point attempts per game — with a quick reminder that challenged shots are not acceptable. His team averaged just over 25 per game last season.

Improved scoring can't come at the expense of defense, though. The Pacers have built a tradition of strong defense and it remains ingrained in their DNA. McMillan demands it and assistant coach Dan Burke teaches it. The starters are longer and more athletic than last season, so that's a good place to start. Lamb and Warren are regarded by some as potential weak links because they weren't known for defending well with their previous teams, but they express a desire to do it and Burke was pleased with their approach in training camp.

"They care about guarding their man, they care about doing what we're asking them to do," Burke said. "There's an eagerness there."

The defense could suffer by the switch from Young to Sabonis at the "four" position, however. Sabonis isn't likely to defend as well on the perimeter as Young, who weighs 20 fewer pounds, and also won't get back as quickly in transition. Young, remember, led the Pacers in deflections and taking charges last season, unsung qualities that matter. Sabonis worked on his foot speed in the offseason but weighs a muscular 240 pounds, so he'll never be a perimeter stopper or gazelle.

Transition defense, then, will be a challenge as smaller opponents try to negate the Pacers' size advantage.

"Teams are going to try to run us like crazy," Burke said. "We'll be passing out track shoes."

Improved rebounding, however, can counteract a loss of perimeter and transition defense. As can more scoring.

Drill down to the core then, the fate of the Pacers' season likely will rest on the success of the Turner-Sabonis pairing. It's the primary question of their chemistry test and must be answered affirmatively for the season to succeed. They played together without much success two seasons ago and with some success last season, but only for five or six minutes per half.

Doing it as starters is a new frontier.

The topic has been so prominent among local media members that the first question (and three of the first four) directed to McMillan on Media Day before the start of training camp, was about the Turner-Sabonis tandem. Utilizing it might run contrary to the NBA's recent trend toward small ball, but McMillan doesn't mind nonconformity. Besides, he has no obviously preferable option.

"You have to adapt to the roster you have," he said. "You can't be like some of these other teams. You try to get the best talent to fill your roster and be able to compete. We wanted to keep Domas and Myles and this is what we fell into. I think the game will go back to two bigs on the floor, anyway."

There will be give and take, of course. Sabonis might struggle to defend a smaller forward, but a smaller forward will struggle to defend him in the low post. If opponents put their center on Sabonis, as is likely, that forward will have to defend Turner. Turner's ability to score in the low post over smaller defenders, then, becomes a significant factor.

The two played together well enough in the preseason games to warrant optimism. It helps that they badly want to play together, and they appear to have done all they can to make it work. Both are capable of stepping out and hitting perimeter shots, and if Turner's work with former Boston Celtic Kevin McHale to establish himself as a consistent low-post threat pays off, they should be able to adapt to any defense.

"We're interchangeable," Turner said. "We complement each other well.

"Offensively, we work so well together. We do two different things. Defensively, he's able to cover a lot of ground — more ground than in the past. He's moving really well. And he's making good reads. You can go out there and run around all you want, but you have to make the right reads and he's doing a good job of that.

"I'm still trying to get used to roaming the perimeter a little more — making the right reads, spacing, attacking; that's all new to me."

There's so much new about the Pacers this season. There's no shortage of arguments for optimism, though, and they don't hesitate to make them.

"We work extremely hard," Lamb said. "We're an unselfish team. We have lot of playmakers, a lot of shooters, we have a lot of different things. We can go small, go big. We're athletic. We've got a lot. I think the sky's the limit for us."


Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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