Pacers Confident Depth Won't Threaten Chemistry
Depth on a basketball team is good, vital even, but as with so many other things in life, too much of a good thing can bring some bad things. That will be one of the primary challenges facing the Pacers the rest of the season.
They should hope so, anyway, because figuring out what to do with a surplus of capable bodies on the roster means their injury issues are minimal and their options maximized. Dealing with the potentially messy issues of playing time will simply have to be addressed as they go along.
"We have a number of guys who can play, and you can't play everybody," McMillan says, bringing the bottom line to the forefront.
McMillan prefers to play nine, unless extenuating circumstances such as injury or foul trouble intervene or a game becomes so one-sided the starters can safely be removed. But with Victor Oladipo and JaKarr Sampson the only players occupying the Pacers' injured list for now, squeezing plus-sized depth into a size-nine rotation takes some maneuvering. Takes some acceptance of pain, too.
Wednesday's 122-117 victory over Boston flexed the Pacers' depth as well as in any game this season. Aside from Goga Bitadze making a 2 minute and 1 second appearance in which he did not dent the box score, only four players got off the bench and into the game.
Justin Holiday, Aaron Holiday, T.J. McConnell, and Doug McDermott outscored Boston's reserves, 47-19. They combined to play about 27 more minutes, true, but their dominance was such that McMillan played the Holidays the entire fourth quarter and McConnell and McDermott seven minutes apiece. His makeshift combinations outscored the Celtics 38-23 to overcome a 10-point deficit and bring home the Pacers' best win of the 25-game season.
Starting guard Jeremy Lamb didn't play at all in the final quarter and forward Myles Turner got in for just a couple of possessions — 52 seconds in all — to give Domantas Sabonis a brief rest. It will be far from the last time this season starters don't get to finish.
The two Holidays and the two Macs have become entrenched in the playing rotation, but that leaves four other reserves spectating, not to mention a couple of others in street clothes or playing with the G League Fort Wayne affiliate. And most of those outside the nine-man window proved they can contribute when injuries created opportunities earlier this season.
Bitadze, for example. This year's first-round draft pick is stuck behind starters Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner in the line of "bigs," and McMillan often goes with lineups including just one of them to match up with smaller opponents. Bitadze hasn't played more than 10 minutes since Nov. 27 against Utah, but has had his moments. He came up with 10 points and 10 rebounds when he played 25 minutes against Cleveland back on Nov. 1 and 13 points in 20 minutes against Washington on Nov. 6.
"There are going to be some nights when we need him in a game," McMillan said.
TJ Leaf, the first-round pick two years ago, hasn't played at all in the previous eight games and didn't play more than 7 1/2 minutes in the four games prior to that. But guess who's got the third-best Player Efficiency Rating on the team behind Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, and the third-best Win Share adjusted for playing time behind those same two players? And guess who is the team's second-best rebounder on a per-minute basis, behind Sabonis?
Leaf failed to take advantage of his only starting opportunity against the Cavs on Nov. 1 but has played well in most games when allowed to go long enough to break a sweat. He had 13 points and 15 rebounds against Chicago and 12 points and seven rebounds against Houston.
Although some don't believe he's lived up to his draft status, his stats in the games in which he's played more than 15 minutes offer a strong rebuttal — most notably in the final game last season when he scored 28 points at Atlanta. McMillan tried to give him about a half-dozen first-half minutes last season in what he called a 9 1/2-man rotation, but Leaf's shooting suffered in those short bursts of playing time. He's back up to hitting 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers this season.
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Edmond Sumner has moved ahead of Aaron Holiday in the rotation at times over the past two seasons and he started the second and third games this season. A fractured hand in the third game at Detroit sent him into rehab mode, however, and didn't play again until Monday's loss to the Clippers. McMillan said he thought about putting him into Wednesday's game to attempt to contain Kemba Walker, but the Holidays wound up taking care of that.
Alize Johnson has yet to play significant minutes in a game this season. But in the one game he played for Fort Wayne he scored 36 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. His athleticism is intriguing but playing time will require injuries.
And don't forget Naz Mitrou-Long, who was signed to a two-way contract over the summer. He was brought up as an emergency measure three weeks ago after Brogdon and McConnell were injured in a loss at Houston and looked like a legit NBA point guard when he turned in 12 points, three assists and just one turnover in 25 1/2 minutes in a victory at Brooklyn.
JaKarr Sampson hasn't played since Nov. 16 because of a back strain but started seven of the nine games he played before then. The Pacers won all but two of those and he scored in double figures in two despite limited shot attempts. He appears to be best utilized as a non-scoring role player but offered intrigue by averaging 20 points for Chicago over the final four games last season.
Sampson is practicing again and probably could be activated if necessary. Oladipo is practicing as well. No estimate has been given for his return, but he will return at some point this season, at which point someone else gets squeezed out of the rotation or it expands to 10.
Either way, roles will shift rather seismically.
"Once Vic gets back, I'm going to take less shots, everybody is going to have to take less shots, because Vic is a force on offense; he's going to be our best scorer," Brogdon said. "You have to understand that and adjust appropriately."
That will be the challenge. McMillan says some players will have to accept playing significantly in some games and not playing at all in others, depending on matchups. That will test team chemistry and individual attitudes in both the backup and starting units. It might be awkward and frustrating at times, but it beats the alternative of a shallow bench.
"It works better when you have a set rotation; it works better for me and them," McMillan said. "But with so many guys, we have to look at approaching the game where we take advantage of matchups we want to create.
"The bottom line is we're going to try to put a group out there who can give us the best chance to win. We're still working on a rotation off the bench, but I think we can take advantage of that if we commit to (the philosophy of) whoever's out there, you support them."
So far, the roster appears bought-in to that notion. Besides, one never knows what lies ahead. There are certain to be more injuries that create openings for the likes of Leaf and Sumner to play, but not necessarily long-lasting ones and not necessarily enough of them to give everyone significant playing time.
Should discontent begin bubbling beneath the surface, Brogdon seems the most likely candidate among the players to address it.
"I think as long as we keep our egos in check, Coach is going to figure out the right rotations and have guys in the right spots," he said. "This is a low-maintenance team. We'll keep our egos in check."
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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.
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