Pacers Worthy of Award Season Consideration
Defensive Player of the Year
Previous Pacer winner: Ron Artest (2004).
So much goes into being a great defender that it nearly defies statistical analysis. Blocked shots is one form of measurement. So is steals. But how do you place a statistic on a player's ability to stay in front of his man and prevent penetration? What about giving weakside help? Or communicating? How much does an opposing player's point total even reflect a defender's performance given how often teams switch on screens in today's NBA?
One thing's for sure, though: blocked shots count for a lot, and that makes Myles Turner a legitimate candidate to win this year's Defensive Player of the Year award. Of all winners since the honor's inception in 1974, nine led the league in blocked shots that season. A few others had led in a previous season and already built a reputation for defending the paint, the rim and their teammates' honor.
Turner set a goal to lead the NBA in blocked shots when the season began, and has followed through. Only one Pacer in franchise history has experienced a better season of rejection, Jermaine O'Neal in 2000-01. O'Neal, though, had more time to complete his work, averaging 2.81 blocks in 32.6 minutes. Turner carries an average of 2.69 blocks in 28.6 minutes per game in to Wednesday's season-ending game in Atlanta.
Turner also has had fewer opportunities to block shots. The NBA isn't the low-post dominated, inside-out league it was 20 years ago. Teams fire up far more 3-pointers today, which offers up fewer opportunities for centers such as Turner to get a fingertip on a shot around the basket.
Thus, it can be argued Turner has had the best shot-blocking season a Pacer has ever had. He doesn't rely on blocking the shots of opposing centers, although he's become more physical amid rim warfare, he executes sneak attacks on penetrating guards from behind or the weakside.
Turner has accounted for more than half of the Pacers' blocks this season - 199 of the team total of 397. Without Oladipo, who led the NBA in steals last season and was a first-team all-defense honoree, Turner has been the foundation of a defense that ranks third in the NBA. The lack of rim protection when he misses games with an injury is glaringly and painfully obvious.
Nor is it just about actual blocks. The mere threat imposed by a shot-blocker forces missed shots around the rim and often keeps opposing guards from daring to even try to get to the basket for fear of their layup attempt being swatted into the third row.
Consider Turner the interior decorator of the Pacers' defense. Without him, it's an open gate. With him, it becomes a wall.
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Sixth Man of the Year
Previous Pacer winner: Detlef Schrempf (1991 and '92).
Historically, there's a simple formula for determining the winner of this award: find a high-scoring guard who comes off the bench and provides instant offense.
The previous seven winners, and 13 of the past 14, fit the mold. So do four of the top five candidates this season: Clipper Lou Williams, a two-time winner who won last season; Minnesota's Derrick Rose, a former league MVP; Oklahoma City's Dennis Schroder, a starter in his previous two seasons in Atlanta; and Brooklyn's Spencer Dinwiddie, who has successfully transitioned from starter to backup.
And then there's beastly 6-foot-11 Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers' frontline star doesn't fit the recent Sixth Man of the Year mold, but no bench player in the league is more valuable to his team than the third-year center who doubles as a forward. In fact, few starters can claim to be as valuable.
Sabonis ranks eighth among the Pacers in minutes played (24.8) but first in rebounding (9.3) and third in scoring (14.1) while shooting a team-best 59 percent from the field. He's even hit 9-of-17 3-point field goal attempts for a team-best .529 accuracy rate.
The advanced statistical analytics not only reveal Sabonis as being clearly deserving of this award, but also likely the most valuable Pacer.
His Player Efficiency Rating, which takes into account all the ways a player can contribute to winning while factoring in pace of play and playing time, is 22.0. That's easily best of all the Pacers, including Oladipo before his injury. Turner is second at 18.1.
Sabonis' Win Share total, which attempts to determine how much credit each player deserves for a team's win total is .198 per 48 minutes. Darren Collison is second among the Pacers at .154.
None of those high-scoring guards considered to be among the leading Sixth Man candidates can match those numbers. The best among them is Williams, who has a PER of 21.4 and a Win Share per 48 of .126.
Sabonis also deserves credit for what he doesn't do: complain. Most young, emerging players on their rookie contract who can make a case for being their team's best all-around player would be grumbling about it. Sabonis not only offers shows no frustration over his limited role, he's incredibly supportive of Turner, who starts ahead of him. He no doubt leads the Pacers in fist pumps whenever Turner makes a dramatic block or dunk during a game.
Turner, meanwhile, acknowledges that some of Sabonis' rugged style of play has rubbed off on him and upgraded his level of physicality.
"We just both pull for each other," Turner said. "We're both trying to win, that's the biggest thing."
The case can be made that no Pacer has contributed more to winning this season than Sabonis. That seems enough to be regarded as the league's best sixth man.
Coach of the Year
Previous Pacer winners: Jack McKinney (1981), Larry Bird (1998).
The Coach of the Year honor usually goes to the mentor of the team that shows the most improvement, with bonus points awarded if that improvement brings an unexpected place in the playoffs or division title. Larry Bird, for example, won in 1998 when the Pacers jumped from 39 wins in the previous season under Larry Brown to 58 in his first season as head coach.
It might not be fair. Coaching exceptionally talented teams to championships is a great accomplishment, too. But given that guideline, several coaches merit consideration this season.
Orlando improved from 25 victories to 41 and a playoff seed under Steve Clifford. Brooklyn went from 28 to 41 and a playoff seed under Kenny Atkinson. Milwaukee jumped from 44 to a league-best 60 under Mike Budenholzer. Denver's standing in the west jumped from ninth to second in the West under Mike Malone. The Clippers have won 47 games, five more than last season, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season under Doc Rivers.
The Pacers need a win on Wednesday in Atlanta to match last season's 48-34 record, but that qualifies as an impressive accomplishment for Nate McMillan and a deserved place in the COY conversation. His work has caught the collective eye of other NBA coaches and commentators from national media outlets because the Pacers remained in the hunt for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference until Friday's loss to Boston despite the loss of their only certifiable All-Star, Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo was lost for the season in the Jan. 23 matchup with Toronto, after playing in 36 games. His absence left the Pacers without their leading scorer, best perimeter defender, best clutch performer and spiritual leader.
If you had asked fans and media members in the preseason how many games the Pacers would win if Oladipo was going to miss 46 games, likely nobody would have been as optimistic as what turned out to be reality. For that, credit the character of the players assembled by Kevin Pritchard and the rest of the front office and the culture established by McMillan. He has a knack for being demanding without becoming annoying, which is the essence of the job for all NBA coaches over the long haul of the 82-game season.
For the team to finish with the same record as last season, or perhaps one win short, speaks to McMillan's rock-solid maturity as a coach. He carried on with his one-game-at-a-time mantra and stuck to the fundamentals of aggressive defense, physical play and unselfish offense. Despite their collective stagger to the season's finish line, his players on the whole have responded to his leadership and the positive culture remains intact heading into the playoffs.
"They are a basketball team," Boston coach Brad Stevens recently told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. "I mean that as the highest compliment."
For that, McMillan deserves most of the credit.
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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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