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Time Not Yet Right for Turner, Sabonis to Start Together

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Most likely, it will happen. Not this season, maybe next. Or some season after that. Whenever.

Until then, Domantas Sabonis is OK with coming off the bench in support of Myles Turner rather than starting with him, as many Pacers fans seem to want and some of the statistical analysis seems to support.

Turner, who has participated fully in the Pacers' previous two practices, will return to game action soon, perhaps on Friday when they play at Cleveland. He'll likely come off the bench for a while as he shakes off the rust that's formed since he last played on Jan. 8, but will reclaim his starting position soon.

Sabonis will then return to a reserve role, which might seem objectionable for a guy who has averaged 12.8 points and 10.5 rebounds over 28 minutes in the 16 games he has started in place of Turner. It could be argued, in fact, that Sabonis is the superior player, when playing time is factored into their stats. Projected over 36 minutes, Sabonis averages 17.7 points on 53 percent shooting and 11.9 rebounds, while Turner averages 17.1 points on 49 percent shooting and 8 rebounds.

The catch is on defense, where Turner averages 2.8 blocks and Sabonis just 0.9.

Although McMillan made it a point to play the two together in each game before Turner's injury, and will do so again when Turner returns, he has no interest in starting them together. He doesn't consider either of them capable of defending "fours" on the perimeter well and doesn't consider Thad Young to be well-suited to move to the "three" position.

"We've had success with our starting group … pump the brakes is what I would say," McMillan said Thursday. "(We'll play Turner and Sabonis together) when that opportunity presents itself with our rotation and we're comfortable with that rotation. You need balance between the first and second rotation. We feel we have the proper balance."

The advanced analytics support McMillan. Turner and Sabonis have played together for 174 minutes this season, over 29 games. The Pacers' offensive rating is virtually the same when they are on the court at the same time, but their defense drops off fairly significantly, from 105.9 to 108 – the number of points allowed over 100 possessions.

The Pacers become one of the NBA's best rebounding teams, however, when the two play together, grabbing 53.3 percent of all missed shots, which is close to the league lead.

McMillan is fortunate Sabonis accepts a backup role. Another player who has played as well as Sabonis lately might be complaining about returning to the bench, or at least pouting about it. He expresses no hints of remorse.

"Oh, no," he said. "At the end of the day, we're a team. The main goal is to win as many games as possible and I knew coming into the season my role was on the bench. I'm just here filling in for his absence."

That doesn't mean he'll feel that way forever. He says his goal is to improve each season and force the coaches to make decisions about his role. He's fine with his role this season, though, and would accept it next season as well.

"Oh, yeah, of course," he said. "I'm going to come in and do my job. I feel like it doesn't matter when you (play), as long as you (produce) in the minutes you have. That's all you can control."

Based on their performance, potential and personal chemistry, it seems inevitable Turner and Sabonis will join forces in the starting lineup someday. One of them might have to improve his perimeter defense, or a different player might need to join forces with them, but it's difficult to imagine Sabonis playing off the bench for as long as he's a Pacer. He is somewhat reminiscent of Detlef Schrempf, was twice voted Sixth Man of the Year before becoming a starter in the 1992-93 season.

Regardless of if or when their time comes, Turner and Sabonis will welcome it.

"He makes the game easier for me," Turner said. "He's one of those dirty-work players. He gets in there and gets on the glass and he demands more attention (from defenders). When I'm out on the perimeter, I can feed him in the post. You can't really double off much.

"We're opposites, but we attract out there on the court."

Sabonis, meanwhile, appreciates having a shot-blocker and big body with him.

"If you mess up on defense, Myles is there to block the shot or alter the shot," he said.

For now, playing the two together comes at a cost, beyond the drop-off on defense. It either forces Young to the bench, or away from his most natural position. Young played small forward earlier in his career with Philadelphia and Minnesota, and wouldn't mind doing so again, but McMillan wasn't pleased with the result when he tried Young there last season.

"I'm fine playing whatever position," Young said. "I know all the plays from every position. It wouldn't be a problem, but at the end of the day the coach has a game plan and we follow that game plan. If it happens, I'll be ready for it."

It likely won't happen this season, other than for brief stretches of games. But the two 21-year-old could be on a collision course.

"We have to keep working together in the summer and keep developing a relationship," Turner said. "I can definitely see it in the future."


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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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