Turner-Sabonis Experiment to Enter New Trial Phase
The greatest looming mystery for the Pacers also offers their greatest potential for improvement. It's an experiment that did not succeed in limited trials last season, but will be more fully explored in the next one with a slightly revised formula.
"If we can pull that off," Victor Oladipo said Thursday, "it will be scary."
Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis do indeed offer a combination that could work splendidly, but "could" remains the operative word. Last season, when they played together for 268 minutes over 51 games, the Pacers' rebounding improved but their overall performance declined significantly. A team that outscored opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions over the course of the season was outscored by 6.2 points on a similar scale when they played together.
Still, the intrigue remains. What if the two 6-foot-11 22-year-olds can "pull that off" and form an effective combination? What would it mean to a team with just one all-star player if its two best returning rebounders and – some would say – its second- and third-best players can co-exist for the benefit of the team?
"It will really be effective," Oladipo said. "Both of those guys, at their size, are so versatile and can do so many things."
Improved versatility is the key to making it work. Turner and Sabonis geared their off-season workouts toward that goal, but the results won't begin to reveal themselves until the pre-season schedule begins on Oct. 4.
The major doubt about the combination, according to coach Nate McMillan, is whether either of them can defend smaller players on the perimeter. That happens to be one of the strengths of the current starting power forward, Thad Young, who appears unlikely to be unseated this season.
McMillan, though, believes some Eastern Conference teams are moving way from "small ball" lineups toward more traditional approaches with a true center and power forward now that LeBron James – who often played the "four" position for Cleveland – has moved to Los Angeles. That would make it safer to play Turner and Sabonis together. Not every team will do so, however, which means if Turner and Sabonis are playing together, one of them will have to be able to defend in open spaces.
Sabonis knows who that will be.
"It will be mostly me because Coach wants Myles inside the paint blocking shots," Sabonis said. "So it's on me to step up and guard fours. If that's the way to help the team, that's what I want to do."
Sabonis's off-season workouts made that a priority. He divided his time between his native Lithuania, where he played for his national team, Spokane, Wash. where he played two college seasons for Gonzaga University, and Los Angeles, where he worked with former Gonzaga teammate Kelly Olynyk and other NBA players represented by his agency.
He even dropped in on Turner for a week in Fort Worth, Texas, joining him in a yoga workout among other things. That didn't take place in some luxurious air-conditioned facility, but rather while hanging upside down in straps in what Turner describes as a dark "garage" with heat lamps ramping up the intensity.
"I've done yoga before, but never like that," Sabonis said.
He kept up, however.
"I knew he was going to be fine," Turner said. "Domas is strong; you can look at him and tell that. He was able to go in there and kill a lot of stuff I was doing, so it was good."
The two also were put through stretching exercises designed mostly to loosen their hip muscles, because, Sabonis says, "me and Myles don't have the best hips."
The end result, according to Sabonis, is that he is quicker, more flexible and lighter on his feet. The more practical benefit is that he requires only one step to get into a defensive position rather than two, which potentially could translate into staying in front of a ballhandler on the perimeter.
Turner lists defensive improvement as his primary goal for the upcoming season, and claims results similar to Sabonis after a summer regimen that also included dietary improvements that helped lower his body fat from 14 percent to 8 percent. Although less likely to have to defend on the perimeter than Sabonis, he's going to be called on to do it against opponents who send their centers to the 3-point line to spread the court.
"I'm just moving better," Turner said. "I feel better out there on the floor; I feel a lot looser."
The pairing seems more certain to succeed on offense. Both are decent passers for big men and both can step out to hit 3-pointers. Turner hit 36 percent of his attempts last season, 46 percent in the playoff series with Cleveland. Sabonis hit 35 percent during the regular season and seems capable of better accuracy if given more opportunity. He hit 44 percent of his 3-pointers over his first 30 games in Oklahoma City's wide-open offense as a rookie two seasons ago.
Extending his shooting range, he says, was one of his primary off-season goals.
Ultimately, the success of the pairing probably will come down to whether the rebounding improvement the Pacers get from it outweighs the loss of perimeter defense. They ranked 19th in the NBA in rebounding percentage last season, when they grabbed 49.6 percent of all missed shots, and were outrebounded by an average of 0.7 per game.
McMillan calls improved rebounding his top priority and has established a goal of ranking among the top 10 rebounding teams in the league. While accomplishing that will require a communal effort, having the team's two best rebounders in the lineup for extended minutes would seem to help.
"Myles and Domas and all of our guys, we're trying to condition them to go to the boards and get the ball," McMillan said, referring to the heightened emphasis he's placed on rebounding in training camp.
No matter how compatible Turner and Sabonis turn out to be on the court, their off-court chemistry is proven. They first met in October of 2014, when Gonzaga and Texas played a practice game at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Both were freshmen who would play mostly off the bench that season, but went head to head for a while.
"The first two minutes they blocked every shot of ours, then we added the pump fake and it was over from there," Sabonis said, smiling. "We beat them by 20."
They reconnected last season as teammates and quickly bonded. When they weren't playing together, which was most of the time, they were cheering for one another. Sabonis said then and says now he's fine with playing off the bench behind Turner, but that shouldn't be interpreted as a career-long commitment.
The Pacers' brain trust doesn't want it to be, either. Sabonis had higher scoring and rebounding averages than Turner last season when measured on a per-minute basis, so it seems unlikely he'll average 24.5 minutes per game again in the upcoming season.
"You have to figure out how to get him on the floor for 30 minutes," president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard said after last season. "He's just too good."
Some experiments blow up in the lab. But some offer enough hope that failing to try would be the scariest thing of all.
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