Should Turner and Sabonis Start Together?
An intriguing scenario lurks within the Pacers roster, one that could address some of their primary concerns without the messiness of a major roster change. The trial runs have revealed flaws, however, and tweaks will have to be made before a full-scale version of it can be released.
Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are both 6-foot-11, 22-year-old players with solid bodies of work behind them and the potential for much greater accomplishments ahead of them.
They generally alternated at center this season but playing them together seems like a natural progression, not to mention a strategy that could bring a major reward.
Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers' President of Basketball Operations, hopes it can work out. He sees two complementary players who combine to provide just about everything a big man can contribute in the modern NBA game.
Turner is a 3-point threat who hit 36 percent of his attempts during the regular season and 46 percent in the playoffs. He was easily the team's best shot-blocker, at 1.8 per game, which ranked fifth in the NBA, and showed more interest in mixing it up around the basket as the season progressed.
Sabonis, meanwhile, had no problem at all mixing it up, and had the facial contusions to prove it. He was the Pacers' best rebounder (7.7 in 24.5 minutes per game) and its best post-up player, as well as a solid mid-range shooter with a field goal percentage of 51 percent. He also shows promise as a 3-point shooter, having hit 35 percent of his 37 attempts during the regular season. He gives the impression of being capable of becoming a more accurate shooter with more playing time and a brighter green light. Over his first 30 games as a rookie in Oklahoma City's wide-open offense last season, he hit 44 percent of his 3-point attempts, including three games in which he hit four.
Given what they've done already, and what they seem capable of doing in the future, the thought of combining them tickles the imagination.
"I don't think there's any doubt they can (play together)," Pritchard said. "You never know how they're going to play together, but I have a lot of faith they could be really good."
Pritchard quickly adds a caveat, however.
"They can't be exactly what they are right now," he said.
For the two to be an effective combination, each will have to round out his skill set. Neither is a classic center or power forward, so it seems best for them to become nearly interchangeable. Turner will need to add strength and become more effective around the basket, while Sabonis will need to hone his shooting touch. More than anything, they need to learn to play together and play off one another.
"Players who play with each other a couple of years, they know where they're going to be," Pritchard said. "That makes the game come slower. Domas, the game already comes slow. He can make reads. Myles, he gets a little frantic. And that makes a difference. He's got to calm down a little bit."
Turner and Sabonis played together in 51 games, for a total of 268 minutes, during the regular season. The results, however, weren't as encouraging as one might assume based on their raw talent. The Pacers had a net rating of +1.6 points during the season, meaning they outscored opponents by that margin for every 100 possessions, but when Turner and Sabonis were in the game the Pacers were outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions.
The Pacers were, however, a better rebounding team when the two played together, grabbing 52.2 percent of all missed shots — better than the overall team percentage of 49.6 percent. They would address a primary weakness of a team that ranked 22nd in rebounding during the regular season. They also might draw more fouls if they are effective in the low post, a valuable contribution for a team that ranked 27th in free throw attempts. If they help provide 3-point shooting threats and spread the halfcourt offense, all the better. The Pacers ranked ninth in 3-point shooting percentage (.369) but only 26th in 3-point attempts.
If only it were that simple.
If Turner and Sabonis are starting together, who would defend the agile "stretch four" forward who plays primarily on the perimeter, such as Cleveland's Kevin Love or Golden State's Draymond Green? And, what would become of Thaddeus Young, should he return to the team next season? Young was the most consistent Pacers player in both the regular season and playoffs, and was their most valuable player in the postseason based on Win Share.
As Pritchard said during his press conference on Tuesday, addressing one concern sometimes creates another one.
Regardless of the makeup of the starting lineup, logic dictates Sabonis become part of it someday, or at least get more playing time than the 24 1/2 minutes he averaged this season. He had better scoring and rebounding averages than Turner on a per-minute basis — 17.1 points and 11.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, compared to 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds.
Sabonis struggled through the first three playoff games against Cleveland, then scored 19, 22, and 19 points in the next three while hitting 26-of-35 shots. He relapsed in Game 7, hitting 3-of-10 shots on his way to 10 points, but showed the same promise he had showed in the regular season.
"Someday, he's a starter quality," Pritchard said. "You have to figure out how to get him on the floor for 30 minutes; he's just too good."
Figuring how to do that should be interesting. He's responsible for the solution as much as anyone, though. Turner can contribute to the equation, too.
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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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