Indiana Pacers

Pacers have built a stable system around Victor Oladipo

It didn’t take long for Victor Oladipo to make the Indiana Pacers his team last season. He took a leap as a scorer and became an All-NBA defender, leading Indiana to the postseason. Indiana’s problem wasn’t when Oladipo was performing at peak level; it was when he wasn’t there to be the savior.

Indiana was 48-27 with Oladipo and 0-7 without him. He wasn’t just their No. 1 option — he was their only reliable source of playmaking and tough shot-making. When Oladipo was absent, so was Indiana’s edge.

That hasn’t been the story this season. Oladipo suffered a knee injury early in a Nov. 17 matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, causing him to miss 11 games. Instead of shuttering, the Pacers went 7-4 — perhaps proving something to the rest of the league, but more importantly, themselves.

While Indiana’s offense suffered without Oladipo, its defense was still able to shut other teams down — posting the second-best defensive rating in the league. No one magically popped up as a star creator to fill the gap Oladipo left. Instead, the Pacers used their defense to create offense — ranking top 10 in points off turnovers and fastbreak points.

Since Oladipo returned, Indiana has won 11 of 14 — placing them right in the mix with the more popular Eastern Conference contenders. Indiana’s charge, which has now been sustained across both their Oladipo-less run and his reintegration, has really been driven by the depth Indiana added this summer or has continued to develop by letting players blossom in new and bigger roles.

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Tyreke Evans was brought in to essentially be a souped-up Lance Stephenson, and he has fallen far short of that thus far. After nearly averaging 20-5-5 last season with Memphis, Evans is just putting up 10.4 points per game on 38 percent shooting from the field. He is also averaging the lowest assist rate and highest turnover rate of his career. McDermott, on the other hand, has become productive after a slow start to the season. After averaging 5.8 points per game the team’s first 14 games, McDermott has averaged 8.1 points per game since and become a bigger part of the Pacers’ offense — spacing the floor, cutting to the rim and playing good team defense.

Even when struggling, Evans and McDermott have mostly been positives on both ends of the floor for Indiana — giving them size at multiple positions. Indiana’s greatest strides have come internally, however, mostly in their frontcourt.

Bojan Bogdanovic had his moments last season, but in his second year with the Pacers, he has become much more integral in how they operate. Bogdanovic is scoring at a career-high rate this season, putting up 16.3 points per game on 50.3/45.0/81.8 shooting splits. He has had a steady hand for the entire season, not posting a single-digit scoring night since Nov. 2. Bogdanovic is known as a shooter, but he has become so much more since arriving in Indiana. Last season, Bogdanovic took a leap defensively. This season, Bogey has started attacking the rim more often and is finishing with a bucket 67 percent of the time — a career-high mark. He is also drawing fouls at a career-high rate. He has gotten smarter at attacking unsuspecting defenders and navigates well through paint defense.

Indiana’s young big man tandem — Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis — has also been a huge positive factor for them.

In Indiana, Nate McMillan has put Sabonis in a position that has allowed him to score at an insanely efficient rate — keeping him in the paint rather than on the perimeter. Coming off the bench behind Turner, Sabonis is a mismatch in almost every situation. He plays well with everyone, posting a positive net rating with every single Pacer. He has played with Cory Joseph, another staple off Indiana’s pine, more than any Pacer.

“He’s consistent, he’s aggressive, he’s strong, his IQ is good,” Joseph said after a recent Pacers’ practice. “He’s a great pick-and-roll player. He sets good screens, he does a lot of stuff that you may not be able to see before the scoring. He has great touch around the rim and he’s one of the best rollers in basketball today.”

Sabonis’s strength, aggressiveness, and selflessness are what makes him so tough to defend. If he has good positioning down low or is hit with a good pass off a roll, he’s going up with the ball and has a good chance of making it — shooting 63.9 percent on shots attempted within two seconds of receiving the ball. His strength and footwork give him the edge over most defenders, allowing him to shoot 64.7 percent when being guarded “tight” or “very tight.” Sabonis’ basketball IQ really shines through when he has the ball away from the basket, however. He turns the ball over at a relatively high rate but ranks in the 94th percentile among bigs in assist percentage (19.2).

Long-term, there are questions whether Sabonis and Turner can play together. After recording a -9.9 net rating last season, the duo is playing a little bit more together this season and has a 9.0 net rating. The majority of the time, McMillan will go smaller — playing Thaddeus Young at the 4 next to Turner or Sabonis. Young is a versatile defender that gives even the league’s best talents fits, and he works hard down low on offense — scoring near the rim and fighting for second-chance rebounds.

Young makes life easier for either big, but Sabonis and Turner have started to figure how to play with each other and offer an offensive look few teams in the league can.

Earlier in the season, fans started questioning whether Turner should even be the starting center over Sabonis. Turner’s numbers regressed last year after a promising second season. He carried that into this season while Sabonis continued to bully guys down low and grab tough rebounds.

Something clicked for Turner in December; he averaged 15.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in 15 games. Last season, Turner struggled with decisiveness. He often didn’t know whether to look to make a pass or shoot, even if he was wide open. He rarely looked confident doing either, resulting in bad passes and missed shots.

While the passes weren’t great, it was good to see him trying. His assist percentage was just 7.1 last season — 32nd percentile among bigs, per Cleaning The Glass. He was improving, however, just how he did the previous two years in that category. This season, Turner’s assist percentage is up to 9.5 — 54th percentile among bigs. The eye test shows it, too. Turner has gotten better at reading movement and finding players near the basket.

Turner has also improved in his decisiveness, knowing where he’s going to pass the ball before he even gets it.

His improved confidence and success as a passer has translated to similar results as a shooter.  He attempted 12.3 shots per game in December, which would be a career-high over a full season. He attempted 2.4 3-point shots per game, the same rate as last season, after shying away from deep earlier in the season.

Becoming a consistent 3-point threat has always been what many felt would take Turner’s offense to the next level. To this point, however, Turner hasn’t strayed away from mid-range jumpers. In fact, he’s taking the most of his career; 52 percent of Turner’s shots come from the mid-range, 97th percentile among bigs. Thirty-one percent of his shots come from long mid-range (14 feet to the 3-point line), 99th percentile among bigs.

Turner shoots well in the mid-range — 46 percent overall. Despite shooting fairly well at the rim and 3-point range, the heavy dose of mid-range attempts has dragged his effective field goal and true shooting percentage down to career lows. Turner is shooting the lowest percentage of his shots at the rim in his career, which is understandable if his game is going to become more perimeter-based. If some of those mid-range attempts don’t become 3-point attempts, however, Turner’s efficiency will always be below where it should be.

December looked like a step forward, however, as some of those high pick-and-rolls produced a long-range attempt rather than a mid-range one. But, again, Turner looked more confident. Shooting from deep, making passes — Turner looks much more comfortable making decisions with the ball. He’s attacking the glass for rebounds harder, too.

On the defensive end, Turner has evolved into an elite force. Known as mostly a shot-blocker up until this point, Turner has become a true anchor for the best defense in the East. Over the summer, Turner used yoga to help improve his balance, mobility, and core strength. That has helped him while defending the paint, but also when he gets pulled away from the rim. In prior years, Turner had trouble keeping smaller, quicker guys in front of him. This season. however, Turner has been able to keep up or recover when ran by.

Five years ago, Roy Hibbert’s rim protection allowed Indiana’s perimeter defenders to gamble more often, putting more pressure on the ball. Turner has had a similar impact.

“Not only when he’s not blocking shots, he’s contesting and changing a lot of shots so I think you can’t take that for granted,” Joseph said. “Everybody that comes through the lane understands that he is an elite shot-blocker. It helps us guys on the perimeter, defenders like me that’s usually guarding the best perimeter player, it helps me be a little more aggressive. I think he’s picked up a great niche on the timing of when to jump.”

Thaddeus Young, spending the majority of his time on the floor next to Turner, has been able to watch him grow in his two-plus years in Indiana.

“He’s getting out there, he’s trying to get down and guard guys,” Young said. “He does a really good job of clearing out a lot of space for us and alter[ing] shots. He starts the break for us most of the time when he’s blocking them off the glass.”

As of January 7, Indiana ranks only behind Oklahoma City in defensive efficiency. As noted, the Pacers have had multiple players step up their game offensively this season. But Indiana hangs its hat on defense. Whether they’re hitting shots or not, their defense gives them a shot.

And at the end of games, they can rely on heroics from Oladipo.

Unlike last season, when Victor Oladipo needed to ball out for the rest of the Pacers offense to open up, Indiana has a balanced attack full of guys that perform only their given role. Everyone does what they are supposed to do and it has allowed the Pacers to remain within striking distance of the top-seeded Bucks and Raptors.

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Regular season only means so much, however. When April rolls around, Oladipo will need to perform. Whether it be a nagging knee or the additional pressure of being a no. 1 option, Oladipo’s scoring and efficiency is down this season. The Pacers aren’t relying on him as much as a scorer, allowing Oladipo to distribute more. It is working now, but later on Indiana will probably need Oladipo to hit more shots.

When needed, Oladipo has proven he can still be the assassin he showed to be last season. The heightened play around him (on both ends) has made that less of a necessity, though, giving Indiana the look of a truly balanced and dangerous Eastern Conference contender.

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