Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Can the Pacers survive with their two-big lineup?

The Indiana Pacers have decided to go against the grain, putting two centers in their starting lineup. What will it take for their two-big lineup to work?

The looming longterm question for the Indiana Pacers last year was whether Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, both young centers and among the team’s best prospects, could work together. Both players had tremendous seasons — Turner emerging as an elite defensive cornerstone and Sabonis making a run at Sixth Man of the Year. However, the returns on them actually playing together were mixed.

Turner and Sabonis appeared in 64 games together last season, sharing the floor for just under seven minutes per game. The Pacers were actually reasonably effective in those minutes, outscoring opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions. However, the low number of minutes would imply that we’re almost certainly dealing with a contextually influenced sample, which means it’s hard to put too much stock in either the surprisingly stout defensive efficiency those lineups managed or their frustratingly low offensive marks — especially since none of those marks line up at all with their numbers from the previous season, on a similarly small sample.

Still, something in those minutes appears to have sold the Pacers front office and rather than exploring selling high, the team has reportedly decided to start the pair together in a twin-towers frontcourt. It’s hard to underscore just how hard this decision cuts against the grain. According to data compiled by Jared Dubin at FiveThirtyEight, teams used two-big lineups for an average of just 6.4 percent of their regular-season minutes, by far the lowest mark of the last decade and the culmination of a steep downward decline. It’s hard to imagine the league-wide mark dropping much farther, simply for lack of room, but the Pacers will almost certainly be nowhere near it.

The concern with a two-big lineup on offense is spacing. Although the Pacers’ offseason additions of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, and the development of Aaron Holiday, theoretically give them more shooting and shot creation to cram on the wings and in the backcourt, Turner and Sabonis are still most effective inside the arc, a fact that will inevitably result in some level of crowding.

There are some encouraging signs for their potential to become floor-spacers, but neither is really there yet. Turner shot 38.8 percent on 3-pointers last season but on fewer than 5.0 attempts per 100 possessions, and just 14.8 percent of his possessions were classified as spot-ups. Sabonis made 9-of-17 3-point attempts last season, an encouraging percentage but on a volume that’s not likely to bend the defense until he really starts taking them regularly. As a point of reference, by Todd Whitehead’s offensive role classification system, built on the NBA’s play type data, Turner was a “roll-and-cut big” and Sabonis was a “versatile big,” by virtue of slightly more post-up opportunities. Neither crossed the threshold into “pick-and-pop big” territory, let alone the scheme-busting role of a “tall spot-up wing,” which some bigs like Brook Lopez are now finding themselves playing.

Making 3-pointers will be key and the willingness to take them will be just as important in proving to defenses they need to adjust and account for each player beyond the arc. Both of those elements will largely be reliant on precise execution and continued strategic experimentation. As Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows pointed out before last season, there were plenty of creative sets that could make use of both player’s skills. The Pacers tried some new things but didn’t stumble upon any magic formulas. Turner also did some work on his bad habit of drifting inside the 3-point line when spotting up, but this all highlights the crucial point — manufacturing an efficient offense with both players on the floor will require creativity, skill improvement and consistent execution all within a very tight margin for error.

On defense, the obvious problem would seem to be having Sabonis defend quicker forwards. Two seasons ago, lineups with Turner and Sabonis were torched from beyond the 3-point line but last year they allowed 3-point attempts at a rate slightly below the league average. The benefit of their combination is that Turner can take whichever matchup will keep him closer to the basket and even if Sabonis is blown by on the perimeter, there is an elite rim protector there to encourage a pull-up mid-range shot. The trick will be more with pick-and-roll combinations where a late recovery from Sabonis leaves a ball-handler or a screener just enough space beyond the arc.

Of the 43 players that Sabonis spent at least 30 possessions on as the primary defender, just 14 had attempted at least 4.0 3-point attempts per 100 possessions across the entire season. With Sabonis matched up against those players, Indiana allowed an average of 106.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s not a huge drop from the 103.8 they allowed on all possessions with Sabonis on the floor but it’s, admittedly, not a one-to-one comparison since most of these players were centers that he was defending as the lone big on the floor.

The other key to making this whole thing work may be how much Nate McMillan staggers their minutes. Even if they are both in the starting lineup, it doesn’t mean their minutes will always be linked. Assuming each player averages in the neighborhood of 30 minutes per game, there could still be as many as 18 minutes per game available where they can operate independent of each other, maximizing their skills as the lone big in smaller lineups. Having drafted 20-year-old center Goga Bitadze complicates this plan, but there is a chance that most of his on-court experience this season was going to come in the G League anyway. Staggering minutes to that extreme — 12 minutes of overlap and 18 minutes each for Turner and Sabonis solo, roughly equates to the minute-staggering patterns that the Houston Rockets used with Chris Paul and James Harden last year, or the Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Next: How can we visualize a player’s shooting gravity?

While neither Turner nor Sabonis is an elite athlete in terms of quickness and footspeed, they are unique enough from a skill standpoint that there are enough tools here to make this interesting. Between Turner’s shooting and rim protection, Sabonis’ screening, passing and exceptional awareness, and both of their excellent finishing, it can work. But it won’t be natural, it won’t be easy and they haven’t made a ton of progress in developing synergy over the nearly 700 minutes they’ve played together the past two seasons.

This is the time of year where every team has the luxury of blind optimism. We’ll see how long the Pacers are able to hold onto it about their rotation this season.

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Kings vs. Bulls prediction and odds for Wednesday, March 15 (Trust Kings on road)
3 San Antonio Spurs who definitely won’t be back next season
2023 NBA Draft Big Board 5.0: March Madness arrives
The Whiteboard: Joel Embiid, James Harden are embracing each other’s strengths
Jokic: Nuggets ‘need to be concerned’ about skid

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *