This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Don't look now, but the Indiana Pacers have re-tooled on the fly and vastly improved their roster.
The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic hurt, but throw Jeremy Lamb, TJ Warren and Malcolm Brogdon into the mix and they come out with a net positive.
Lamb shot 35.8 percent from three the past two seasons and has increased his scoring average each of the last five years. He's a great complimentary piece and versatile scorer that can start, come off the bench, spot up or create with the ball in his hands.
Brogdon produced an insane 1.446 points per possession (PPP) in catch-and-shoot situations during 2018-19. Only Joe Harris of the Brooklyn Nets shot a higher percentage on as many attempts, according to Synergy Sports Tech. Yet, Brogdon was more efficient on catch-and-shoots than Danny Green, Seth Curry, Stephen Curry and Buddy Hield.
As a shooting point guard, Brogdon can play with the ball or in a spot-up role. He's also one of the league's best at transitioning between the two. He'll come off the pick-and-roll, drive to the lane and kick out to an open teammate. Without stopping his motion, Brogdon finds a spot along the perimeter to spot up and is able to make open shots even with his momentum taking him away from the basket:
He's elite at getting his feet set pre-catch, and got plenty of open looks from the extra attention paid to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. His release is a tad unorthodox, but it's quick and consistent, especially when paired with all the work he does before receiving the pass:
This is the type of shot the Indiana Pacers need to value. They have an All-Star and a franchise building block in Victor Oladipo and must cater to his needs on offense. Oladipo is not the same caliber player as Antetokounmpo, but he is a strong driver that deserves full defensive attention with the ball in his hands. They need shooters to surround him, particularly from various areas on the floor.
Teams stunt at Oladipo from one pass away, meaning it's an easy kick and read for him. As a physical driver, the ability to draw an extra defender in downhill rim attacks is reserved for only the elite scorers off the bounce. Oladipo has vaulted himself into such a category on a team that hasn't shot a high volume of threes.
To his own credit, Oladipo is an underrated and incredibly willing passer. When teams stunt at him, particularly from one pass away, he's been willing to kick to the open guy. Far too frequently, teams would employ that strategy by doubling him on drives in isolation. Someone else would have to make a shot, and the Pacers need incredible spacing around the perimeter to alleviate the burden on Oladipo:
Right shot, but poor result. Darren Collison was fine in that role, as is Myles Turner as a shooting 5. But in order for that strategy to be detrimental to defenses, all four teammates that share the floor with Oladipo must shoot at a threatening level.
Nate McMillan and the Pacers front office seem committed to playing lineups where Domantas Sabonis is the 4, which destroy the perimeter spacing around Oladipo—although Sabonis' corner shooting continues to improve. When Oladipo drives, one of two things will happen: defenders will already be stationed in the lane as they help off a spotting-up Sabonis, or they will flood to Vic from one pass away.
Teams did this last season when guarding Thaddeus Young as well, even though he's an average outside shooter:
While Young was a better floor-stretcher than Sabonis, his stroke was so slow that teams could help off him and recover in time to contest. He shot 34.9 percent from three; Sabonis was 9-17 last season–efficient but on a mightily small sample. So where does the replacement for that shooting come from?
That's really the point: The Pacers need good-to-great floor stretchers at three, if not four of the positions around Oladipo at all times. Simply having replacement-level snipers, as they've done the last few years, isn't good enough.
Their path to finding that production can be through slotting new acquisition TJ Warren at the 4. A stocky 6'8" forward, Warren shot a career-high 42.8 percent from deep with the Phoenix Suns last year. His shooting was fairly balanced from the perimeter, too, as his shot chart (courtesy of John Hancock on ObservableHQ.com) will illustrate:
Warren being a consistent three-point threat across multiple seasons will be a make-or-break aspect of Indiana's spacing. He was 44-91 (44 percent) on catch-and-shoot jumpers while spotting up a season ago, which puts him in the top ten percent across the NBA in efficiency. Compare his mechanics to Young's, and you'll see the former is much more fluid, a lot faster and able to hit from both the corners and the wings. Better yet, he's used to firing up bombs when his man goes to help on a primary scorer, such as Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker:
Young was a below-the-break shooter, spacing to the corners each time. Corner threes are incredibly important, as they force defensive rotations and stretch help defenders to their literal extremes. Putting a 4 that is guarded by a fairly big defender in the corner then puts that man into the help spot on rolls to the rim. That's length and rebounding prowess waiting to impact the play.
Think about it this way: who would you rather have helping at the rim on defense, Thaddeus Young or Darren Collison?
Flip things around on the weak side in your imagination, putting a 4-man on the wing and a guard in the corner. Now the help defender closest to the rim is a guard, typically unable to put their stamp on weak-side blocks, rebounds or altering drives to the rim in the same manner. This is an area where Young's deployment simply didn't help much.
Warren has already proven himself able to shoot from above the break. The residual effects of how that positioning impacts baseline drive rotations is one thing. It's another to see how Warren penalizes teams that over-help on middle ball screens. Pair him with a willing playmaker and spot him up above the break, and he'll thrive in that role:
Warren as an undersized 4—though he's played more 3 during his career so far—helps with spacing because of his ability to shoot. The stretch potential isn't the only benefit of a smaller guy in that 4-spot. Warren is a scorer at heart, and his ability to attack poor closeouts or bigger guys off the bounce is still his best skill.
Sliding Warren to the 4 puts egregious mismatches in his favor where he can attack downhill and destroy bigs that landed flat-footed. In a conference where several teams will play with length and stiffer 4-men, this could be a huge benefit for the Pacers. He's able to spot up above the break and then drive to the rim with a slow-motion-esque balance:
Phoenix even ran sets last season solely designed around a Warren attack in space against his defender. A brilliant design for a quick rip, the Suns would engage in a quick dribble handoff to ball screen. They would hope Warren's defender gets suckered into helping middle to stunt on the roll of DeAndre Ayton. That opened up Warren to drive middle and use his unheralded Euro-step at the bucket.
There's no reason the Pacers cannot include this set, or something similar, to their playbook next season:
I know you're probably thinking, "but what about defense and rebounding?!? Isn't going small going to scuttle both?"
Here's where the brilliance of acquiring Brogdon really comes into play. Both he and Oladipo are plus defenders with enough size, speed and smarts to control the point of attack. Oladipo has especially been a strong rebounder as well. Turner was one of the league's best shot-blockers last year, and Sabonis remains a fantastic positional defender. Most importantly, Coach McMillan has typically gotten a lot out of his team defensive concepts and a stingy team attitude on that end.
They might not be elite on the boards, but there's strong reason to believe in their defensive track record and gang rebounding approach.
In closing moments of close games, the ideal lineup for the Pacers has to be Brogdon-Oladipo-Lamb-Warren-Turner. They have enough length at the 3 and 4 to survive, two excellent perimeter defenders and a rim-protecting stretch-5 in Turner. Every box gets checked on both ends, despite not having a lot of elite players at every position.
McMillan has been resistant to high-volume three-point shooting within his offense. The Pacers have found success with efficiency in low-volume situations and in playing through the elbows. The two-big lineups of Turner and Sabonis are solid but unspectacular, and with Domantas nearing a payday, the Pacers certainly have to figure out if the pairing can exist long-term.
This roster is now built in a way that likely requires a tad more emphasis on the deep ball. The personnel is in place to torture defenses that cannot keep up with this spacing when Indy slides Warren to the 4. We'll see if reliance on Sabonis or a tendency to hammer home tough two-pointers stands in their way of maximizing this group.
But that would be a tactical mistake rather than the personnel-driven necessity of previous seasons.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).