The Domantas Sabonis Black Hole
This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Nate McMillan is a product of the tough, rugged 1990s. He was a very good player for the Seattle SuperSonics, serving as a defensive specialist in the backcourt and a high-volume 3-point shooter for the era. McMillan played for George Karl for a chunk of his successes; Karl was known for his high-octane offenses and those Sonics teams were the epitome of up-tempo.
Given that context, McMillan's Indiana Pacers are all the more puzzling. In the pace-induced and 3-point crazed league, McMillan's teams are dead last in attempts from beyond the arc. They're also 25th in pace, per Basketball Reference.
Thus far, the Pacers are 12-6 and the ultimate test in "glass half-full or half-empty." On one hand, they've gotten out to a strong start without All-Star Victor Oladipo, and with injuries to Myles Turner and Jeremy Lamb as well. On the other, they've played the NBA's easiest schedule, going only 3-4 on the road with two of those wins coming at the cost of the injury-depleted Brooklyn Nets (the third road victory was against the Orlando Magic).
What do we make of these Pacers and their auspicious start?
Regardless of your view, there's a distinct level of untapped potential within this offense that is tied to the shot profile. With some tinkering, the Pacers could ensure they continue to perform while their schedule gets tougher.
We've already started to see this change take place. On Monday, November 25th, the Pacers went 18-33 from 3-point range against the Memphis Grizzlies. Starting guard Malcolm Brogdon sounded off to good friend J. Michael of the Indy Star after the contest on McMillan's willingness to change:
"Coach has been preaching not to be hesitant shooting the ball," said Brogdon. "We've got to shoot more threes to stay up to speed with some of these other teams in the league. We're good 3-point shooters."
On its face, the comments from McMillan and Brogdon are accurate. The Pacers have strong shooters, and in order not to lose the mathematic battle to their competitors, they have to take more cracks at it behind the line. But there's a discord in a few areas that prevent them from doing this, especially Domantas Sabonis.
Indy is sixth in elbow touches, 13th in post-ups and 18th in paint touches. If they aren't taking threes, what is their emphasis on? They're not creating free throws, not getting in the lane and not necessarily pounding the rock inside through Sabonis time and time again.
When he does get touches, he zaps the shot clock and drains the possession by slowing down, eyeing his man up one-on-one and bullying through him to the rim.
The biggest issue with that? He's not kicking it out to open teammates when he's swarmed with bodies. He gets tunnel vision on drives pretty badly, trying to finish over two and sometimes three defenders:
Double teams don't deter Sabonis from forcing difficult shots. Instead, he tries to dribble through and around them, sometimes resorting to daring a defense to trap as a badge of pride to see if he can score against it.
More often than not, he'll over-dribble and turn it over.
When you watch the clips of Sabonis against these post-up doubles, ask yourself a few questions: How long does he have the ball for each possession? Are there any open teammates on the perimeter? What is the reasonable chance of success of an attempt by Sabonis were he to get one off?
The answers to those should be disheartening.
If you're struggling to see where the kicks should come from Sabonis when he faces extra coverage, allow me to help:
How do you take more 3-pointers when the guy you play through most often isn't willing to create them? The return of Myles Turner has further stretched the Pacers' offense—as in, when Sabonis doesn't have the ball he's occupying the space around Turner to be more than just a spot-up threat.
There's no reason to necessarily panic about this offense. Indy's converting at the rim and missing its best player. Things will likely figure themselves out.
But if the Pacers are serious about changing their shot profile, the first guy they need to see it from is Sabonis.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).