The Pacers are still waiting on Myles Turner. His performance in their first-round series against the Cavs is a microcosm of his three-year NBA career: flashes of greatness that have never quite come together. Turner is a prototype unicorn, a long and athletic shot-blocker with a legitimate 3-point stroke, but molding someone with his skill set into a high-level NBA player has never been more difficult. The league gets faster and more perimeter-oriented every year, with teams like Cleveland shifting to offenses with five 3-point shooters on the court. With the series tied 2-2 and headed back to Cleveland for a Game 5 on Wednesday, Indiana needs to unleash Turner to pull off the upset. It’s not just about this season, either. The future of the franchise depends on his development.
Turner was expected to be the featured player in the Pacers’ offense following the team’s trade of Paul George. Instead, he struggled with the aftereffects of a concussion and an elbow injury, while Victor Oladipo blossomed into a franchise player. Turner had to fit into a more limited role around him. His usage rate (20.0) is practically identical to his rate from last season (19.5). He’s averaging 14.8 points on 58.5 percent shooting and 6.3 rebounds a game in the playoffs, but there’s another level he can get to. His ceiling is a cross between Kevin Love and Serge Ibaka. The Cavs have no one who can guard him. Their only traditional center is rookie Ante Zizic, who has yet to appear in the series.
The flip side, though, is that Turner has no one to guard in the Cleveland lineup. The Cavs start Love at the 5 and keep him parked at the 3-point line to drag the opposing big man out of the paint. Since he often screens for LeBron James, putting a center on Love also forces the big man to match up with LeBron on the perimeter. Turner is fairly mobile for a guy his size (6-foot-11 and 255 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan), but he’s more explosive vertically than laterally. Pacers coach Nate McMillan has tried to keep him away from LeBron, which means putting him on someone who doesn’t have a big role in the Cavs’ offense.
It worked in Game 1, when Turner guarded Jeff Green, the worst shooter in Cleveland’s starting lineup, and zoned the middle of the lane. Green couldn’t make Indiana pay for leaving him open, going 0-for-7 from the field, including 0-for-3 from 3. The adjustment Cavs coach Tyronn Lue made in Game 2 was benching Green for J.R. Smith. That move put four knockdown shooters (Smith, Love, Kyle Korver, and George Hill) around LeBron James, forcing Turner out of his comfort zone. It’s the type of über-small-ball lineup that has given traditional big men fits in the playoffs. Turner has stayed on the floor, but hiding him on Smith means he’s become an observer on defense. He has only one block in four games after averaging 1.8 a game in the regular season.
The only way for Turner to make an impact in the series is on offense. The problem is that the Pacers don’t run many plays for him. Even when the Cavs switch screens and leave a smaller defender on him, his teammates aren’t looking for him to attack a mismatch. Most of his points come within the flow of the offense, whether he’s rolling to the rim or popping out for a jumper. Going to Turner more often inside is an option for Indiana if its offense goes cold in Game 5. He has a clear advantage over Love, who has never been much of a defender. Turner is averaging 1.143 points per possession on seven post-ups in the series, which would put him above the 80th percentile of players in the postseason, if he had enough attempts to qualify.
The other fix is for Turner to consistently pop out to the 3-point line. He’s an excellent shooter who shot 35.7 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game in the regular season. The problem is that Turner took more shots from between 16 feet and the 3-point line (195) than behind the arc (157) this season, the product of a scheme that creates the long 2s most defenses are designed to give up. There’s an argument for Oladipo, who creates almost all his own offense, taking what the defense gives him. There’s no reason for Turner not to be more selective. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he took only 20 jumpers off the dribble all season. He’s 5-for-9 on long 2s in the series, and 5-for-11 on 3s. All he has to do is spot up one more step back before he catches the ball.
The harder change is something that can’t be fixed overnight: Turner’s limitations as a playmaker. After Oladipo went off for 32 points on 11-for-19 shooting in Game 1, Cleveland has relentlessly doubled him whenever he’s come off a screen, which puts pressure on the player setting the screen to make a play in a four-on-three situation. Turner has never been much of a passer. He has career averages of 1.1 assists and 1.3 turnovers per game, and he hasn’t had an assist since Game 1, even though he’s had plenty of chances to find open shooters and cutters. Turner, especially in comparison with his backup Domantas Sabonis, doesn’t read the defense quickly and is often a beat too late.
What McMillan can do is rearrange the roles of his players to counter Cleveland’s pick-and-roll defense. Turner and Thaddeus Young have been the primary screeners on the play, but it might make sense for Young to take that responsibility full-time, with Turner spotting up off the ball. Young is an inconsistent shooter who’s taken only two 3s in the series, and he’s more comfortable as a scorer and playmaker in motion than Turner. Flipping their roles would give Young more opportunities to play off of Oladipo and create more 3s for Turner. Indiana needs someone in its supporting cast to take the pressure off of its sole All-Star, who’s averaged 19 points on 35.8 percent shooting over the past three games.
Bojan Bogdanovic stepped up in the Pacers’ Game 3 win, exploding for 30 points on 11-for-15 shooting. When he regressed to the mean in Game 4, Oladipo had to go it alone, and he wound up shooting 5-for-20 from the field. Bogdanovic, Young, and Lance Stephenson are using most of their energy taking turns on LeBron. Turner is the obvious candidate to fill the void, especially given how little is being asked of him on defense. He went for 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting in Game 4, but he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble and played only 23 minutes.
The other candidate is Sabonis, who was also able to take advantage of the Cavs’ weak interior defense in Game 4, going for 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting in 25 minutes. The problem is that it has been difficult to play the two big men together in the series: The Pacers have a net rating of minus-22.4 in the 15 minutes they have both been in. Sabonis is a more methodical player who gives Indiana a higher floor, but Turner gives the team a higher ceiling as a shooter and a finisher at the rim. How McMillan manages the minutes of the two former lottery picks will be something to watch both in this series and going forward.
Sabonis and Turner are the only real sources of upside on the Indiana roster. Other than Oladipo, everyone else in their rotation is in their prime. Darren Collison and Trevor Booker are 30, Young is 29, Bogdanovic is 28, Stephenson is 27, and Cory Joseph is 26. None is going to get much better. Indiana has never been interested in bottoming out under owner Herb Simon, which means the Pacers haven’t had many chances to add elite talent at the top of the draft. Turner, the no. 11 pick in 2015, is their highest selection since George (no. 10) in 2010. They haven’t picked in the top 5 since drafting Rik Smits (no. 2) in 1988.
The reason Turner fell in the draft is because he was under-utilized in a bench role in his only season at Texas. It’s going to take time for him to figure out who he is in the NBA. He hasn’t been a featured player on offense since he was in high school, and his lack of polish is obvious when you watch him try to pass out of a double-team. Turner could have thrived in Roy Hibbert’s old role in Indiana, but the game has changed too much over the past few years for that to work. While Turner has the speed to survive on the perimeter on defense, he’s never going to dominate so far away from the basket. He has to attack the mismatch the other way and force the opposing team to guard him with a bigger player.
Indiana needs Turner to become an All-Star. The balance of power in the league is shifting to the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia has Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Boston is bringing back Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving next season, and Milwaukee has an interesting young team around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Oladipo has been a revelation, but the Pacers won’t be able to contend without more elite talent around him. While he has three years left on his deal, the free-agent rumor mill churns faster than ever in the NBA. Myles Turner wasn’t good enough to prevent Paul George from having the wandering eye last season. The Pacers need him to be by the time Oladipo is making his own decision in 2021.