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All They Do Is Win … but Can They Contend?

The Pacers put a playoff team on the floor every season, no matter who’s on the roster. With Victor Oladipo returning, can they finally be something more? Here’s how Indiana home-brewed a winner, and why taking the next step won’t be so easy, even with its All-NBA guard in the lineup.

Leonardo Santamaria

“Have you ever seen A Beautiful Mind?”

Before Pacers team president Kevin Pritchard gets the answer to his question, he’s already setting the scene. In the summer of 2019, the chaos of planning for free agency had covered the walls of the Pacers offices in roster scenarios and contract possibilities, invoking the sort of newspaper-and-yarn puzzle boarding that has become shorthand for obsession and conspiracy theory. Free agency can push even the steadiest executives to the brink. When more than half of the players in the NBA hit the open market at the same time, as they did last summer, teams are forced to stake their futures on layer upon layer of hypotheticals. “It’s crazy,” Pritchard says. “If this, then that. If this, then that. But if this and this, then that.”

Indiana was forced to sort through more elaborate contingencies than most. Of the top eight players in the Pacers’ rotation at the end of last season, six became unrestricted free agents. To even bring back the same roster would require a series of independent—and perhaps incompatible—negotiations. The Pacers went a different way, parting with all six of their own free agents and assembling something almost entirely new. Gone was the plucky, defense-first team that had won 48 games despite a season-ending injury to Victor Oladipo. In its place: another plucky, defense-first team now on pace to win even more—and possibly rise further still when Oladipo returns this week from a year-long absence.

This is who the Pacers are. Working in the NBA means making peace with transition; Indiana is the rare franchise to find stability between empowered superstars and veterans serving out mercenary contracts. Players come, players go, and the Pacers win. During the past 30 years, only the Spurs have made more playoff appearances. Since 2010, Indiana has missed the postseason just once—on a tiebreaker for the eighth seed, in a season that Paul George missed almost entirely with a broken leg. When George later requested a trade, the team retooled and won. When Oladipo, the centerpiece of that trade, went down with his own season-ending injury, the Pacers regrouped and won. It’s hardly an organizational preference to operate this way, but when the circumstances call for it, Indiana will paper its office walls in elaborate proposals and trace the winning combination between them, one skein of yarn at a time.

To bring their current team together, the Pacers traded for Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren; courted but lost leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic; signed Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, and Justin Holiday; couldn’t agree on terms with Thaddeus Young to return; drafted Goga Bitadze; and extended Domantas Sabonis. “There are all these moving pieces,” says Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan. “It’s exhilarating. But then come August 1, you’re like, OK … what did we just do?”

What the Pacers did was the very thing they’ve done for years. In the absence of its best player, Indiana put itself in a position to compete—and, when the roster is made whole, to play for something more. There are long-suffering franchises in the NBA that would move heaven and pick swaps just to make the playoffs. In Indianapolis, winning basketball is simply a fact of life.

Before a December date with the Lakers, Sabonis goes to battle in the post against assistant coach Bill Bayno, whose arms are enveloped by puffy, barrel-shaped pads. On each reads a simple directive: “EAT.” Sabonis makes a meal of it. The Holiday brothers, Justin and Aaron, watch from one sideline of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor. Holding court on the other is the living history of the Pacers: longtime executive Donnie Walsh, who still consults for the team at 78 years old.

The very notion of the Pacers as a well-run NBA franchise began with Walsh. Before he took over as general manager in 1986, Indiana had won 38 percent of its games in the previous decade—roughly equivalent to the last 10 years of Suns basketball, only without the literal goat shit. Within three seasons, Walsh had drafted Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and Chuck Person, traded for Detlef Schrempf, and turned the Pacers into a postseason fixture.

“I think that’s the first mark of being a good franchise,” Walsh says. “That you’re always in the playoffs.” One thing that Walsh understood implicitly: not only were the Pacers vying against their nightly opponents in the NBA, but also against the state’s past and present. When he hired assistant coach Dan Burke in 1997, he lamented that the Pacers had to compete against IU, Purdue, Notre Dame, and even high school basketball teams for the rooting interest of every Hoosier. “I’m thinking: Come on, man, high school?” Burke remembers, shaking his head. “I learned fast.”

Every professional sports team is, in some way, a product of its market. There is no way to understand the Pacers without considering Indianapolis, a basketball-saturated, Middle American city that ranks near the bottom of the league in market size. To create Pacers fans, the team had to win. To keep them, they have to win endlessly. “Even though the Colts are a big name here, basketball in Indiana is like God,” head coach Nate McMillan says. “So I think you’re always gonna have to put a good product on the floor here. You have to.”

Teams like the Knicks can embarrass themselves for years without so much as an empty seat at Madison Square Garden. Indianapolis has a far different relationship with the Pacers—one inarguably complicated, team personnel suggest, by the Malice at the Palace and the mess that followed it. In the years after the November 2004 brawl, home attendance at Pacers games dropped precipitously, as low in one season as 66.6 percent, according to data from ESPN. Felony charges for then-Pacer Stephen Jackson (for firing a gun into the air outside a strip club at 3 a.m. during the week of training camp) coincided with some of the bleakest basketball in team history.

Attendance numbers that low—a level reached just four other times in ESPN’s 20-year database—endanger a franchise. Other small-market teams fear the possibility of their fans tuning out. The Pacers and longtime team owner Herb Simon have lived it, and by doing so set the operations of their entire franchise against the threat that it could happen again. When George requested a trade from the Pacers in 2017, Simon told Pritchard that he didn’t want a return built around future draft picks. He wanted to watch Indiana compete. “Can you get me a team we can be proud of?” Simon asked. With that request, he changed the parameters of what the front office would look for in return. Many around the league were baffled when the Pacers settled on a package from the Thunder of Oladipo and Sabonis. The public response was even less forgiving. After spending the day of the trade at the Orlando summer league, Buchanan retreated to his hotel room to call his wife, Melanie. “You guys are getting killed,” she told him. “They’re really hammering you.” Even when the Pacers weren’t hearing criticism of the deal directly, they couldn’t escape the fallout.

Two days after the deal went public, the mechanics of the trade were finalized. Pacers staff returned to the gym to watch the summer league team in action, an effort—perhaps in vain—to return to normalcy. When they arrived, they found Oladipo already there, ready in support of his new teammates. The new face of the franchise made his way over to Pritchard and Buchanan to let them know he had heard the waves of criticism in response to the deal. “Trust me,” Oladipo told them, “you guys made the right decision.”

Oladipo turned out to be better than the Pacers ever expected, and even more vital to the franchise than they ever could have dreamed. Immediately he vaulted into the league’s elite, earning All-NBA and All-Defense selections his first season in Indianapolis. His personality—buoyant and tenacious—became the team’s personality. His calm became the team’s calm.

“Vic really set a foundation when he came,” Sabonis says. “Positive mind-set, everybody working hard together. Our first year here, we had great guys that just wanted to work and had stuff to prove. I feel like when new guys come, they see what we’ve built here, they believe in it, and they just want to carry on building into this organization.” The Pacers are a known quantity. Brogdon, a restricted free agent last summer, was enticed to Indiana after keeping tabs on the team from afar. “I’ve watched the Pacers for years,” he said. (A four-year, $85 million contract—the richest deal ever arranged in team history—didn’t hurt, either.) What caught Brogdon’s interest was the way the Pacers defended and, moreover, the way they were coached. McMillan himself is part of a certain tradition; before his promotion in 2016, McMillan was an associate under the Pacers’ last head coach, Frank Vogel, who was an assistant under his predecessor, Jim O’Brien. The last 13 years of Pacers basketball has been played in the shade of a single coaching tree. There is a similar genealogy in the front office, where Pritchard, Walsh, and Larry Bird create a decades-long through line for the team’s basketball operations. Simon, sitting atop the organizational chart, is the league’s longest-tenured owner.

Players and staff who come to Indiana know exactly what they’re getting. “They always won games,” says Justin Holiday, who signed up this summer to come off the bench. “They always made it to the playoffs.” At 30-17, with the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference, that trend is likely to continue. (Home attendance, meanwhile, is up to 91.1 percent.) Indiana has a reputation around the league as a franchise where staffers go to stay. Burke signed on as an assistant 23 years ago and never left, working under six different head coaches. Walsh still sits in on every Pacers practice, watching the team work through their defensive rotations on a court that bears his name. There’s only so much that can be done in the current climate to keep a roster together, but Indiana has managed a logical consistency in the way those rosters are assembled and run. With that comes another reputation: that of a good, hard-working team that is never quite good enough to break through.

At least, until they do.

Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, and Domantas Sabonis
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

At the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a panel of NBA executives and media members debated the finer points of team management before a rapt audience of quants and networkers. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made the case that the worst place for a team to be was in the middle: good enough to win and perhaps even to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to acquire transformational talent. “Your best chance to rebuild is to get the next Blake Griffin in the draft,” Cuban said. “You have to find that guy, and chances are you need a top-three pick.” (Seven years later, Dallas would trade up for a top-three pick to draft Luka Doncic.) While voicing his agreement, Pritchard—then the general manager of the Trail Blazers—brought to the panel an elegant concept: the treadmill of mediocrity. Merely decent teams could jog in place for years without actually going anywhere at all.

Whether the current Pacers fit this description is a matter of perspective. Indiana has lost in the first round of the playoffs for four straight years, never seeding higher than fifth place in the East. They are just successful enough to compete, lose, and draft in the mid-to-late first round. Yet what’s lost in this sort of top-down view of the franchise is just how much has changed internally during that time. The current Pacers have just three rotation players in common with last season’s team (Sabonis, Myles Turner, and Doug McDermott), which had to make do without its best player, who had been the prime return of a blockbuster trade the year before; and the team before that had kept just two of its regular contributors. That’s not a treadmill. It’s a feat of engineering.

The churn never really stops. NBA teams—particularly those in smaller markets—are under constant pressure to evolve and improve, if not for their own sake then for that of their stars. Today, Oladipo is a cornerstone of the Pacers. In 2021, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent with options to consider.

“There are a few teams in this league that have the opportunity to get the top players,” Pritchard says. “Those players dictate a lot about winning. So what we have to be about is: Can we figure out a way to hit whatever peak we have?”

This is basketball as self-actualization. Yet in some cases, the reward for a team making the most of its potential is the revelation that it should be torn apart. After two straight exits in the East finals, the Pacers made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2000, only to be bodied out of the series by Shaquille O’Neal, the late Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers. O’Neal averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds in the Finals, dominance bordering on cruelty. On the flight back to Indianapolis, Walsh looked around the plane and saw a team at its limit.

“I thought: These guys have done every possible thing they can do to try to win the championship,” Walsh says. By the start of the following season, the Pacers had replaced three starters and their head coach. They would go on to make the playoffs for six straight seasons.

“You have to know the point at which you will change the team,” says Walsh.

Indiana reached that point again last season, with another roster that management felt had reached its ceiling. Even before Darren Collison shocked the league by announcing his (perhaps temporary?) retirement from basketball to more fully dedicate himself as a Jehovah’s Witness, Indiana had made it a priority to find a new starting point guard. Brogdon was a strong choice and, in a way, characteristic of the Pacers’ ongoing survival.

In Oladipo, Sabonis, and now Brogdon, Indiana identified three players who were ready to do more than their previous teams allowed. It’s harder than it seems to find talent on the cusp. Some players are clearly miscast, as Sabonis was spotting up from the corners in Oklahoma City. Others, like Brogdon, hide in plain sight as high-level role players deferring more than we realize. Indiana had been fascinated with Brogdon for years; back in 2016, the Pacers explored the possibility of drafting him with the 20th pick, before deciding to trade that pick (which yielded Caris LeVert) for Young, a veteran power forward, instead. Even then, Indiana saw Brogdon as an impressive playmaker with the disposition to someday run an offense of his own. It took three years in the league and a trade to the Pacers for him to finally get that chance.

Finding these breakout candidates requires a mix of good diligence and good luck; the Pacers are the first to admit they didn’t fully appreciate what Oladipo was capable of when they traded for him. Realizing that potential takes a coach like McMillan, who empowers players without ever making a show of it.

“He allows you to play,” Brogdon says. “I’ve had the most freedom with him out of any coach in my career.” For all his old-school leanings, McMillan is the kind of coach who personalizes his concepts to the talent available. Plays that were run for Bogdanovic last season have been amended for Warren—specifically, the fact that Warren is more likely to pump-fake a 3 than actually take one. Warren spaces to the corner like Bogdanovic did, but largely to catch and drive; despite being set up to take 3s, Warren ranks seventh on the team in long-range attempts per game. Where Bogdanovic would have curled beyond the arc for a jumper, he will instead take a sharper angle to attack off the dribble.

What is comfortable can also be functional. When the second unit enters the game to flank Sabonis, the offense and defense will change shape to suit the players involved. The combination of Sabonis, McConnell, McDermott, and the two Holidays rates as one of the most effective lineups in the league this season, according to data from NBA Advanced Stats. “I love the fact that they have created a style of play,” McMillan says of that group. More of the primary action will run through a Sabonis handoff to McDermott, a pairing McMillan cultivated last season and made a point to preserve in the rotation.

“I always want to find him,” Sabonis says of McDermott. “I’m always saying: ‘Come back! Play with me! Don’t pass it out, and I’m gonna find you.’”

Defensively, the Pacers reserves have a bit more flexibility than their starting counterparts, all due to the players involved. Justin Holiday makes the entire group more switchable. Aaron, who is seven years Justin’s junior, has a green light to “shadow,” or pick up opposing guards full-court, at his discretion. The Holidays—including their brother, Jrue, who stars for the Pelicans—were raised on defensive slides and have made a family business of ball denial. Putting two on the court together buys the defense time, taking seconds off the shot clock where the Pacers don’t have to rotate and recover.

A team working under Indiana’s constraints needs every edge it can find. This is a franchise that generally ranks in the bottom third of the league in terms of payroll, doesn’t have the benefit of spending into the luxury tax, and has to convince young millionaires to come to one of the NBA’s smallest, coldest markets. “You can’t compete with L.A.,” McMillan says, “even though you do compete with L.A.” The strongest appeal is to give players a chance to win—to be a part of a team that plays hard and hits its ceiling.

When players come to Indiana, it is under the expectation that they will defend. “We’ve had several players that we’ve received recently that people would say never guard,” Burke says. “But at some point they guarded somewhere.” It’s Burke’s job, as the coordinator of the defense, to bring them back to that place. Bogdanovic didn’t have much faith in his own defense when he joined the Pacers in 2017. By the end of his first season, he was a credible defender against LeBron for the full run of a seven-game series. McDermott signed with the Pacers after bouncing around the league, largely because teams couldn’t trust him to defend.

“Coach, I’ve been with too many teams,” he told Burke. ”I don’t wanna be with any more teams.”

McDermott now requests his own video on upcoming personnel and, according to Burke, has been noticeably more attentive to the specifics of his matchups. “It’s funny,” Burke says, “these guys think it’s all drills, but a lot of it is just knowing who you’re guarding.” Recognizing pull-up shooters and left-hand drivers has made McDermott better at stopping the first move an opponent tries. Sometimes that’s all it takes. “I think early in my career, I was a little too lazy to watch film, even before games,” McDermott says. “You’re always just thinking about: ‘How am I gonna score? How am I gonna get buckets this game?’ Now, I’ve really tried to mature where I have clips of guys I’m gonna be guarding out there right before I take the floor.”

The broader philosophy of the Pacers is that anyone with the care to try can be a good team defender. McDermott has that care—enough to sprint across the lane to body up an opponent for a rebound or to disrupt a dribble handoff by fighting over the action and clawing his way back into position. Bigger and more athletic opponents will still get the best of McDermott; Michael Porter Jr., for one, did so spectacularly. Yet on balance, he’s becoming less of a liability. Indiana defends at roughly the same level, according to Cleaning the Glass, whether McDermott is involved or not.

There’s power in that sort of developmental structure. When a team can consistently turn lacking defenders into passable ones, what they look for in a free agent might change completely. “It’s such a luxury for us when you put together a team,” Buchanan says. “Maybe you can take a chance on a guy who doesn’t have the reputation for being a great defender. Or you see the liability on the defensive end, and you know Dan can figure out how to make him be serviceable for us and make our defense function.”

Operating from that perspective changes the internal calculus around a player like Warren, who has been strong defending the ball for the Pacers and is growing into their team concepts. It makes it easier to sign Lamb, who might not do a perfect job of closing out on shooters but is already showing more fight working over screens. It’s another lens that allows this small-market team to look out at the pool of free agents every year and see some glimmer of opportunity reflected back.

While on a rehab assignment with Indiana’s G League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Oladipo was asked how he would advise a player scrapping for a place in the NBA. “At the end of the day,” he said, “everybody has the same goals and aspirations and dreams that you have. But you have to find something and do something to separate yourself from everybody else.” It’s sound advice, both for a G League hopeful and an NBA franchise making its own way. Every other team is competing for the same talent with the same goals. Winning, then, is a matter of thinking differently.

Dallas Mavericks v Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

The Pacers are incomplete. In a sense, they were built to be; this particular roster was assembled with the eventual return of Oladipo in mind, down to the negotiations with the players themselves. Lamb, for example, was recruited to Indiana in a dual role: first as a starter in the backcourt at the outset of the season, and later as Oladipo’s eventual backup. (There has been some internal discussion since as to whether Lamb or Warren will ultimately move to the bench.) Part of what made Brogdon such an enticing fit was the Pacers’ belief that he could drive enough offense for the first few months of the season to keep the team afloat. With the help of Sabonis and a well-balanced supporting cast, he managed. An unfamiliar roster and further injury (Oladipo aside, Brogdon, Turner, and Lamb have already missed a combined 34 games) haven’t prevented the Pacers from scoring at an above-average rate thus far, before working in the one player who could change everything.

This week, the constitution of the team will be tested. Oladipo announced earlier in the month that he would make his long-awaited season debut on January 29, more than a year after rupturing his right quad. Rarely are these sorts of returns uncomplicated. Months of practice can’t fully prepare a player for the evolving demands of an NBA game, particularly after so much time away. We know that Oladipo can attack and dunk; while practicing with the Mad Ants in December, he finished a lob pass with a one-handed flush—all while his drill partner, a workaday G Leaguer, wisely ducked out of the way. Making full-speed moves in a workout setting is a positive indicator of what Oladipo’s surgically repaired leg will allow. What it doesn’t tell you is how those moves fit into a team already in motion, complete with its own working dynamic.

Those with the team are frank about Oladipo’s return being a moment of truth. To this point, the Pacers have had months to find comfort in their roles: When they come into the game, where they see the ball, and how often they’re in a position to shoot. “Now you’re adding a really good player,” Buchanan says. “How does that disrupt the flow of things? We don’t know. I’d be lying if I told you, ‘This is how it’s gonna work.’” The value in building chemistry is to reach a state where players don’t have to think so actively. It’s the critical, nanosecond difference between scanning the floor for a teammate and knowing, instinctively, where he’ll be. Reintroducing Oladipo forces the Pacers into their own heads. Teammates will go out of their way to pass to him. Pacers newcomers will need to learn how he plays, all while Oladipo reminds himself. This is a team that Oladipo doesn’t really know, and one that found its way specifically without him.

“It’s almost like it’s a couple of different seasons here,” McMillan says. “The start, now, and then when Victor comes back.”

To accommodate this kind of return, the rotation itself will have to change shape. One of McConnell or Aaron Holiday could be pushed out of the mix almost entirely. The offense, currently balanced between three different 18-point scorers, will surely tilt. In his two seasons with the Pacers, Oladipo used almost 30 percent of the team’s possessions during his time on the floor. Those shots and touches will soon come at the expense of the team’s established rhythm; despite his strong season and a compelling All-Star case, Brogdon, in particular, could be due for a step down from the highest-usage role of his career. It was depth that allowed Indiana to get by in Oladipo’s absence, and that bonded the Pacers in the challenge presented. Becoming whole, in this case, means asking everyone involved to do less.

“Part of being on a great team is having to take some sacrifices,” McDermott says. “As long as we’re winning, I don’t think anyone really cares.”

It’s what Oladipo represents that makes the bargain worthwhile. For a team in Indiana’s position, adding an All-NBA guard could be the difference between competence and contention. The interim Pacers are the kind of tough, committed squad that can ruin an opponent’s road trip. They just might not have the creative resources to end an opponent’s season. It still takes Indiana too long to problem-solve on the court; when some initial action goes awry, the Pacers can spend the better part of the shot clock working their way back to neutral. Even the team’s best creators are deliberate. Sabonis relies on screens and rescreens, pump fakes and step-throughs. Brogdon can break his man down off the dribble if given time, though he can’t always get the clearance needed for his push-shot jumper on command. It can all turn a bit frantic as a possession ticks away, which helps explain why the Pacers have scored so miserably when going deep into the shot clock.

A healthy Oladipo provides another gear. Before his injury, the two-time All-Star would retreat well beyond the 3-point line, rev up, and sprint directly toward his defender. Agility was the defining quality of his game; to understand how precisely Oladipo would change his speed and direction, one needed only watch the first-rate athletes falling all over themselves as he darted past. The Pacers are especially keen on Oladipo’s partnership with Brogdon, and how the two guards can moderate their collective workload. “You don’t want Victor having the responsibility to create offense every single play and then go guard the other team’s best player on the other end,” Buchanan says. This would be true of any star, though it’s particularly resonant for Oladipo—an all-league defender who does his best work roving away from the ball.

Playing with Brogdon should allow him that freedom. When the Pacers prepped for a home game against the Lakers earlier this season, they faced a common NBA dilemma: Who will guard LeBron James? There is never a perfect solution—even for a game where Anthony Davis was listed as questionable. Burke, while mulling the game plan, consulted his starting point guard. Brogdon is a thoughtful collaborator for coaches and teammates alike, as he’s able to bring a perspective that extends beyond what is most convenient for him personally. When asked which matchup he wanted for the game against the Lakers, Brogdon responded without hesitation: LeBron. “He wants the challenge,” Burke says. “He doesn’t want it easy.” Although Burke had been leaning toward giving the assignment to Warren—who, at 6-foot-8, is the closest physical match for James among the starters—he trusted Brogdon’s resolve. It paid off. James shot just 5-for-16 from the field and committed four turnovers when he shared the court with Brogdon that night, in a game the Pacers won, 105-102. Brogdon, who has become an anchor for Indiana in crunch time, drove around Dwight Howard for the go-ahead layup.

Even when a star like Oladipo can score and make plays and defend at a high level, the real power comes in doing so selectively. The challenge is asking the best basketball players in the world to forgo some of what they do best.

McMillan often compares coaching a team to baking a cake, in the sense that the final product is dictated by the ingredients involved. (In the world of this metaphor, I believe Turner to be the baking powder.) The great variable, however, is time—an intuitive sense of how long those ingredients need to become something more. For the past few months, McMillan has attempted to balance the minutes of Sabonis and Turner, who are starting together for the first time in their careers. “It’s starting to work a little better,” says McMillan. “Part of that is talking with the two of them and letting them know how we’re gonna try to spread you out so you can have your space.”

Typically, Sabonis will exit games early so that he can return to play with the second unit—a double shift that has resulted in a huge jump in playing time. “I’m always complaining about wanting more minutes,” Sabonis says, smiling. “Now I’ve just gotta go out there and have fun.” Playing this well seems like an awfully good time. Sabonis has worked over defenses this season with alternating force and finesse, resulting in his best basketball to date. It would be a bigger surprise, at this point, if he weren’t selected as an All-Star. Still, Domas will get calls from his father, Lithuanian legend Arvydas, back in Kaunas, reminding him to stretch and hit the cold tub. “He’s on it,” Sabonis says. “He watches every game.”

Still, there’s only so much McMillan can do to compartmentalize his two best bigs while still getting both the minutes they deserve. In December, Turner and Sabonis were separated as much as the rotation would allow and still played roughly half their minutes together. There is no perfect arrangement. Conceptually, when both are in the lineup, the Pacers consider Sabonis their center on offense and Turner their center on defense. “I’ve had to make an adjustment,” Turner says. “I’ve played the 5 my entire career, and switching over to the 4, there’s different spacing you have to do. I’m not as involved in the pick-and-roll as I have been in the past, and that’s where a lot of the time I was scoring.”

When the two bigs are on the floor together, Turner shoots about half as often as he does otherwise. Many of those possessions are spent spotting up around the arc, streamlining his offense to the point of specialization. Nearly half of the shots Turner attempts overall are 3-pointers.

Roles like Turner’s are the cruel irony of the 3-point revolution. Centers lobbied their coaches for years for the freedom to shoot 3s. Now they have it—along with the responsibility to space the floor, the basketball version of managing the team’s logistics. This isn’t an ideal role for Turner so much as the best Indiana can do under the circumstances. A team can draft well, nail a franchise-defining trade, use its cap space effectively, and still wind up with fundamental complications in its roster. The Pacers are better off because Turner is willing to play a simple role. It just isn’t the most productive—or engaging—use of his talents.

“I think Myles has the biggest sacrifice,” McMillan says. “Between them, and I think between everybody.” It’s meaningful for Turner’s coach to note that. In a recent interview with Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, Cavs forward Kevin Love reflected on the compromises of playing with LeBron and Kyrie Irving. What bothered him wasn’t the fact that, fresh off an All-NBA season, he had given up shots to squeeze into a more narrow role. It was the lack of regard, as if it had never happened at all. “I think I just wanted a little bit of love,” he said. “Not even notoriety, just an acknowledgment of, ‘Hey, listen, we know that you’re sacrificing.’”

The Pacers know. McMillan and his staff run clips in film sessions to highlight players giving of themselves. Teammates praise Turner’s commitment to the extra pass, even on nights when he’s taken fewer shots than normal. What Turner brings defensively is crucial: a level of rim protection that gives cover to everyone around him, further protecting the team from points of vulnerability. Yet to guard well, he must be at peace. There will be days when Turner, by the nature of his role and the inconsistency of his scoring, seems invisible. Some annoyance is inevitable, as it is in every NBA locker room; there’s not even much effort to conceal the subtext when a player grumbles that their role “is what it is.” Functional teams—and well-adjusted players—find ways to settle those frustrations for the sake of the next play.

“You keep the bigger picture in mind,” Turner says. “We’re a winning team. The fact that I’m able to contribute to a winning team, that’s all that matters.” Put this way, Turner’s commitment to the idea feels understandably conditional. Winning is what gives the Pacers the standing to ask something like this of him in the first place. It soothes egos and buys time. It builds camaraderie and relieves pressure. It attracts talent.

“Winning always matters,” Justin Holiday says. “When you’re always in the mix, that means you always have a chance. Sometimes a couple pickups can change that. That pickup could be you. It could be someone else. It could be you and someone else.” It could be a star waiting in the wings, eager to put a trying injury behind him. The hope for the Pacers every year is to raise the ceiling a bit higher. In an early team meeting—before the dreaded conditioning test, the battles of training camp, and the preseason trip to Mumbai—McMillan put it plainly. “We ain’t doing all this just to lose in the first round again,” he told the team. This time, overachieving won’t be enough.

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