It just reached the point where everyone had enough, really. Five strong regular seasons had produced five straight dispiriting playoff exits, including multiple sweeps. The postseason woes laid bare just how large a gap there was between them and the conference’s best teams—in both the talent at the top of the roster and their coach’s in-game strategies. It felt cold, but it was time for something new.
And so, in the summer of 2018, Masai Ujiri fired Dwane Casey, promoted Nick Nurse to the head of the bench, and set the Raptors on the path to the first NBA championship in franchise history. (OK, so a couple of other minor transactions also had a bit to do with that.)
Kevin Pritchard didn’t bring any top-five talents to Indianapolis this offseason, but he clearly had a similar story in mind. Two weeks after extending Nate McMillan’s contract, and two days after the Heat handed the Pacers their third first-round sweep in four years, Pritchard fired McMillan—“a very hard decision for us to make,” he said, but one necessary to break the cycle of mediocrity.
His choice to lead that movement? Nate Bjorkgren, a 45-year-old assistant on Nurse’s title-winning Raptors, who arrived in Toronto after nearly a decade of working his way up through the D-League—and, crucially, who had developed a reputation as a flexible coach who could craft game plans, adjust on the fly, and find creative ways to short-circuit opponents. (Bjorkgren’s credited with forwarding the idea to play a box-and-one on Stephen Curry in the 2019 Finals; he’s already thrown one at Jayson Tatum this season.)
Pritchard believed there was untapped potential on the roster he’d built—that a perennial playoff team could be something more, with a little bit of ingenuity. We’re a long way from the postseason, but it’s hard not to like what you’ve seen from the Pacers so far: 6-2, tied for second place in the East, just outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency and just outside the top five in defensive.
Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are off to sensational starts that could earn both All-Star nods. Victor Oladipo—still a Pacer, after all that rumbling and grumbling—looks better than he did at any point during last season’s comeback from his ruptured quadriceps tendon. Myles Turner is swallowing up opposing offenses like Cloak. True to Bjorkgren’s word, Indiana’s playing a “very disruptive, very aggressive” style on both ends, forcing turnovers at the league’s third-highest rate while moving more, moving faster, hunting the rim, and bombing away.
And, with all due respect to the old regime, it sure sounds like the players dig the new style.
“He has a different play for everything,” Sabonis told reporters after hitting a game-winner to beat the Celtics in Bjorkgren’s third game on the bench. “And we trust every single one.”
Brogdon: "I'm going to continue to say that during the season and make sure people understand how well-coached we are. How he puts everybody in position to play their game and show their strengths." #PacersPelicans https://t.co/ekAbqrnV3u— J. Michael (@ThisIsJMichael) January 5, 2021
Myles on offensive role: "In seasons past, the offense didn't call for me to do those certain things. But Coach Nate Bjorkgren, he just has a lot of confidence in me...I'm a very capable player out there. I've just had the chance to show it this season."https://t.co/32puo6GPfm— Jared Wade (@Jared_Wade) January 5, 2021
The most notable New Year, New Nate shift has come in the Pacers’ shot selection. For years, Indiana has fired more midrange jumpers than just about any other NBA outpost save San Antonio. According to Cleaning the Glass, Indiana has finished in the bottom 10 in expected effective field goal percentage in each of the past seven seasons. Bjorkgren’s first order of business was changing that. So far, so good: Through eight games, the Pacers rank second, behind only the James Harden–led Rockets.
Six of Indiana’s top eight players are shooting more 3-pointers per game than they ever have, bumping the club from dead last in attempts last season up to 17th so far. And nearly 44 percent of their shots so far have come within 4 feet of the hoop—a league high, and a direct reflection of how Indiana’s offense revolves around playmaking on the interior.
After ascending to All-Star status last season, Sabonis has even more firmly entrenched himself as the focal point of the Pacers’ system under Bjorkgren. Nearly every possession runs through him; only Nikola Jokic averages more total touches per game, and nobody gets the ball more often in the frontcourt. He’s averaging nine post-ups per game, nearly three more than last season, which might seem counterintuitive: Why would a coach dead set on modernizing Indiana’s scheme dial up more of one of the least effective scoring plays in the league? Because it can still be pretty damn effective when the guy with his back to the basket is trying to do more than just score:
Sabonis’s track record as a bruising low-post scorer makes defenses more likely to bring help to keep him from bulldozing his way to the rim. When they do show a double-team, he’s got the size and court vision to peer over the top to see a teammate slicing into open space, and the passing touch to turn that into a clean look for someone else—a big reason he’s averaging a career-best 6.4 assists per game, and a big reason the Pacers average 12.1 points per game off basket cuts, according to Synergy Sports’ game charting data, third most in the league behind the Nuggets and Heat. (The lesson, as our Rob Mahoney wrote a few months back: Get yourself a big man who can pass.)
The 24-year-old’s making plenty of plays away from the basket, too. He’s taken Rudy Gobert’s crown as the league’s leading compiler of the much-derided screen assist, frequently stonewalling defenders to spring teammates rocketing into dribble-handoff actions:
Bjorkgren also has made Sabonis an even tougher cover by finding more ways to get him rumbling downhill against backpedaling, ill-equipped big men, similar to how the Raptors unleashed Pascal Siakam in Toronto. Already this season, we’ve seen Sabonis receive dribble handoffs rather than pitch them, catch defenses napping with fake-handoff keeper plays, cut off back-screens from his guards to get deep catches, and, if his defender’s playing up with the paint empty behind him, just put his head down and haul ass:
I love how you can hear P.J. Tucker—one of the league’s smartest and most disciplined defenders—yell, “Oh, shit” as Sabonis takes off on that last drive, which seems like a pretty good indication that Sabonis taking it himself and finishing with a Euro-step wasn’t on the scouting report. It might get on there before too long, though: Sabonis is averaging a career-high four drives per game this season, and shooting 61.5 percent on them.
Brogdon and Oladipo have proved excellent backcourt counterpoints to Sabonis’s mauling—two big, smart combo guards capable of working on or off the ball and handling multiple defensive assignments.
After a dramatic dip in efficiency last season, Brogdon is shooting 55 percent on 2-pointers and 47 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts a game. He’s Indiana’s leading scorer, averaging 23.6 points per game, and also its top table-setter, posting a sparkling 4.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He alternates between ease and edge, sometimes patiently probing for passing lanes, and sometimes just punching it, angling his broad shoulders to ward off a defender, and charging all the way to the tin. He’s got a quietly nasty hesitation move; if you see him hop into a hang dribble, chances are he’s about to hit the gas:
In a 23-game return last season, Oladipo scarcely resembled the two-way ace who earned All-NBA honors in 2017-18 before being hobbled by a bone bruise in his knee and that devastating quad tendon rupture. But he’s looked better in the early going, averaging 20.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in 33 minutes per game.
While his usage rate is about the same as last season, Oladipo’s scoring efficiency has dramatically improved from last season. He’s driving and getting to the line more often, though he doesn’t seem to have regained all of his missing bounce; he’s just 19-for-37 at the rim, with one dunk in seven games, after averaging nearly one per contest back in 2017-18. He’s looked fluid and decisive, with enough burst to create separation off the dribble and signs of rediscovered touch on his jumper. Vic’s shooting a career-best 41.2 percent from 3-point range, including 38.5 percent on the sort of pull-up triples he frequently clanged after coming back last season.
At his best, Oladipo can tilt a game as a three-level scorer and a turnover-creating defender. He showed that against New Orleans on Monday. After Sabonis fouled out late in the fourth, Oladipo scored or assisted on 14 points (with a pair of steals) after the 2:12 mark of the fourth quarter to help Indiana storm back and eventually win in overtime:
If Oladipo keeps this up, Pritchard will face an interesting decision: whether to ride the continuity of his established core and trust that Bjorkgren can push farther than his predecessor, or to find out whether his former franchise player has rehabilitated his trade value enough to get the Pacers some useful pieces before he hits unrestricted free agency after the season.
Which way he’ll go is anybody’s guess, but we know this much: Just because a Pacer’s name keeps showing up in trade talks doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be wearing a different uniform any time soon. Just ask Turner, who, by some accounts, would be wearing Celtic green if Danny Ainge had been interested.
The issue, as it’s been since Sabonis began to emerge and Turner’s offensive game seemed to stagnate, is whether the Pacers will ever be able to thrive in the modern NBA while spending nearly 30 percent of their salary cap on two bigs who aren’t a perfect match. Not a bad match, mind you—after a rough first year together, the Pacers were a net positive in 1,535 regular- and postseason minutes with Turner and Sabonis sharing the floor over the past two seasons, regularly posting excellent defensive numbers—but not an ideal one, optimized with the sort of offensive firepower that wins playoff series.
The results suggest that not too much has changed there under Bjorkgren: Indy is plus-8 in 153 Sabonis-Turner minutes thus far, preventing points at an elite level and scoring them at something less than that. Turner’s role has shifted in important ways, though. Those maddening pick-and-pops into Long-2 Land have finally migrated back beyond the arc—he’s attempted just four midrange shots this season, compared to 36 triples.
Turner’s made just 25 percent of those long balls, but the process on most of them has looked good. He’s trailing straight to the 3-point line in transition rather than drifting into the paint; he’s smartly sliding along the arc to get open when teammates drive; he’s moving to the corner when it’s cleared to maintain spacing; he’s firing quickly off the catch so as to not gum up the works of the offense. (The Pacers are playing at a faster pace in Sabonis-Turner minutes than they are on the whole.) And when opponents ignore him to load up against Indiana’s other threats, he’s been opportunistic about taking advantage:
After a rough showing in the bubble and a rumor-filled offseason, Turner has looked comfortable and confident in his offensive role—and, perhaps not coincidentally, even more menacing than usual on the defensive end.
He leads the league in total blocks, blocks per game, and block percentage, rejecting an absurd 11.8 percent of opponents’ 2-point shot attempts—a full percentage point above the highest rate in league history. In addition to soaring in as weak-side helper, Turner’s also been a weighted blanket for offenses on the perimeter, playing higher on the floor to erase passing lanes, coming up to the level of screens in the pick-and-roll, and unfurling his massive arms and sliding with ball handlers to take away easy plays in space:
He’s altering and deterring even more shots, too. Pacers opponents are shooting just 53.5 percent on attempts at the basket when Turner is in the game, a 98th percentile defensive mark for a big man. When Turner’s roaming the middle, Indiana gives up a microscopic 100.6 points per 100 possessions—miles ahead of the Cavaliers’ league-leading defense. (That, by the way, is not a misprint: Cleveland, which finished 29th in defensive efficiency last season and 30th in 2018-19, leads the NBA in points allowed per possession. It’s a weird year.) He’s the clear front-runner in the Defensive Player of the Year race—and maybe not quite that bad a complement for Sabonis, after all:
"He gets the block. I get the rebound. That's our deal" - Domas Sabonis on that tandem block they had to seal the game.— iPacers.com (@iPacersblog) January 7, 2021
In spite of all that’s going well in Indianapolis, though, there are causes for concern. Chief among them: former bubble god T.J. Warren being on the shelf for what’s expected to be “a significant portion of the regular season” after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot.
Losing Warren removes a vital cog from a starting lineup that had started the season outscoring opponents by 22 points in 43 minutes. It also exposes Indiana’s lack of wing depth, threatening to push Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott into larger-than-you-might-like roles. Rather than elevate one of them into the starting five, Bjorkgren has moved the 6-foot Aaron Holiday into a three-guard alignment that requires Brogdon and Oladipo to check bigger wings; that trio plus Sabonis and Turner has been hammered by 25 points in 55 minutes so far.
The return of Jeremy Lamb, which could be coming within a few weeks, would help—provided he’s ready to hit the ground running after missing more than 10 months with a torn ACL. In the meantime, Bjorkgren’s going small without the wing defenders or a small-ball 4 to make it work, and leaning harder on his stars to make up the difference. You wonder, though, if it might be penny-wise but pound-foolish to have Sabonis, who sat out the bubble with plantar fasciitis, and Brogdon, who missed 19 games last season with a variety of injuries, both averaging more than 37 minutes a night this early in a compressed 72-game season.
If the three-guard looks continue to suffer and Lamb takes a while to get up to speed, Bjorkgren will have to get creative to keep the Pacers humming. Then again, that’s what Pritchard brought him to town to do: take a fresh look at familiar problems, and find new solutions. If he can find a way to make a wing-light approach work for a while, the Pacers could be damn dangerous once they get their dudes back—and, just maybe, ready to take their first steps in that bold new direction.