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Are the Pacers Building Around the Wrong Big Man?

For the past few seasons, Myles Turner has played second fiddle to Domantas Sabonis in Indy and found himself in a steady stream of trade rumors. But with the Pacers stalling and the deadline looming, perhaps it’s time for the Pacers to do something drastic.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Indiana’s Myles Turner spends a lot of time on the court waiting. He spots up in the corner and waits for the ball to come to him or he touches it for a second at the 3-point line before giving it back to someone else. His job is to drag his defender out of the paint and create room for Domantas Sabonis to operate.

He’s had that job for a long time. This is the fourth season the two big men have played together for the Pacers (the third as starters). Sabonis has always had a much bigger role in the offense, averaging 13.8 field goal attempts per game through the past three seasons compared to 9.2 for Turner. The two have never been in the same universe in terms of touches. Sabonis was second in the whole league last season behind only Nikola Jokic. Turner was sixth on his own team.

Turner has played off Sabonis for so long that he has gotten pretty good at it. He almost doubled his 3-point rate when Sabonis moved into the starting lineup in 2019-20 and has increased it every season since. Now Turner takes more than half of his shots from behind the arc. There’s more to it than just him opting to take more 3s. The ability to get them off (4.6 per game) is a skill in and of itself. Turner doesn’t need much time to shoot anymore—he’s ready before he even catches it. That’s one reason why he’s shooting a career-high percentage from 3 (39.5). It will probably regress somewhat as the season goes on, but it shows how comfortable he has become out on the perimeter.

This is the best version of Turner we have seen. He’s shooting a career-high percentage from 2-point range (67.3), but his offensive leap has been hidden because he’s taking the fewest number of shots (8.6 per game) in his career. Turner has been running a Red Queen’s race in the past few years. He has had to go faster just to stay in place. He’s touching the ball less, so he’s learned to make the most out of his limited opportunities:

Myles Turner’s Efficient Evolution

Season Touches Points Per Touch
Season Touches Points Per Touch
2021-22 35.5 0.354
2020-21 39.7 0.317
2019-20 41 0.294
2018-19 50.4 0.264

This trend goes back three head coaches, from Nate McMillan to Nate Bjorkgren and now Rick Carlisle. But Turner has benefited from the turnover in Indiana. Midrange shots were a staple of the offense under McMillan but have been dramatically reduced under his more efficiency-minded successors. Turner went from taking 21.4 percent of his shots between 10 feet from the basket and the 3-point line in his last season with McMillan to only 7.4 percent this season.

Some of those shots have been redistributed to the 3-point line. The others have gone to the rim. The latter is as important as the former. Turner is huge (6-foot-11 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) and he’s pretty athletic for his size. He once did this in a playoff game:

Changing where he shoots has been good for him. The midrange area is best used by players who can create their own shot and have the offense run through them. That’s not Turner. He’s more of a finisher than a creator.

He’s not as skilled as Sabonis, but he doesn’t need to be. Turner is bigger, a better athlete, and a much better shooter. All he has to do is catch and finish. Turner has become a better player now that he’s doing that in only the most efficient areas of the floor. His true shooting percentage has jumped from 56.6 to 64.9 over the past three seasons.

The leap Turner has made this season has changed the dynamic between the two big men. Turner is as efficient as Sabonis for the first time in their careers. Per NBA Advanced Stats, he has been even better when he plays without his usual frontcourt partner:

Turner, With and Without Sabonis

Lineups Minutes Usage True Shooting Percentage Assist Percentage
Lineups Minutes Usage True Shooting Percentage Assist Percentage
With Sabonis 437 13.7 64.4 3.2
Without Sabonis 287 19.8 65.5 7.9

The Pacers aren’t feeding Turner the ball in the post when Sabonis is out. But he’s playing more like a traditional big man instead of camping out at the 3-point line. He rolls to the basket, catches dumpoff passes from the guards, and grabs more offensive rebounds. That’s all the easy stuff that Sabonis gets to do because he’s normally the one in the lane.

Indiana’s offensive rating is one point higher when Turner plays without Sabonis than when he plays with him. There’s some addition by subtraction going on. The Pacers don’t get all the benefits of playing a stretch 5 like Turner when Sabonis is on the floor, because opposing teams can put their center on Sabonis and keep him in the paint to anchor the defense. That strategy becomes harder when the Pacers have a perimeter player at the 4 who can spread the floor and attack bigger defenders off the dribble.

Sabonis needs Turner a lot more than Turner needs him. Indiana’s defensive rating is 10 points higher when Sabonis is the sole big man compared to when Turner is next to him. That has always been the issue with Sabonis. He needs to play in the paint on offense but can’t defend it on the other end of the floor. He’s undersized compared to giants like Turner or Rudy Gobert and he doesn’t have the athleticism or defensive chops to make up for it. He averages 0.3 blocks per game compared to 2.8 for Turner. Blocks don’t always tell the whole story with big men, but they tell enough of it in this case.

It has to be frustrating for Turner. His job is to do the dirty work of spacing the floor and protecting the rim for Sabonis while Sabonis has been an All-Star the past two seasons without doing much of either. Turner has made the individual sacrifice without getting the team reward. It’s one thing to embrace the role Brook Lopez plays on the Bucks, but Sabonis is not Giannis. You can win a title spotting up off of Giannis. The Pacers haven’t even won a playoff game in the past three seasons.

Indiana has been headed in the wrong direction ever since Victor Oladipo went down with a career-altering quad injury in 2019. Sabonis became the new franchise player by default. But the Pacers have hit a pretty hard ceiling by building around him. They have changed coaches multiple times without changing the results on the court. Carlisle hasn’t been able to fix things any more than Bjorkgren. Indiana is the no. 13 seed in the East with a 10-16 record this season. Its big hope at this point is getting T.J. Warren back after a foot injury that has kept him out for two seasons. But it would be unfair to expect too much from him after being out for so long.

The question is where the Pacers go from here if they can’t turn things around. The East is more competitive than it has been in a long time. Just being mediocre is no longer enough to get a team into the playoffs. It’s been awhile since this franchise tried to compete for a title, but the flip side of accepting a lower ceiling is that you should have a higher floor. Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz of The Athletic reported on Tuesday that the Pacers are shopping Sabonis, Turner, and Caris LeVert in what could be the beginning of a rebuild.

Sabonis makes the most sense to move because they have already seen what building around him looks like. There were fit issues when he and Turner first started playing together, but Turner has changed his game to make it work. The Pacers have a net rating of plus-9.0 when they share the floor this season.

Sabonis needs someone who can space the floor for him on offense and protect him on defense, and there’s no one better qualified for both roles than Turner—not only now, but maybe ever. He’s leading the league in blocks and he’s second in 3-point attempts among the six players averaging at least two block attempts per game this season. There has never been anyone who has blocked as many shots and taken as many 3s as Turner.

There are two problems for Sabonis going forward. The first is that Turner has outgrown a complementary role. He will never be a primary option, but he could do a lot more in an offense where Sabonis isn’t featured.

The second is that Sabonis can’t be as effective in a smaller role. Carlisle doesn’t seem to believe in him as much as Bjorkgren did, when he ran everything through him. He no longer leads the team in touches, he’s getting much less time in the post, and his assists have cratered. But Sabonis doesn’t have Turner’s versatility. He’s tied for a career high in 3-point attempts (2.6 per game) despite not making them at a high clip (27.9 percent). Nor can he make up the difference on defense.

It’s unclear what Indiana could actually get for Sabonis. He sounds great on paper—a 25-year-old two-time All-Star who shouldn’t require that much to add to a roster. But any team that traded for him would have the same issues building around him as the Pacers have had.

Turner is the one Indy should keep. He’s the same age as Sabonis, but his elevator is going up instead of down. Sabonis puts up bigger numbers, but Turner is the better two-way player. Sabonis has never shown the ability to make anyone better while Turner’s mere presence on the court does that for everyone around him. He hasn’t even entered his prime yet. He’s ready to have his own team. His time waiting is coming to an end.