It’s here. The NBA’s regular season has arrived after a nearly 150-day hiatus. Teams have spent the last month and a half getting into shape and preparing for games just to be ready for this moment.
For the Indiana Pacers, the situation is no different. The team just wrapped up its scrimmage games and is preparing to make a run at a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. After a season full of peaks and valleys, the blue and gold are eager to show the NBA how good they can be.
The Pacers new core will be attacking their first stretch run and postseason as a group, so there’s a lot to monitor for this squad. It has yet to be seen how well this specific team can perform in a playoff setting, so this season’s conclusion could be a telling and important one for the future of the squad.
With only eight seeding games separating every team from the postseason, each matchup is extremely important. Here’s some things to watch for in the Pacers octet of battles.
1. Myles Turner’s three-point attempt volume.
Pacers All-Star center Domantas Sabonis will miss some time in the bubble thanks to plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Because of that, Myles Turner should become more of a focal point within the Pacers offense.
In the team’s scrimmages, that did end up happening, but it was in an unexpected manner. Turner took 19 shots in the two tune-up games he played in, but only two of those shots were three-pointers. He was asked to operate inside the arc more often than he typically does.
The Texas product is skilled and can make some plays with the ball in his hands, but his most important offensive skill is his outside shot. He’s canned 35.4% of his 711 triples since entering the league, two outstanding numbers for a big man.
That’s what makes his low three-point attempt total in the scrimmages so surprising. If Turner can space the floor and hit outside shots, it opens up room for Indiana’s guards to operate while also making Myles’ life as a rim attacker easier. The Pacers need to get Myles Turner many more opportunities to let it fly from deep once the regular season restarts.
2. Victor Oladipo’s playing status.
Guard Victor Oladipo has yet to commit to playing in games once the regular season begins.
“I felt good today,” Oladipo said on July 31st. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings [health wise]. It’s a day-by-day thing. I’m optimistic.”
The two-time All-Star has cited injury risk as his biggest concern. He has practiced in the bubble and participated in all three of the blue and golds scrimmage games, but he is focused on his long-term health as opposed to some short term success. “It’s not about now, it’s about longevity,” he said in early July.
Oladipo’s performances in the scrimmages featured some ups and downs. Against Dallas, he looked electric and posted a stat line of 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. But he followed that up with a poor 4/16 shooting performance against San Antonio.
If Oladipo thinks the injury risk is not worth the rewards, he ultimately won’t play. Sabonis’ injury lowering the ceiling of the team combined with a salary dispute involving ‘Dipo and the NBA make things even messier. But the Pacers star does look healthy. Only Oladipo knows if he will play or not, he just has to make, and announce, his decision.
3. What the Pacers offense looks like without Domantas Sabonis.
Much of what the Pacers do on offense runs through Sabonis when he is healthy. The Lithuanian is near the top of the team in scoring, assisting, and rebounding this season — and at the same time his elite screening ability opens up a ton of space on the floor for Indiana’s perimeter players. His unique skillset allows Nate McMillan to put basically any combination of four players around him and the team will still have an appropriate offensive rating.
Without Sabonis, things will be different. If the scrimmages are any indication, the Pacers will play a more perimeter-oriented style with more drive-and-kicks than handoffs. But the team still has a skilled big man in Turner to attempt to replicate some of the things the All-Star center can do.
“Myles has for the most part been playing the spread position, but we can do and will do some things that are similar to what we were doing with Domas in the lineup,” McMillan said of how he will use Turner as the lone center.
The bench will be impacted by Domas’ absence, too. McMillan prefers to take Sabonis out of the game early with the intent of subbing him back in to lead the second unit. Throughout the regular season, that strategy worked very well. It’s certainly possible that the bench can continue to have that level of success with JaKarr Sampson at center, but it is unlikely. Sharpshooting wing Doug McDermott still believes in the second unit, though.
He called the current bench group “smooth” and brought up the energy of multiple other players. “I think JaKarr does a really good job of bringing energy to the floor. Same with Edmond,” McDermott said. “I think as long as you have T.J. McConnell out there running the show, he brings a lot of energy to the floor.”
Until the games actually start, it’s impossible to determine how the Pacers offense will operate without its All-Star. They have options to keep the offense flowing, but the coaching staff will have to make some style changes.
4. What the Pacers rotation looks like.
While McMillan did deploy essentially the same rotation in both of the Pacers final two scrimmages, he was non-committal when asked if that was the same rotation he would use when the seeding games began.
It is probable that the 10 players he used against both Dallas and San Antonio will be the same group that he rolls with on Saturday. But with Oladipo’s status uncertain, and with McMillan wanting to asses his player’s on a day-to-day basis, it is imaginable that the minutes distribution is dynamic in the bubble.
The Edmond Sumner-infused second unit could change at any time, including by removing Sumner from the platoon altogether. The starting five could be altered to include another wing in lieu of Aaron Holiday. With Sabonis status in question, the center rotation may be fluid. While there is a rough sketch of a minutes distribution in place, it is not close to its final form.
Plus, in the latter half of the seeding games, the Indiana coaching staff could decide to shorten the rotation in preparation for the playoffs. Many teams do this in order to get players into postseason shape by upping minutes for key players, but the unique circumstances surrounding the bubble could make this strategy less popular.
With injuries and conditioning factors at play, the Pacers rotation could shift many times. McMillan has a tough task on his hands.
5. How Indiana balances touches for its starting guards.
If the Pacers continue to roll with Aaron Holiday in the starting group, balancing touches and shots for the trio of Holiday, Oladipo, and Malcolm Brogdon will be tough.
Holiday is the least skilled of the three players, but scoring is his most developed NBA ability. If he isn’t scoring well, he isn’t providing a ton of offensive value in general. He needs touches.
But Holiday is a streaky shooter, meaning he requires extra looks to get going that could go instead go to Brogdon, Oladipo, or even either of the dynamic frontcourt starters in Turner and T.J. Warren. Finding the correct numbers of touches for the sophomore guard is a delicate balance between getting him going and wasting possessions.
In the scrimmages, his field goal attempt numbers were high. He shot 10.7 shots per game, but his streakiness surfaced — he only made 37.5% of them.
Meanwhile, despite some struggles, Oladipo and Brogdon both had it going at one point or another in those two games, and Warren has been one of the most consistent offensive players on this Pacers team. Finding the ideal number of shots for all the guards in the rotation will be difficult because of this; Holiday needs to concede to the better players but still has to use his skills. The young guard should probably be closer to seven or eight shots on a given night, but if he can’t be effective with that many looks, maybe a lineup change will be coming.
If he can be useful with that many shots, though, then he will fit in just fine. That will provide Brogdon and Oladipo more touches in order to do their thing, which is when the bubble-Pacers’ offense has been at its best. How the three guards share the ball will be something to monitor as time goes on.
6. Hoe fast the Pacers play.
As mentioned in this piece, the Pacers played much faster compared to their peers in the scrimmage games than they did in the regular season.
Some of that is due to the general nature of the tune-up matchups. But thanks to the personnel change in Indiana’s starting five, the blue and gold were able to attack earlier in the shot clock on many possessions as well as get out and run in transition. Typically, McMillan’s teams play a slow, calculated style with few complicated actions. That creates an above average number of possessions that end later in the shot clock.
The necessity for a slower or faster pace is dictated by personnel; the length of a trip down the floor has little bearing on its effectiveness. Without Sabonis, the Pacers will be given a chance to play more perimeter players, which in turn should encourage them to play at a faster pace. If McMillan can be more flexible in his stylistic principles and allow his players to attack early and variably, the squad might be playing more to its strengths. But there’s a chance the high-IQ nature of the Pacers roster bends back to a slower pace with no impact on the offense’s effectiveness.
7. The dynamic nature of the Eastern Conference standings.
Indiana currently sits at fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings, though they are in close proximity to the teams around them.
They trail the third-seeded Boston Celtics by four games and the fourth-seeded Miami Heat by two games while simultaneously sharing the same record as the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. The Pacers playoff seed could change multiple times throughout the remaining regular season games.
Currently, the blue and gold hold the seeding tiebreak over Philly, but the two teams do play each other to open up the action. Additionally, the Heat and Pacers play twice, so in theory Indiana has a lot of control over where they finish in the standings.
That’s very important if the team desires a specific first-round opponent. If Indiana likes a specific early-round matchup more than others, then angling to play that team would be wise. At the same time, if the team views its chances as equal against any postseason opponent, perhaps sliding into the sixth seed would be smart for the Pacers so they can avoid the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, should they advance.
There’s a lot of final standing permutations, so chasing a specific seed is only relevant if there is a certain playoff path that the team prefers. With many win-loss records so close, the results for the teams around Indiana in the standings will be important to monitor.
8. Who steps up and leads the Pacers?
The NBA restart is one of the most unique things ever seen in sports history. It presents a challenge for everyone and could create some weirdness on the court. Nobody knows what to expect.
In the absence of stability, an on-court commander is important. The Pacers have many locker room leaders; between Brogdon, Oladipo, Turner, Justin Holiday, and Sabonis, the blue and gold have multiple players who are capable of guiding their teammates.
Someone will have to step up and be able to be vocal and dominant on the hardwood. If the Pacers need a clutch bucket, they need someone they can rely on.
Brogdon was that guy at times throughout the season. Sabonis did it occasionally as well. In past seasons, Oladipo was the guy. One of them will have to step up and carry Indiana when they need a jolt or a crucial bucket/stop.
The Pacers are an intriguing team to watch in the bubble. Without Sabonis, there’s a chance they could struggle, but with Oladipo at his highest level of health since January of 2019, they could look better than they have all season. It’s impossible to predict that at this point in time, especially without an Oladipo commitment. But with so many questions and interesting story lines to observe, the Indiana Pacers are a must-watch team when the NBA restarts.