The Indiana Pacers have been one of the surprise teams of the NBA season. After an offseason where the biggest story around the team was Victor Oladipo’s rumored departure, many pundits were dismissive of their chances. Yet new coach Nate Bjorkgren has the Pacers on top the East at 4–1, led by a much improved offense.
Cleaning the Glass, which removes garbage time and heaves from its statistics, ranks the Indiana offense 11th in the NBA with a 112.8 offensive rating, up from 17th last season. At the center of the Pacers’ success is Domantas Sabonis, just like last season, when he was a first-time All-Star and posted career-high numbers in nearly every category. The Pacers’ offensive rating goes up to 114.2 with Sabonis on the court, which would rank eighth in the NBA. Sabonis is the league’s best passing big outside of Nikola Jokic, and has also shown a flair for highlight-reel passes.
Indiana has used Sabonis heavily. He ranks second in the league in touches (behind only Jokic), second in front court touches (also behind only Jokic), third in elbow touches (behind Jokic and Christian Wood). Among centers, Sabonis is second in assists and passes (behind Jokic), third in time of possession and potential assists (behind Jokic and Julius Randle in both categories, off to a hot start of his own).
Sabonis is a genius passer in the half-court. He has a lot of chemistry in the two-man game with Doug McDermott, a continuation from last season. McDermott often shoots off hand-offs from Sabonis.
When defenses close out too hard on McDermott, Sabonis is happy to roll through the open space.
McDermott is quietly averaging a career-high 12.2 points per game despite going cold (32% for the season) from three. Bjorkgren’s remodeled offense has led to an increase in usage for McDermott; he is taking more shots and getting to the rim more than he has at any season since his rookie year. Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows points to the usage of McDermott as a screener as a reason for his success. When his three-point shooting gets back on track, McDermott could be looking at a career-best season.
Sabonis has made similar plays with Malcolm Brogdon.
Again, Sabonis can take advantage of overplays on hand-offs, as he does by driving here to get a game-winning basket against the Celtics.
The Pacers use Sabonis as a roller a lot as well. He shoots four times per game as the roller in a pick-and-roll, fifth-most frequently in the NBA, and converts an above-average 1.09 points per possession. He gets fouled a lot on these attempts (23 percent of the time), and is a shrewd passer in the roll as well.
Sabonis is also near the top of the NBA in post-ups, but he has struggled with them so far this season, shooting just 37.5 percent. He particularly struggled against the Celtics’ strong interior defenders, struggling to move Tristan Thompson here, before settling for a tough fadeaway.
But Sabonis has shot 50 percent or better on post-ups each of the past two seasons. He should get back to being an effective post scorer soon. And despite his poor shooting on post-ups this season, Sabonis post-ups have still been effective for the Pacers because he remains a great passer out of them.
Much of this is not new; Sabonis has long been a great passer, and he was also near the top of the league in touches last season. Mark Schindler, also of Indy Cornrows, said “[Sabonis’] usage hasn’t really changed. The way he’s utilized hasn’t either outside that brings the ball up a lot more.” This is reflected in the numbers, as Sabonis’ average time per touch and dribbles per touch over last season, though he still ranks far below the likes of Jokic and Randle.
Another improvement in Sabonis’ game this season comes in his outside shooting. Sabonis is shooting 2.6 threes per game, more than ever before, and canning a ridiculous 53.8 percent of them. That percentage is unsustainable, but it is a good sign for him that he is taking more threes. “He used to routinely fall back on a 16–18 footer last year and he’s almost exclusively cut that out and is instead driving to the rim with his improved handle, or taking a 3. This has helped him out quite a bit with getting to the foul line more so far,” said Schindler. Indeed, Sabonis also has the highest free throw rate of his career this season.
It is unclear if the Pacers can keep up their success.The East is really strong this year, and while they do have a split with the Celtics, the rest of their schedule has been uninspiring. And TJ Warren is now out indefinitely with a sprained foot, which will hamstring their chances. But Domantas Sabonis’ strong play is a reason to take Indiana seriously.
Originally published at https://www.theplaygrounder.com on January 2, 2021.