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In Sa-bonus: Five Questions with Indy Cornrows

Caitlin Cooper, Editor at Indy Cornrows, drops in to talk about the revitalized Pacers.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Pacers have been one of the most surprising teams in the NBA, and one of the more exciting League Pass watches. Led by the two young players they received in the Paul George trade, Indiana has morphed into a high-paced offensive machine that currently sits in seventh in the East.

Caitlin Cooper, an editor over at Indy Cornrows, joined GBB to chat about the Pacers and their surprising season as the Pacers and Grizzlies get set to square off tonight in Indiana. Check out what she had to say!

1. We all know about Victor Oladipo’s incredible season. Oladipo aside, who do you think is having a great season that’s gone a little more under the radar?

It hasn’t exactly gone without notice, but the Pacers have outscored opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions in the 323 minutes that Domantas Sabonis has shared the floor with Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Thaddeus Young, a mark that ranks eighth among lineups that have played at least 300 minutes together.

As much as Nate McMillan deserved criticism last season for stubbornly clogging the lane with various combinations of plodding big men off the bench, he should be credited for his decision to take Al Jefferson out of the regular playing rotation in order to give Domantas Sabonis the opportunity to blossom at five.

Rather than serving as a makeshift power fauxward with underdeveloped range like he did last season with the Thunder, it’s definitely been a boon for the Pacers that his instincts, intelligence, and toughness have been more purposefully involved in the action.

Importantly, the value he adds as an intuitive screener and polished passer means he’s still capable of making an impact on offense when his shot doesn’t fall. By comparison, he finds space where Turner creates it, which means the Pacers have two talented 22-and-under bigs who play the same position differently.

Thus far, he’s been a (pun-intended) Sa-Bonus.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

2. The Pacers are one of the biggest positive surprises this season. What were your expectations going into the season, and how have they changed?

Even the most optimistic fans likely wouldn’t have predicted that the Pacers would be 1.5 games back of home court advantage in the playoffs if the season ended today.

With what seemed like a relatively barren treasure trove of picks and prospects, just seeing them finally join the modern era by taking and making more threes while force feeding Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner the ball would’ve been more reasonably in line with pre-season expectations.

As it turns out, they’re still the only team in the league that ranks among the top six in three-point percentage and bottom six in three point attempts per 100 possessions, but they currently boast the seventh most efficient offense.

It’s a testament to the degree with which Oladipo and Sabonis have blossomed that the possibility of grabbing the 8-seed and continuing to rebuild through the middle suddenly seems like a welcome trade-off to getting a high lottery pick.

3. The trade deadline is coming up. Do you see the Pacers as buyers or sellers? Who’s most likely to get moved?

Prior to Saturday night’s come-from-behind victory over the Orlando Magic, General Manager Chad Buchanan did a pre-game interview with Fox Sports Indiana’s broadcast team where he indicated that while they’re in “no hurry to change up anything with this team” they’re also not going to “sacrifice long-term sustainability to try to make a short-term run.”

Since they seem reluctant to disrupt the team’s chemistry while simultaneously valuing flexibility over solidifying a playoff spot, standing pat seems like the most likely scenario.

The probability that Thaddeus Young will pick up his $13.7 million player option looms large, but it’s debatable whether they’ll be available to find a pick or prospect worth taking back a bad contract at the expense of their future salary cap space at the deadline.

If they let the good times roll past February 8, they can still shop the partially guaranteed contracts of Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Al Jefferson ahead of draft night to teams looking to shed salary.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

4. Myles Turner just returned from an elbow injury and came off the bench. Are Pacers fans worried about his development, or are they still optimistic?

Not much has worked in his favor this season. From entering the concussion protocol after only one game and being limited to eating and sleeping for two weeks thereafter to observing his supposed understudy blossom in his stead and later spraining a ligament in his elbow, Turner has yet to consistently be put in the position to develop as the focal point of the offense that many expected him to readily become following the trade of Paul George.

Instead, he’s touched the ball less on average than 17 other starting centers, and he hasn’t demonstrated many signs of season-over-season growth with his spotty coverage against roll-men, tendency to settle for turnaround jump shots when defended by smaller guards, and touch-and-go recognition of floor spacing after making a pass or setting a screen.

Another issue is that the team’s implicit reliance upon his credibility as a pick-and-pop threat to generate high quality threes has contributed to him being somewhat pigeonholed as a floor spacer, as has his scoring arsenal’s lack of diversity.

All of which partially explains why Collison, Oladipo, Bogdanovic, and Young have been 7.7 points per 100 possessions better in point differential when they’ve been on the floor with Sabonis as opposed to Turner.

Still, he’s only 21 years old, and he’s been the league’s second best shooter from mid-range (minimum 130 attempts) while blocking over two shots per game.

He hasn’t made the leap amid heightened expectations, but hitting the panic button seems premature as long as he looks the part of a modern stretch five.

5. Nate McMillan seemed an odd choice to replace Frank Vogel, but the team is over-performing in his second season at the helm. How much credit do you give him for the team’s turnaround, and who else deserves credit?

Indiana went 0-4, surrendering a frightful 118.0 points per 100 possessions when Victor Oladipo was sidelined with knee soreness earlier this month.

Since his return, they’ve held opponents to 97.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor as opposed to 116.0 with him off.

And, here’s the thing: Nate McMillan only sparingly puts him in the position to defend against the other team’s best player. Instead, by calling upon Bojan Bogdanovic’s length to tread water in that area, Indiana’s head coach has actively facilitated Oladipo’s ability to thrive in the gaps – be it hounding passing lanes, earning point-saving, point-creating steals, or ranking among the league’s top five players in points scored off turnovers.

They’ve also rallied from multiple deficits of 15 points or more while averaging 300 passes per game, which is reflective of a team that not only refuses to quit but has bought into its coach’s message to keep the ball moving while playing for and with each other.

Even so, those on versus off splits serve as a powerful reminder of how pivotal Oladipo’s emergence has been in relation to the team’s unexpected success.

His frame is noticeably lighter, which has contributed to him leading the Eastern Conference in fast-break points, and he’s making the most of greater opportunity playing beside a point guard who averages fewer than 70 touches as opposed to one racking up over 90-plus per game.

Better yet is that none of this even begins to mention the finer ways in which he’s improved his game, including canning pull-up threes at a career-best rate (38.3%) and appearing to generally have more control of his athleticism whether attacking the paint out of dribble hand-off sets or sinking smooth step-back jump shots.

Nate McMillan may have built the mousetrap, but Oladipo supplies the cheese.

Thanks again to Caitlin of Indy Cornrows!

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