As the Grizzlies head to Indiana Monday night, Memphis will again be facing a clear playoff hopeful in the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers have been one of the better franchises in terms of developing and maintaining talent over the past few years, and have one of the NBA’s best young cores in tact for the foreseeable future. It will be another tough matchup for the Grizzlies, and one in which they will need to play at the top of their game to have a chance to win.
In GBB’s regular effort to help Grizzlies’ fans get to know Memphis’s opponents better, I reached out to Caitlin Cooper. a writer and editor for SB Nation’s Indy Cornrows. Outside of the wonderful content here at GBB, I can honestly say Caitlin’s efforts, insights, and perspectives are some of the best across the entire SB Nation platform (an opinion that is shared by many.) As a result, I was thrilled when she was able to take the time to answer some questions regarding the Pacers and their season so far.
Here are a few takeaways from that conversation:
1. With the losses of Darren Collison and Tyreke Evans, plus the injury to Victor Oladipo, the Pacers re-made their backcourt with Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, and T.J. McConnell. Not only is this trio being productive, all three players are playing some of the best basketball of their careers. What are a few specific reasons as to why this trio has had significant success immediately?
Caitlin Cooper: A lot of it boils down to opportunity. With Brogdon, his average of 10.1 drives per game last season ranked first in the league among guards with less than 3.5 minutes of possession time per game (min. 50 games played), so it was logical to think that his deceptively shifty downhill attacks would increase in number with increased opportunity to handle.
As for Lamb, rhythm seems to trump role. For instance, compare his October from 2018-19, in which he posted a scoring average of 10.9 points on 39 percent shooting in less than 25 minutes per game, to the rest of his season, when he averaged nearly five additional minutes of action and generated 15.8 points per game on 44 percent shooting. When available, he’s played starter’s minutes for the Pacers, and his production (unsurprisingly) has followed in kind – with the exception of his accuracy from three (28.6 percent). He’s also continued to show progress in his ability to still get a shot when the offense breaks down, which aids in the ease he exudes as a stop-and-pop scorer.
McConnell is more a case of landing in a spot where his worst attribute is less of a sticking point. I’ve referred to him as the role player your favorite team told you not to worry about, and he plays that role to a T, but there’s also something to be said for the fact that he – as a player whose release limits his ability to shoot the three –is no longer gumming up the works in lineups for a team with a starting point guard in Ben Simmons, who also doesn’t shoot the three. Instead, in an offense that values shot quality over shot quantity, and isn’t quite as hard up for space, he’s free to do what he does best as a probing point guard while still playing within himself.
2. It seems over the past several years, several guards have come to Indiana and have experienced an elevation in production. What is it about Nate McMillian and his staff that allows them to be so successful at maximizing the talent of their backcourts?
Caitlin Cooper: To that point, aside from coaching the heck out of effort and being totally cool with bucking modernity, if there’s anything that’s been learned about Nate McMillan in the years since he moved one chair over for the Pacers, it’s that he prefers to get the most out of his players by allowing them to be themselves.
(Editor’s note: Caitlin’s answer to this question was actually a part of the answer to question one; however, per her own response in our correspondence, it was used here instead as it perfectly applied to question 2.)
3. Regarding Oladipo, he recently began basketball activity in the G-League. Obviously, due to the nature of his injury, an immediate return to the player he was over the past few years may be a stretch. How do you expect the Pacers will utilize him once he returns, and what impact might he have on the regular rotations the Pacers use?
Caitlin Cooper: Given that caution has been emphasized at every stage of his recovery, I’m anticipating that the Pacers will put him on a minutes restriction and likely won’t let him play in back-to-backs. Those things just seem like standard operating procedure, right? That said, they didn’t hesitate to reinsert him back into the starting lineup last season following his 11-game absence in November, so if that happens (or when that happens), expect to see Jeremy Lamb slide back to the bench. From there is where things have the potential to get dicey. There are strong, albeit disparate, cases to be made for both Aaron Holiday and T.J. McConnell at back-up point, which is to say nothing of Edmond Sumner.
If the coaching staff intends on always having one or the other of Oladipo or Brogdon on the floor, then I would give the nod to Holiday because he’s going to command more attention without the ball. On the flip side, if they want to maximize their minutes together, then I would understand leaning on McConnell’s steady hand and read of the floor to run things for the bench. Of course the counterpoint there would be that doing so would come at the potential cost of Holiday’s development.
See!?! Not easy.
As for Oladipo himself, it arguably took until after Paul George was traded to Oklahoma City for him to start looking like himself again, so it doesn’t exactly seem fair to expect his explosion to be there right away. If that proves to be the case, then it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see him get more of his shots from the perimeter with Brogdon doing his fair share of the steering.
4. There was a lot of chatter about the Pacers potentially trading Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis this offseason. With the emergence of Goga Bitadze and the new extension for Sabonis in place, the Pacers have an enviable frontcourt to feature in the present and future. Do you feel this trio will be kept in place for years to come, or do you think an eventual trade is the likely outcome?
Caitlin Cooper: I’m bearish on it, but I’m also willing to wait and see what a larger sample size of “giving it the old college try” looks like once they’ve made it through to the other side of introducing new faces while battling a slew of injuries.
Even so, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that they just sort of actively make each other slightly worse. Defensively, if Sabonis isn’t being pulled away from the glass and expected to guard out on the perimeter against stretch-fours, then Turner’s rim protection is being displaced. At the other end, even though Sabonis has already launched just shy of as many threes as he did all of last season, there’s still plenty of incentive for opponents to cross-match the pairing, which limits Turner’s ability to drag opposing fives into space while also creating confusion in transition.
To their credit, they’re setting higher screens and doing more with double drags to mitigate *some* of the lingering issues with elbow room; but, they’re still both ideally centers, and an ideal way for both of them to simultaneously play the same position hasn’t exactly emerged – at least not to this point. Thus far on the season, the Pacers have been outscored by 1.4 points per 100 possessions in the 130 minutes that Turner and Sabonis have been on the floor together compared to plus-9 in 241 minutes with Sabonis (sans Turner and Bitadze) and minus-5.5 in 55 minutes with only Turner.
Brogdon’s been out for all of the games since Turner returned from his ankle injury, so it’s probably fair to expect better results for the pairing once he and Oladipo are both fully healthy and can surround them with more shooting and fire-and-ice playmaking, but the question is…how much better? And, will that better prove better than what they could be with one in the absence of the other, or in spot minutes with Goga? Ask me again in February, or maybe April (After all, their diametric skill-sets do currently allow the team to toggle between offense and defense, when need be)?
5. Since Nate McMillian took over as head coach in 2016, the Pacers have operated in a very similar fashion to the style of play implemented by the Grizzlies during the Grit and Grind Era. How have the Pacers been successful with this style of play despite how the NBA game has evolved in recent years?i
Caitlin Cooper: So, I did a little bit of research on this last year for the .com site, and a lot of it had to do with their ability to force and convert turnovers. At the time when I wrote that piece, which was about 10 days before Victor Oladipo ruptured his quad tendon, they were 21-6 in games in which they outscored their opponent in points off turnovers, yet they had only finished with the edge in three-point margin in five of those 21 wins. This year, they’ve dropped off from their perch atop the East in both forced turnover rate (12 overall) and points off turnovers (10th), but they’re killing it on pull-up twos (a point of contention, depending upon who you ask), they take care of the ball, and they’re decent on the offensive glass. All-in-all, they’re very good at being vanilla, and they do what they do with very little waste.
I did a little bit of research on this last year for the .com site, and a lot of it had to do with their ability to force and convert turnovers. At the time when I wrote that piece, which was about 10 days before Victor Oladipo ruptured his quad tendon, they were 21-6 in games in which they outscored their opponent in points off turnovers, yet they had only finished with the edge in three-point margin in five of those 21 wins. This year, they’ve dropped off from their perch atop the East in both forced turnover rate (12th overall) and points off turnovers (10th), but they’re killing it on pull-up twos (a point of contention, depending upon who you ask), they take care of the ball, and they’re decent on the offensive glass. All-in-all, they’re very good at being vanilla, and they do what they do with very little waste.
Getting to the line more often would do wonders to ease concerns about what happens when those twos don’t fall, but…They’ve made jumps in both half-court efficiency (from 17th to 10th) and isolation scoring (27th to 14th), which seems to suggest that maybe, just maybe, they won’t be at quite as much risk of topping out with effort when the games slowdown in the playoffs.
As can be seen, one cannot help but come away entertained and informed from Caitlin’s opinions regarding the Pacers. You can follow Caitlin’s incredible work and perspectives on Twitter (@C2_Cooper), as well as the wonderful work she and others do covering the Pacers at Indy Cornrows. A big thank you to Caitlin for taking the time to share her amazing correspondence.