Continuation of a series where I look at some of the NBA's most intriguing squads.
The Pacers, in year one of a sizable reconstruction, are competing with the Utah Jazz for the biggest early-season surprise. At 13-12, Indiana currently sits sixth in the Eastern Conference. Regression is beginning to set in, but certain bright spots seem sustainable. The success of Indiana's 2022-23 campaign will not be measured in wins and losses, so let's go through the numbers.
Tyrese Haliburton is catalyzing roster-wide excellence. His 11.0 assists and 21.2 potential assists per game easily lead the league. Trae Young is second with 9.5 assists per contest. Across the last seven seasons, only Russell Westbrook and James Harden have ever logged more potential assists per game than Haliburton's current trajectory.
A shoo-in for his first All-Star Game, Haliburton is emerging on the path to superstardom. Facilitating can't be effective without the threat of scoring to keep defenses honest, and Haliburton's continued growth as a scoring threat is awesome (below image via CleaningTheGlass):
Capable of scoring from anywhere, he's getting to, and scoring at, the rim better than ever. Success at the rim was Haliburton's biggest caveat entering the season. He's delivering. His half-court offense is fueled by excellence in the PnR, where he spends 50.3% of his possessions -- second only to Ja Morant. Haliburton averages 1.221 PPP in transition, ranking in the 69th percentile. He's among the most well-rounded offensive players in the NBA.
Besides Haliburton, here are other reasons why the Pacers' success could continue:
- The Pacers rank third in transition frequency and sixth in transition points per possession -- easy buckets. The speed and passing of Indiana make this sustainable in my opinion. They run at the league's third-fastest pace. Outworking/out-hustling teams is an edge.
- Myles Turner is anchoring the league's best rim protection. Teams are connecting on 61.6% of attempts at the rim. For context, Denver is last, allowing makes on 70.6% of FGA at the rim.
- The shot selection/scheme (below) of the roster is encouraging:
Indiana is in good company with their shot distribution. Unfortunately for the Pacers, they rank 20th in accuracy at the rim and 18th on corner threes. However, those are some of the highest-quality shots in basketball! The foundation for generating these attempts appears sound.
Turner's future presents a huge wild card for Indiana. He's on an expiring contract after being on the trade block for two years, but the 26-year-old is amid a career-best season. Everything is evolving.
Turner is delivering awesome efficiency with career-high volume -- not to mention his healthiest split in 2s versus 3s in years! His free-throw attempts are on a career-best trajectory. Haliburton is creating space for Turner, and his skillset is doing the rest.
In the past, half of these attempts would've been threes. He's no longer settling. Turner is getting re-addicted to dunks via awesome finds from Haliburton:
I'm shifting in favor of Indiana extending Turner. The Pacers can play 5-out with him, there's clear chemistry with Haliburton, and Turner fits Indiana's timeline surprisingly well. The class of bigs in 2023 free agency is weak, and drafting a center would be a waste of capital. Next season is pivotal for Indiana. It'll be time to compete. It will be the final year of Haliburton's rookie deal, plus (barring trades) three first-round picks will be added to the roster. The Pacers can pay Turner while the core is cheap. A veteran, defensive-anchoring, system-savvy center will cover up a lot of holes.
Additionally, a new TV deal for the NBA is coming in 2025 -- signaling the next boost in salaries. Could locking up Turner now through his age-30 season be fiscally wise? A maximum extension for Turner would be four years, $97 million. Signing for less/with mutually-beneficial structuring is possible. Or he could be traded next month. Stay tuned.
Summaries on other impactful Pacers:
Bennedict Mathurin -- His NBA future is bright. His ability to earn free throws is prodigious, and the contact-seeking methodology isn't going anywhere. However, when he slumps, it's ugly. Mathurin is averaging 12.5 points while shooting 31.1% from the field and 5.6% (1-18 3PT) from beyond the arc over his last five games. Haliburton was absent for two of these contests, and I thought Mathurin looked uninvolved/contained. Andrew Nembhard absorbed the vast majority of on-ball usage.
Andrew Nembhard -- Speaking of Nembhard, I have all positive remarks for the rookie second-round pick. His three-point shooting has translated, his offensive navigation/P&R playmaking is good, he's a plus-defender already (even in the point-of-attack), and he's showing a knack for making big plays.
Jalen Smith -- The 22-year-old has spent 80% of his minutes at the power forward position. He's playing subpar defense, and also not hitting shots. When he slides down to center, Indiana gets torched defensively. Let the experiment continue, but I don't factor him as a key component of the rebuild.
Speaking of experiments, it appears the plugs have been pulled on Oshae Brissett and Terry Taylor. Indiana would be wise to trade them. Ditto for Buddy Hield, but that's a more complicated matter. For the wings, Dallas? Sacramento? The haul won't be grand, but Indiana is lessening their value day by day at the moment.
Overall, the Pacers rank 22nd in point differential at -1.7 for the season. This should result in a below-.500 record. It's the most profound metric pointing to record regression. Factors hinting at regression include:
- Indiana allows the fourth-highest transition frequency…giving up easy buckets
- The Pacers are turning the ball over on 15.4% of possessions -- bottom 10 in the NBA
- Undisciplined fouling -- opponents are making 23.3 free-throws per game, third most in NBA
- Indiana is thoroughly below-average defensively everywhere besides protecting the rim -- a counterpoint to an earlier-mentioned strength.
Indiana is a young, undersized team. Mistakes will be made, and elite players will exploit them on the perimeter. Given that it behooves the Pacers -- as a fringe playoff team at best -- not to rush the rebuild, I would expect trades, as well as prioritization of draft stock down the stretch of the season. That being said, the engine that Haliburton symbolizes will keep the Pacers' offense humming. His playmaking combined with strong play from Turner and boom abilities from Mathurin/Hield/Nembhard will lead the Pacers to some wins. Nonetheless, expect the playoff buzz to fade.