As the free agency period approached, a trade bombshell was dropped in the NBA: the Indiana Pacers had finally traded wantaway small forward Paul George, the All-Star Californian who had told the Pacers in no uncertain terms that he would not be re-signing with the franchise.
That, paired with an awkward Magic Johnson interview on Jimmy Kimmel’s show that constituted tampering, depressed George’s trade value to the point where they had to ship him off to Oklahoma City in a trade which was roundly seen as a victory for Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
Or was it? Perhaps the Pacers just wanted to send George to the most un-LA city in America as ‘thanks’ for his efforts. Perhaps the Pacers surveyed the landscape and saw no better trade offers than Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis and decided they had to swallow their medicine. Or perhaps they (and few others, it should be noted) saw potential in Sabonis and Oladipo and thought it was a fair deal.
Whatever the answer is, as of games played through Tuesday, the Pacers are tied for the Eastern Conference eighth seed with a 5-6 record (having gotten off to an impressive 5-3 start) and their offseason moves look vindicated.
Domantas Sabonis, All-NBA center?
While Sabonis played primarily as a power forward last year in OKC, he’s spent most of his time as a center in Indiana and has been snagging rebounds by the bag, upping his collection rate from 16.4% of defensive rebounds to 30.4%. Meanwhile, his offensive rebound rate has risen from only 3.1% to 11.4%.
This season, Sabonis’ shot attempts haven’t increased too much, climbing from 14.5 attempts per 100 possessions to 15.3, but he’s scoring 132.4 points per 100 used possessions. His substantial rise in efficiency is due to a considerable change in his shot profile. The Lithuanian’s 3-point attempts have dropped from 33.5% of his shots to 3.5%, which is a good move considering he’s a career 32.1% 3-point shooter. As a result, Sabonis’ effective field-goal percentage has risen from 45.2% last season to 63.4%.
Sabonis has also been getting to the line more often due to his increased inside presence, with his free-throw rate rising from 13.9 free throws per 100 field goal attempts to 44.2. For a center, he’s also assisting on a high number of plays with 15.9% of all the Pacers’ made shots being assisted by Sabonis, as stat that puts him in the top 12% for centers in the league
For a player who was a negative on offense last year, it seems Sabonis is quite the capable center. It’s easy to see why he didn’t get many minutes at the five in OKC with the logjam they had with both Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. However, it’s the Pacers who are reaping the benefits of playing him at his actual position.
Oladipo already has an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award to his name and has been one of the surprise packets in this young season. Another player that’s taking the most shots per game of his career (25.5), he leads the Pacers in usage with 30.2%. Though it’s possible he doesn’t feel like that’s very much considering he played next to Russell Westbrook and his 41.7% last year, it’s in the top four percent of shooting guards in the league this year.
Oladipo’s game hasn’t changed considerably this campaign, he’s simply far more efficient from 3-point land, shooting 44.1% (up from 35% overall in his career) and raising his effective field-goal percentage to 53.7% (up from 48.5% in his career).
The six extra field goals Oladipo is taking are mostly all coming from mid-range, a surprising change considering his uptick in efficiency. Oladipo is heading to the line far more often, too, taking 5.4 free throw attempts per game (up from 2.3 last season) likely due to acting more than spot-up shooter.
Effect on team play
So how have the new additions contributed to this new high-powered Indiana offense? Their scoring efficiency is mostly based off shooting percentage (sixth best effective field goal percentage in the NBA with 53.9%) and taking care of the ball (the third lowest turnover rate at 14.0%). Time will tell whether that can sustain this, yet both Oladipo and Sabonis have contributed to it with their efficient shooting seasons.
The Pacers so far are playing at the tenth fastest rate in the league at 100.1 possessions per 48 minutes, a big step up from their 18th ranked 95.8 possessions per 48 last season. Oladipo’s considerably improved physique has been part of allowing that, while Sabonis is undoubtedly on the lighter side for centers, allowing them to play quicker.
The Pacers have only the league’s 24th ranked defense, a step down from 16th place last season in Nate McMillan’s first year as head coach. That isn’t so surprising considering they lost a considerable defensive talent in in George. Both Sabonis and Oladipo have been positive defensive players, with the Pacers conceding 6.2 and 6.4 points less per 100 possessions when one of them is on the floor.
Whether the Pacers are for real or not, the early season form of their two new acquisitions has shown enough to help Pacers fans move on from losing George, especially given the Thunder’s sub-.500 record and woes integrating George into their system.
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