It’s playoff time, and surprisingly the Indiana Pacers are still playing. Even the most diehard Pacers fan wouldn’t have predicted anything better than fighting for the eighth seed. Instead, the team snagged the fifth seed, and came within a few games home court advantage in the first round. Their reward for this surprising season: a first round series against LeBron James and the reigning conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Pacers dominated the season series 3-1, those games came before the Cavaliers revamped their team at the trade deadline. Along with “Playoff LeBron,” this series should be a lot different than the regular season. With that in mind, here are the four biggest questions going into round one.
Who guards LeBron James?
The first step in beating the Cavaliers is defending LeBron. Everything they do on offense runs through LeBron, which is evident as he leads the team in scoring and assists. The simplest answer is Thaddeus Young. Young is second on the team in both defensive win shares and defensive box plus/minus according to Basketball-Reference. On top of that, at 6’8” and 221 pounds, he is the best equipped physically to handle the load.
Putting Young on LeBron creates problems elsewhere, specifically with Kevin Love. If Young guards LeBron, a center will have to guard Love. Love’s three-point shooting creates matchup problems for Indiana. Myles Turner will struggle to protect the rim if he’s chasing Love around the three-point line and Domantas Sabonis will have a hard time keeping up as the Cavaliers run Love through screens to get him open.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, none of their other wings are up to the task full time. Bojan Bogdanovic is a negative on defense and isn’t athletic enough to keep up with James. Glenn Robinson III has the physical tools to do the job but hasn’t proven himself consistently as an above average defender during his three years in the NBA. Victor Oladipo can handle the job for stretches but, between his offensive burden and the size he gives up, it isn’t something he can do for an entire game. Lance Stephenson may be the best option but his lack of three-point range and penchant for turnovers, wild shots and other mistakes make it hard to give him extended minutes.
Even with the challenge of matching up with LeBron, the Pacers had some positives to take away from their season series. According to Cleaning the Glass, the team was second in turnover percentage and fourth in defending the three-point line. This was evident against James as he averaged 6.75 turnovers and shot only 19 percent from deep against the Pacers, both worse than his season averages. You can’t shut down LeBron, but if the Pacers can make him work for his points, disrupt his ability to set up teammates and contest him from deep it may be enough to grab a win.
Who gets the minutes at center?
This season was supposed to be Myles Turner’s coming out party. Instead, inconsistent play and nagging injuries have plagued him all year. Meanwhile, after an inconsistent rookie season, Sabonis has found his role. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to say that Sabonis has been better this season.
Outside of rim protection, Sabonis is either even with or ahead of Turner. Three-point shooting is the only other area where Turner may be clearly better, since he attempts two more per game than Sabonis. The lineup data backs this up. The starting lineup, featuring Collison, Oladipo, Bogdanovic, Young and Turner, is a solid plus 3.9 per 100 possessions. Swap Sabonis for Turner and that number jumps to plus 10.5, which is above even the league leading Houston Rockets.
This all begs the question: should Sabonis be starting over Turner? I’d pump the brakes on that thought for a moment. It’s true that the numbers make a strong case for Sabonis but there are some external factors to consider. The lineup featuring Turner has seen 1381 possessions, almost double the 741 seen by the starters plus Sabonis. Additionally, most of Turners possessions have been against opposing starters. Finally, Turner provides rim protection and league average three-point shooting, a rare combination for a center. The rim protection is especially important against LeBron James, one of the league’s best finishers at the rim. Turner’s athleticism and quickness also make him better equipped to chase Kevin Love around the three-point arc.
While I wouldn’t advocate benching Turner right away, coach Nate McMillan needs to carry a short leash. If Turner isn’t performing at a high level from game one, McMillan has to be prepared to turn to Sabonis early, possibly even inserting him into the starting lineup.
Can the Pacers survive when Oladipo rests?
The Pacers are a completely different team when Victor Oladipo hits the bench. With Oladipo on the court, Indiana sports a plus 6.7-point differential per 100 possessions. When he sits, that figure drops to a minus 7.8, a 14.5-point difference. Essentially, the Pacers are the fourth best team in the NBA when Oladipo plays and the second worst when he sits. It follows the narrative of the Pacers’ season, which has seen the team go down big early, often while Oladipo sits, only to eventually claw back as he remains in the game.
If the Pacers want to win this series they have to at least play Cleveland to a draw in the few minutes Oladipo rests each game. The problem is that the team doesn’t have many tested lineups that are positives without Oladipo. The other four starters without Oladipo are a ridiculously bad minus 13.7 over 185 possessions this season. In fact, out of the five lineups without Oladipo that have seen at least 90 possessions, only two of them are positive.
The one X-factor is midseason acquisition Trevor Booker. Although its’s only been over 224 possessions, lineups featuring Booker at power forward and Sabonis at center (without Oladipo) have a plus 2.1 differential. Those lineups aren’t ideal for today’s game, they take a ton of midrange jumpers and allow opponents to shoot a barrage of threes. However, on offense they are in the seventy-third percentile from midrange and the ninety-third on corner threes. They are also in the ninety-seventh percentile defending the deep ball. While their shot charts may not look pretty, they make the shots they take and force their opponents to miss. For the Pacers to avoid giving up leads while Oladipo sits, they may need to lean into these lineups more often.
Which Victor Oladipo shows up?
Let me preface this by saying that Oladipo has been great this season. He (along with Sabonis) has completely flipped the script on the Paul George trade and is the main reason the Pacers are in this position. In addition to his first All-Star appearance, he is the runaway favorite for Most Improved Player and a likely All-NBA pick as well.
That being said, Oladipo has regressed a bit as the season went on. Since February, Oladipo has shot 45.8 percent from the field and a ghastly 32.8 percent from three. These are down from 48.8 percent and 39.1 percent from October through January. To put that into perspective, early in the season Oladipo had shooting splits comparable to Kyrie Irving, since then he has been more like Reggie Jackson. To make matters worse, Oladipo’s three-point percentage has gone down even though he is taking one fewer three-pointer per game (6.19 attempts over the first four months compared to 5.11 now).
A slight regression from deep was expected; he was a career 34.6 percent three-point shooter coming into this season. However, over the last few months, Oladipo fell below his career average, including an ugly 23.4 percent in February.
If Oladipo’s shot doesn’t come around, he can still impact the game with his playmaking. Oladipo sports a respectable 21.2 assist percentage and his passes generally create good shots. According to NBA.com, Myles Turner shoots 40.4 percent from deep off of an Oladipo pass. Darren Collison shoots 40.9 percent off an Oladipo assist and Bogdanovic shoots 37.4 percent. As a whole, the other four starters shoot 39.3 percent from three: higher than Golden State’s league leading 39.1 percent as a team. If Oladipo looks to pass he can find a good shot.
Ultimately, this series will likely come down to how well Oladipo plays. If he scores efficiently and plays his trademark defense the Pacers will have a shot. If he can’t get it going offensively, the Pacers are likely going home early.