20 September 2020

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Top 15 Duos in 10 Years: #12 – Sabonis/Turner

The opening of the 2019-20 NBA season marked a change of balance in the league. Many superstars left their prior teams to strategically pair with other stars in the league. With this, the era of superteams concluded and was replaced with the era of power duos. 

Most fans and media will focus on the popular pairs in the league – some examples include Lebron and Davis, Kawhi and George, and Irving and Durant. But over the last couple of years, many teams in the rebuilding process still utilize the duo method. There has been an abundance of young talent entering the league, and these young players join teams with similar young talent. As a result, many young, developing teammates have proven to succeed off each other and experience maximum production when on the court together. This begs the question, which teams will contain the most effective duos when these young players hit their prime?

This article continues a series counting down the top 15 duos in the year 2030 (10 years from today). Each article is categorized through tiers; this post addresses tier 4 – Promising All-Star Duo. Tiers are classified as followed:

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Tier 1 = #1 – #3: Established Superstar Duo

Tier 2 = #4 – #6: Promising Superstar Duo

Tier 3 = #7 – #9: Established All-Star Duo

Tier 4 = #10 – #12: Promising All-Star Duo

Tier 5 = #13 – #15: High-Quality Teammates

Before starting, we must define some terms. Although improbable in reality, this list assumes every player will stay with their current organization in theory. The success of each duo is based on the ability of each teammate to approximately produce at an equal rate. Moreover, each player of the pair must generate production through each other. Lastly, the team should show success when both players share the floor.

12) Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are a unique team filled with a myriad of young, talented competitors. Their roster includes 7 players averaging double-digit points with each being able to switch their role based on the needs of the team. 2 of these players are Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, fulfilling the starting frontcourt for the team. Some questioned the ability of both big men to coexist, but there are several reasons why the pair can still succeed on the court together.

Last year, Sabonis was the backup center for Turner. Being the main defensive focus of the starting lineup, Turner had the best season of his career. He led the league in blocks with 2.7 per night, while scoring 13 points and grabbing 7 rebounds too.

This year, Coach Nate McMillan experimented with his roster by starting Sabonis alongside Turner. As a result, while Sabonis’ production increased, Turner’s production significantly decreased. Turner is averaging the fewest points, assists, and rebounds since his rookie season while shooting the worst field goal percentage of his entire career. But while many will assume Turner as being insignificant or inconsistent, most don’t look at the entire picture.

Coach McMillan’s decision directly impacted Turner’s playing capacities on the court. For example, most of Turner’s production comes from the pick and roll in which he ran 35.9% of the time last year, the 3rd highest frequency in the league. This year, he only runs the play 27.1%, which is a significant drop-off. On top of this, Turner’s possessions per game, points from each possession, and points per game from running pick and roll action have all decreased as well, per Synergy.

Furthermore, Indiana had an increase in scoring capacity by adding guys like Brodgan and Warren into their roster. With this, Turner’s engagement within the offensive system has taken a nosedive. And with Sabonis sharing half of the responsibilities of the frontcourt, Turner has been forced out of his comfort zone as a roll man and has resorted to becoming a catch-and-shoot player, in which he now executes 27% of the time (12% increase from last year), per Synergy. As a result, Turner has been forced to work within a limited role of production opportunity.

So with Turner suffering through the new gameplan, why might the big men duo still be effective in the long run?

Sabonis is having the best season of his career

Even though Turner has performed inadequately, Domantas Sabonis has been thriving with the new situation, averaging 19 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists per game. He is shooting 54% from the field throughout the season, and he chips in 1 steal and block per game as well. He is ranked top 5 in the league for rebounds per game, and his success this season awarded him an all-star selection.

Sabonis doesn’t have the extreme athleticism, intensity or toughness that most big men need to produce. So to succeed, Sabonis must increase the value of his given characteristics past normality to make up for what he loses in physicality. This idea demonstrates the amount of talent Sabonis already has at age 23, let alone the skills he will develop during the rest of his career.

He has played 62 games so far, and to endure that consistent stamina through 80% of the season makes his season that much more remarkable. And given the amount of energy he withstands to produce on a daily level, Sabonis has only missed 3 games this season, which shows the veteran pride he has of taking care of his mind and body.

With Sabonis being able to succeed given the hurdles he must overcome, his play illustrates not only how good he is, but how good he could be in the future. And with Coach McMillan actively engaged with his players, he understands that it is in the best interest of the team to shape their gameplan around Sabonis succeeding. If they put their all-star in the best position to produce, they will increase Sabonis’ fullest capabilities and Indiana will be one step closer toward getting to the next level.

Thus, it’s self-evident that with Sabonis exceeding expectations this year, he will be a terrific half of the big man duo. And even though Turner isn’t as individually successful, it is more important to analyze how both players can perform collectively and simultaneously. With that, a new question comes to mind: how will Turner and Sabonis perform together?

Both contain attributes necessary to complement each other

Both big men fit the categorical assumption of having similar skill sets – classic big men that have ventured into long-distance shooting. However, both players have characteristics appropriate to suit each other and to make up for each other’s declines.

Turner is an athletic, modernized center with incredible versatility on defense. He is best known for locking down the paint, but he also has terrific lateral quickness and exceptional timing both on and off the ball. On offense, he is a multi-level shooter who can run the floor and provide scoring when needed.

Sabonis has a more traditional skill set, which is uncommon in today’s game. His production comes from down low and in the post with a back-to-the-basket playstyle. Although he isn’t over-aggressive, Sabonis is one of the smartest post players in the league. He doesn’t have a well-known, go-to move, but he uses his craftiness and shooting ability to produce based on what the defense gives him.

When combining these 2 talents, Indiana gets the best features out of both guys, being that Turner is stronger on defense while Sabonis is stronger on offense. On defense, while Sabonis doesn’t contain great interior presence, Turner is a powerful defensive anchor who is a help option if Sabonis gets beaten on the ball. On offense, Turner’s shooting skills open up the lane for Sabonis to go to work down low. Turner’s ability to stretch the floor makes it more difficult for the defense to contain Sabonis, which allows for higher production from both teammates when they are on the court together.

These hypothetical ideas can be proven using advanced analytics

It’s great to be familiar with each player’s traits to see why they could synchronize together. But none of that matters unless these aspects are executed correctly on the court. Because in the end, no one cares about what could have happened – only about what actually happens. Luckily, using advanced data and statistics, we can observe just how successful the duo produces when they play together.

In Indiana’s current starting lineup with both big men, The Pacers are 1st in field goals made per game (23.5) and 1st in rebounds per game (23) for any 5-man lineup in the entire league. They are also 2nd in points per game (58.5) and 3rd in assists per game (11). Additionally, they are 1st in the league in plus/minus net with 8.5 ppg (minimum 20 mpg).

When looking at the entire season totals rather than stats per game, we must switch Oladipo for Brodgan and Holiday for Lamb, because Coach McMillan used that lineup for the majority of the season with injuries in mind. In that starting lineup, The Pacers had a 53 point plus/minus net throughout the season.

If we eliminate other teammates and focus on Turner and Sabonis specifically, their statistics are still positive. The duo has a 2.1 net rating for their 2-man game, as well as 105.7 offensive rating and 103.6 defensive rating.

This shows that in either scenario or situation, the Pacers outscore their opponent when Turner and Sabonis share the floor together. No matter what problems either player might deal with, the end result is a positive progression toward a win for the team.

Conclusion

No one can deny Turner’s rough season. But he is still trying to figure out how he can produce for the team with his competence being changed. And at the end, rather than focusing on individual play, all that matters is Turner contributing with Sabonis toward success for the team. And with the statistical evidence reviewed, Pacers fans should feel reassured that the duo is indeed flourishing, and should only enhance in the future.

Even with their all-star Victor Oladipo missing 52 games this year, as well as Malcolm Brodgan also missing considerable time throughout the season, The Pacers are achieving sufficiently and much of that success should be recognized to Turner and Sabonis. They are currently the 5th seed in the East, and once Oladipo becomes a regular part of Indiana’s gameplan again, their success should only increase, as Victor’s playmaking and shooting will improve in the production of both big men.

The Pacers still have important decisions to make for their future. They haven’t made it past the 1st round since 2014 – before either big man entered the NBA. Nonetheless, both big men should be very important pieces for Indiana’s success this season, and GM Chad Buchanan should feel jubilant to witness how the duo evolves through the organization. And if everything else goes according to plan, Indiana’s pair show the great potential of becoming a promising all-star duo in 10 years.

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