The numbers behind Turner-only and Sabonis-only lineups

Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers - Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers - Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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indiana pacers
Turner and Sabonis, Indiana Pacers – Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

How has the Turbonis duo performed for the Indiana Pacers?

As everyone reading this knows, the Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis frontcourt is the source of plenty of division among NBA and Indiana Pacers fans. Most assumed they would, at one point, be broken up. Many picked a side, while others pulled for the “Turbonis” frontcourt to make it through the debate unscathed.

It’s now year two of the duo starting together, and similar uncertainties remain. The experiment did seem mostly successful last season, but it was unfortunate that the two couldn’t play together in a playoff setting. In their time on the floor together in 2019-20, Sabonis and Turner produced a positive net rating and while there were offensive issues at times, the idea that they could close games together and play heavy minutes together was becoming generally more accepted within the NBA community.

That hasn’t changed this year, at least it shouldn’t through 27 games. While their net rating is -1.5, it’s a small sample that has been heavily influenced by a drastic drop in the Pacers’ defensive performance when the two are on the floor together and Indiana’s scoring differential being lower than last season. If those numbers remain through a full season, then a discussion about their pairing could be worthwhile, but for now, the focus should be on the difference in the Turner-only minutes vs. the Sabonis-only minutes.

In past years, the Pacers’ best lineups typically came when Sabonis occupied the floor without Turner. Last year’s bench unit of T.J. McConnell, Aaron and Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, and Sabonis carried a net rating of 7.2.

That lineup has been a negative this season in 42 minutes. The same lineup, with Turner inserted over Sabonis, has a net rating of +22.4 (only 28 minutes). Those are small samples, so let’s use two-man lineups instead.

Of the Pacers’ two-man lineups with at least 150 minutes played this season, here’s the nine with a negative net rating: Lamb/Turner (-7.0 points per 100 possessions), Sabonis/A. Holiday (-6.9), Brogdon/A. Holiday (-3.5), Lamb/Sabonis (-3.2), Sabonis/Brogdon (-3.1), Lamb/Brogdon (-2.9), Sabonis/Turner (-1.5), J. Holiday/Sabonis (-1.3), and McDermott/Sabonis (-0.9).

To paint a picture of the on/off number differential between Sabonis and Turner, here are the numbers if you replace the negative Sabonis two-man lineups with Turner: Lamb/Turner (-7.0), Turner/A.Holiday (4.0), Brogdon/Turner (3.2), J. Holiday/Turner (2.8), and McDermott/Turner (7.6)

Every player, besides Jeremy Lamb, that produces a negative net rating with Sabonis on the floor produces a positive net rating with Turner on the floor (150+ minutes).

When Turner is on the floor without Sabonis, Indiana scores 116.33 points per 100 possessions and allows 99.55 points per 100 possessions. When Sabonis is on the floor without Turner, Indiana scores 111.35 points per 100 possessions and allows 114.81 points per 100 possessions. 

The defensive numbers being significantly better in Turner-only minutes isn’t a shock. The offensive numbers being better, however, is both surprising and potentially a cause for concern. Indiana being more efficient without Sabonis on the floor is a complete reversal from past seasons and warrants a deeper dive into the reasons.