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
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers – Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

Sabonis-Only Minutes

Here’s a look at the Pacers shot chart when only Sabonis is on the floor. The Pacers are among the league-leaders in shots at the rim, and this shot chart only furthers that. Outside of a few spots above-the-break, the majority of the shots in these lineups come from around the rim.

What about the opponent shot chart? That’s a lot of orange and red in the most important spots, around the rim and at the three-point line.

Saturday night against Atlanta, the Pacers went to a Sabonis-only lineup for a big chunk of the second period. It performed well offensively but gave up 24 points in a little over eight minutes. Indiana played some zone during this stretch, but not until the Hawks began putting the undersized and slower defensive unit in space.

To be fair, this was a rough defensive lineup, especially when considering Nate Bjorkgren’s general defensive philosophies. Atlanta knew the Pacers were going to bring Sabonis to the screen to apply ball-pressure and help for Aaron Holiday and took advantage of Holiday’s pressure. With this lineup on the floor, there was no rim protection below the screen and Sabonis couldn’t recover in time.

Indiana’s defensive struggles of late aren’t all Sabonis’ fault. Bjorkgren has made a few questionable defensive decisions (a story for another time), but it’s clear the Sabonis-only minutes are being compromised in the two most efficient places, and especially at the rim.

The more surprising aspect is the offense. Sabonis minutes have still been good offensively, but lag behind the Turner minutes. The reason is likely simpler than one would think: Sabonis is being asked to do too much.

Bench lineups from last season, and the days of sixth-man-Sabonis, were effective because of the way he elevated the players around him and his selectivity in the shots he took. That’s likely a major reason why his true shooting percentage peaked in 2018-19 at 63%.

When Turner is off this season, Sabonis is averaging one less assist per 100 possessions than he was last season when Turner was off. 

Sabonis has shot the ball 20+ times in four different games this season. All were losses, and outside of Jan. 11’s game against Sacramento, none were particularly close. In the one game where he shot 19 times, Indiana lost as well.

The fifth-year standout ranks No. 2 in the entire NBA for touches, meaning he has the ball in his hands more than almost anyone else in the league.

None of this is to say Indiana is better without Sabonis or that Pacers fans should panic, but the on/off numbers are getting too drastic to ignore at this point. A similar thing is happening with Malcolm Brogdon as well (when Turner is on and Brogdon/Sabonis sit, the Pacers are putting up a lofty 127.92 points per 100 possessions).