Indiana Pacers: Did Domantas Sabonis regress as a playmaker?

Indiana Pacers, Domantas Sabonis - Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Indiana Pacers, Domantas Sabonis - Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

One of the motifs on offense that the Indiana Pacers have particularly employed to a great degree in recent years was the playmaking of All-Star center Domantas Sabonis. Arguably the second-best passing 5 in the league behind Nikola Jokic, the presence of a passing threat from the position has been one of the reasons behind the team’s rise as an offensive unit recently.

This season, however, that script has been quite different, at least to begin the campaign. Through 11 games, Sabonis is averaging just 3.9 assists per game, well behind his career-high average of 6.7 last season, and the five dimes per contest that he tallied the year before that. Worse, the All-Star is committing 3.5 turnovers per outing, easily his worst mark.

While the Pacers haven’t necessarily struggled on offense due to Domas’ regression on that front, with their 108.1 offensive rating ranking 12th in the league, the team has actually dipped on that department from last season, where they registered 111.9 rating on offense. It’s unfair to single out his less efficient passing as the main culprit, but it’s certainly far from negligible, especially with Indiana still boasting a lot of potential as a scoring unit.

Domantas Sabonis needs to regain his peak playmaking form for the Indiana Pacers to maximize their scoring potential

One of the biggest factors why Domantas Sabonis is recording less assists is the Indiana Pacers’ change in pace, which has been heaven and earth compared to last season. After playing at the fourth-fastest pace in 2020-21, the Pacers are now 19th in that area, with Rick Carlisle sticking to a more deliberate attack to make full use of the team’s size advantage and multiple half court creators.

Another reason is that most offensive possessions are now commenced by either Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert, with Domas noticeably resorted to as a secondary outlet. Also, with the team’s main and most efficient cutter in Doug McDermott now gone, his pinpoint passes from the high post are not as common or as featured.

Without much movement in the half court (primarily because of a lack of reliable off-call cutters aside from Justin Holiday), Sabonis’ passing is tempered and clearly not as effective. Look at this sequence:

Another noticeable pattern is Domas’ discomfort trying to create from the three-point line instead of the high post, with him being situated behind the arc more frequently than before due to the Pacers’ insistence on using him more as a floor spacer than an exclusive post operator to facilitate the team’s slashers and rim drivers.

Sabonis’ difficulty exploiting double teams, however, has been puzzling. He’s been a constant victim to pressure defenses, with defenders comfortable doubling down on him on the block even with the risk of the pass. Part of that is his tentativeness whether to attack the mismatch or pass it out, allowing defenders to sag off more to hound him and make a play on the ball. This was especially evident on the Pacers’ two losses to the Raptors.

Personally, I think the bulk of Sabonis’ struggles with his passing so far this season has a lot to do with the team’s adoption of a new offensive style and their more deliberate offense. However, he has his own faults, such as his not-so-crisp awareness of how the defense is attacking him and his habit of forcing the issue at times. Still, his raw talent at that distributing the ball is inarguable. He simply has to adjust better to how teams are attacking him.

Ultimately, for the Indiana Pacers to be able to maximize their scoring potential, Domantas Sabonis has to be his normal self as a playmaker, especially with the team being bannered by multiple scorers aside from himself, with even more reinforcements coming soon.

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