For the Pacers, being unconventional is difficult without Haliburton

Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

In relatively unprecedented fashion, the Indiana Pacers have been pushing the norms of modern NBA basketball to the extremes this season. After starting off their campaign with a more traditional deck, the team has inarguably found more success by being unconventional.

Few teams have the guts to even dare and trot out four natural backcourt players and one true big man in the starting unit, but the Pacers have done just that. Positional designations, sans the point guard and the center, have been shunned in exchange for utmost flexibility and willful pace on both ends of the court — facets that perfectly describe the team’s identity this season.

However, the absence of Tyrese Haliburton — easily their best player and the ultimate stirrer of the pot — has thrown a curveball to the Pacers’ competitive plans, at least for the short term. For the meantime, they are finding that sticking to what has worked so far has been quite difficult without their main driving force as they try to avoid a free fall in the standings.

The Indiana Pacers are finding it difficult to be unconventional without Tyrese Haliburton

Haliburton’s masterful manipulation of pace and constant threat as a gifted facilitator — even without the ball in his hands, somehow — and a methodical scorer have been the primary movers of Indiana’s offensive repertoire this season. The Pacers are not as heliocentric as other teams featuring a ball-dominant guard (Haliburton ranks 64th in usage rate), but their offensive design has been pretty reliant on backcourt creation, led by Haliburton of course.

Without him, the team’s prowess in the open floor has declined a ton, at least from the eye test. Alas, it’s easy to see why.

Andrew Nembhard, his most direct replacement, understandably doesn’t nearly offer the same scoring or facilitating ability as Haliburton, and has only been starting to transition into a more featured playmaker. TJ McConnell, who has played well in the wake of Haliburton’s injury, has been a more than capable stopgap in spurts, but remains more effective as a change-of-pace guard in more deliberate and methodical settings.

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Amplifying the usage of other secondary creators also hasn’t been enough. Bennedict Mathurin still has a tunnel vision at times. Buddy Hield has never been a passer. Chris Duarte’s point of attack leans more on trying to score than trying to pass.

Unfortunately, the Pacers can’t just revert back to playing a more traditional brand of basketball without Haliburton. First of all, they have almost zero playmaking from their frontcourt players — a collateral of a major reliance on pick-and-rolls. Second, the team simply doesn’t have a traditional roster to begin with. Trying to shoehorn positional designations for the meantime is not possible and could only be detrimental to the team’s offense and defense as doing so would promptly require a suspension of an entire playbook.

For now, the Indiana Pacers have to deal with the cards they’re dealt. And while it’s certainly difficult to stick to their style effectively without Tyrese Haliburton, this should also be an opportunity for the other players to rise to the plate, potentially making the team even better when their best player is back in the fold.