In a relatively unprecedented way, the Indiana Pacers pushed the norms of modern NBA basketball to the extreme this season. Having started their campaign with a more traditional deck, the team undeniably thrives when it’s unconventional.
Few teams have the guts to even dare to challenge four natural backers and a real big man in the starting unit, but the Pacers did just that. Position designations without point guard and center were eschewed in exchange for maximum flexibility and willful pace at both ends of the court – facets that perfectly describe the team’s identity this season.
However, the absence of Tyrese Haliburton – by far their best player and the ultimate stirrer of the pot – has thwarted the Pacers’ competitive plans, at least in the short term. In the meantime, they find that without their main driving force, it’s been quite difficult to stick with what has worked so far as they try to avoid a free fall in the standings.
The Indiana Pacers have a hard time being unconventional without Tyrese Haliburton
Haliburton’s masterful tempo manipulation and constant threat as a gifted anchorman – somehow even without the ball in his hands – and a methodical goalscorer have been the main drivers of Indiana’s offensive repertoire this season. The Pacers aren’t as heliocentric as other teams with a ball-dominant guard (Haliburton ranks 64th in usage rate), but their offensive design has been fairly dependent on backcourt design, led by Haliburton, of course.
Without him, the team’s ability on the open floor has declined significantly, at least according to the eye test. Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why.
Andrew Nembhard, his most direct replacement, understandably lacks nearly the same goal-scoring or moderation ability as Haliburton and has only just begun to evolve into a more feature-rich playmaker. TJ McConnell, who has played well since Haliburton’s injury, was a more than capable stopgap in spurts but remains more effective as a pace change guard in more deliberate and methodical situations.
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Expanding usage by other secondary creators wasn’t enough either. Bennedict Mathurin sometimes still has tunnel vision. Buddy Hield has never been a passerby. Chris Duarte’s attack point is more about scoring than trying to pass.
Unfortunately, without Haliburton, the Pacers can’t just go back to a more traditional style of basketball. First of all, they almost have zero Playmaking from their frontcourt players – a surety for a large reliance on pick and rolls. Second, the team simply doesn’t have a traditional roster to begin with. Attempting to confiscate position designations for the interim is not possible and could only be detrimental to the team’s offense and defense, as doing so would require an immediate suspension of an entire playbook.
Right now, the Indiana Pacers are grappling with the cards they’re being dealt. And while it’s certainly difficult to stick to their style effectively without Tyrese Haliburton, it should also be an opportunity for the other players to rise to the top, which could potentially make the team even better if their best player returns to the roster is.
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