The Indiana Pacers continue to chug along in the NBA’s weird COVID-ridden 2020-21 campaign, standing 10-7 after a Monday night win against the Toronto Raptors put them just a game and a half back of the first-place Philadelphia 76ers and half a game behind the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks for second in the Eastern Conference.
Oddly, the more things change in the NBA, the more they stay the same; Atlanta, at 8-8, is the only Southeast Division team within sniffing range of a winning record. But that’s a story for another day (specifically Thursday); stay tuned.
With Victor Oladipo shipped off to Houston, Caris LeVert out indefinitely until doctors figure out what that “small mass” is on his kidney and if he’ll ever be able to play again, and T.J. Warren out of action after surgery on his foot, one might fairly wonder just what’s holding the Pacers together.
The short answer? Domantas Sabonis, and more specifically his 74.4 percent shooting between zero and three feet so far this season.
No team takes a higher percentage of its shots right at the basket than the Pacers do; 36.4 percent of Indiana’s shots come within three feet, a massive departure from the 26.0 percent of attempts from that range league-wide.
The Pacers as a team convert 63.5 percent of those looks, just 20th in the league (Milwaukee, as you’d expect from a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo on it, leads the league at 73.3 percent, but they get just 26.5 percent of their overall attempts from that close), but Sabonis makes 74.4 percent of his shots.
74 players have shot at least 50 attempts from that close. Sabonis is 14th in the league.
Narrowing our search even further to players who have managed to take 100 shots from inside 3 feet already this season, there are 14 such players; Sabonis is second in percentage behind Antetokounmpo and ahead of LeBron James.
“Ahead of LeBron James” and attacking the rim aren’t usually mentioned together, but that’s just what a beast Sabonis has been so far this season doing exactly that.
Sabonis’ teammate Myles Turner has been similarly impressive from inside the restricted area; on that “at least 50 attempts” list, Turner is 23rd at 72.4 percent, which is not as good as LeBron (73.5 percent) but is still super-solid.
You may at this point be asking yourself how the Pacers, who have two big men hitting better than eight out of every 11 attempts from in close, stand just 20th in the league?
Well, you can thank, or blame, Malcolm Brogdon for that; “The President” has made a paltry 54 out of 101 (53.5 percent) of his shots inside three feet, 68th out of 74 players with at least 50 attempts (ahead of Donovan Mitchell, so there’s that) and dead last out of the 14 players with 100 shots right at the rim.
Brogdon is, in essence, suffering from a milder case of the problem Tyreke Evans suffered in the 2018-19 season, when far too often he would drive the lane and miss a layup; Evans was dead last among 111 players with at least 200 attempts two years ago from that close and the only one to make less than half of them (49.0 percent.)
Sabonis is averaging 3.0 offensive rebounds a game; this is part of how he’s getting so many looks (over six a game!) from right at the rim. Putbacks are a tremendously efficient shot, especially for someone who at 6’11” and 240 pounds has the size to bang bodies down low.
Even more impressive? 59 of Sabonis’ 91 makes from right at the rim were assisted. That’s tops in the entire league, one more than Zion Williamson (who is shooting just 63.4 percent from inside 3 feet.)
Sabonis left Monday’s game with knee trouble and is listed as day-to-day. The Pacers better hope he makes a quick recovery, because his nearly unrivaled (except by Giannis, because…well, because Giannis) rim efficiency is what’s keeping Indiana in the thick of the top-half-of-the-bracket playoff race a quarter of the way through the season.