Learning How to Win: The Renaissance of T.J. Warren

Back toward the beginning of the season, I applied some history from my days as a boxing writer to surmise that there are some NBA players who, by virtue of playing on Dumpster fire teams for their early careers, learn how to lose and as such become liabilities when the game is on the line.

One of my examples, Kemba Walker, was one of the worst clutch players in the league when he was in Charlotte, shooting atrocious percentages in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime when shooting to tie or take the lead.

And for Walker, this loser’s mentality has continued to dog him in Boston, as he’s just 2-of-6 from the field and 1-of-4 from three this season in those situations. His eFG% of .417 reinforces that notion that some guys simply cannot learn how to win even when they’re on great teams, and it’s a good thing the Celtics have guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to provide their late-game heroics.

And then…there’s Walker’s Newtonian Third Law counterpart, T.J. Warren of the Pacers.

For one thing, Warren evolves into an absolute beast when the game is on the line—in that same situation I just outlined for Walker, Warren is 11-of-19 from the field (57.9 percent) and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc (75 percent), good for an eFG% of .658. Warren’s clutch shooting keeps the Pacers in the game when the shots matter most.

And the wild thing? I spoke way too soon when I said Warren had learned how to lose—last year, he was 8-of-14 (57.1 percent) from the field in those same situations.

The Pacers took a guy who’d been sneaking under the radar so strongly that a certain stats-loving NBA writer got duped out of his sneakers…and put him front-and-center to show the entire league just how good this guy is.

Consider me both (a) impressed and (b) a newly-minted T.J. Warren fan to a degree of love that I reserved for the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic during Bogey’s tenure in Indiana over the previous two seasons.

Warren is right up there with Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner as pieces who can absolutely make a deep playoff run…and as is obligatory in all such talk, I am contractually required to mention that Victor Oladipo is the fifth piece in that lineup.

Besides having a keen nose for talent, Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard pulled off one of the most one-sided trades in recent NBA history.

The Suns, after all, not only traded Warren for “cash considerations”, but out of absolutely nowhere and without needing to do so to make the deal, they threw in the 32nd pick in the 2019 draft just because the Suns organization is, as previously stated, a Dumpster fire.

These are the same Suns who—speaking of duping an NBA writer and making him look dumb—took the same 6-3 record after nine games that the Milwaukee Bucks compiled in the same stretch this season and, rather than go 33-3 after that like the Bucks did, instead went 12-22.

Over an 82-game season, that’s the difference between 75-7 and 29-53.

Just imagine what the Suns would’ve been able to do if they hadn’t traded away the one guy on their team who is actually good in crunch time.

(shut up, Devin Booker fans. Book is a career 38.4 percent shooter in that last 5 minutes scenario. Better than Kemba, nowhere near the equal of T.J., and with an eFG% of .462 on the most critical shots this year, a good chunk of the reason Phoenix can’t seem to pull victory from the jaws of defeat and keeps losing the close games.)

Kevin Pritchard got a clutch god…for less than nothing in exchange. It’s not quite “Joe Barry Carroll for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale” or “Don Ford for James Worthy” on the list of all-time great one-sided NBA trades…but it was absolutely an act of felony grand theft against an incompetent front office.

As this article goes to press, the Pacers lead the Suns 47-41 shortly before the half in Phoenix. It’ll be quite the sight if the game is close, goes down to the wire, and Warren hits the dagger to put the game away.