Is Nate Bjorkgren Overusing the Pacers’ Stars?

The Indiana Pacers are a top-heavy talent team, with Malcolm Brogdon (36.9 minutes per game) and Domantas Sabonis (36.8) shouldering a huge minutes load between the two of them.

Indeed, in the Pacers’ 119-110 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers Sunday night, coach Nate Bjorkgren went with what was basically an eight-deep rotation; Goga Bitadze played just shy of six minutes and Edmond Sumner just six seconds in the loss, while Brogdon, Sabonis, and Justin Holiday all played over three-quarters of the game.

What’s more, with Victor Oladipo gone and Caris LeVert out indefinitely, the Pacers have a severe guard depth problem that saw T.J. McConnell log 25 minutes and 41 seconds of game time despite his season-long issue with not being a competent enough player in the modern style to fit the Pacers’ offensive needs.

McConnell’s feast-or-famine reliance on getting to the rim does mean he’s shooting 50.2 percent from the field, but that’s tempered by a lousy-for-a-guard .101 3PAR and just 28.6 percent accuracy from that range.

But never mind that. McConnell playing 25 minutes a game is more a condemnation of Aaron Holiday‘s stubborn refusal to develop into an even semi-capable NBA-level shooter (a you-gotta-be-kidding-me .441 eFG% this season has seen to that) and less a knock on the mother of invention that’s necessitated McConnell playing as essentially the sixth man.

The bigger issue here is that the Pacers simply aren’t a very deep team, full stop. Bjorkgren has to play Brogdon enough minutes that it’s seriously endangering his ability to stay on the floor—Brogdon, who has averaged about 30 minutes a game since becoming a starter late in his rookie campaign, has been chronically injured and tends to miss at least 25 percent of the games in any given year. He has to run Sabonis into the ground because behind Sabonis and Myles Turner, there’s Doug McDermott and Bitadze and not much else—JaKarr Sampson simply hasn’t been able to crack the rotation and has appeared in just eight games out of the Pacers’ 20 so far.

Likewise, what’s behind Jeremy Lamb? Holiday? McConnell?

And Aaron’s brother Justin has himself been pressed into service by T.J. Warren‘s broken foot.

The Pacers simply do not have the depth to hang with the league unless the starters play huge minutes.

And if the starters play huge minutes, either injuries are going to pile up in the regular season and force Indiana to trot out a G-League team, severely torpedoing their playoff chances, or they’re going to get to the playoffs and run into the same problem Mike D’Antoni and his Houston Rockets ran into year after year, having pushed so hard during the regular season that they looked gassed by the second round and completely wiped by the conference finals.

In Indiana’s case, that’s yet another first-round playoff out, second verse, same as the first (and in turn, same as the third, fourth, and fifth.)

So the answer to the question in the headline is “yes and no.” Is Bjorkgren overusing the Pacers’ stars in terms of playing too many minutes to keep them healthy?

Well, yes, yes he is. Brogdon is second in the league behind James Harden in minutes per game, and Sabonis stands fourth with Kevin Durant—speaking of teams that have to ride their stars like thoroughbreds and hope they don’t become glue factory fodder, we could have this same conversation about Steve Nash and the Brooklyn Nets—in third.

But is he overusing them in terms of doing whatever it takes to make sure his team stays in playoff contention?

Well, no. This isn’t like the case of the Knicks (9-13 and in 10th place in the East) or Raptors (8-12, 11th) in the sense of having guys in the top tier of minutes per game but getting nothing out of them in terms of actually winning games and contending. The Pacers, even after dropping two games since the last time we visited them on this site, are still the 5 seed, in a virtual tie with Boston and just one game back of the second-seed Milwaukee Bucks.

You can’t put that on the coach. Nate McMillan was fired for his inability to get this Pacers team past the first round of the playoffs. The obvious expectation on Nate Bjorkgren is that he’ll be able to do what his predecessor couldn’t, and the most critical part of getting past the first round of the playoffs is getting seeded well enough to get a weaker team as a first-round opponent.

The East is a garbage fire below the 5 seed. The Hawks, at 10-10, are the only team behind the Pacers who don’t have a losing record; Charlotte and Cleveland, each at 10-11, stand tied for seventh, and the play-in game spots belong to an 8-11 Chicago Bulls team and the aforementioned 9-13 Knicks.

It is paramount, if a team wants to have any chance of going anywhere in the East this playoff season, to get one of those top three seeds, and right now that’s the Sixers, Bucks, and Nets.

Maybe Brooklyn might implode if Durant or Harden, both of whom are over 30, get hurt. But Boston is managing the load on their players exceptionally well, almost guaranteed to be fresh in the postseason, and the Sixers and Bucks are the Sixers and Bucks.

It’s hard to blame the Pacers’ coaching for looking at that scenario and saying to themselves that they’d rather have Brogdon and Sabonis break down like the Bluesmobile than play big minutes for guys who couldn’t beat the last place 4-12 Washington Wizards in a seven-game series, never mind the contenders.