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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Pacers preview with Caitlin Cooper

Getting a little insight about Saturday’s opponent.

Philadelphia 76ers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Caitlin Cooper, who covers the Indiana Pacers for SB Nation’s Indy Cornrows.

What is the forward-thinking vision for this team? How did that change from the beginning of the year to the end?

During the offseason, the goal was to get back to the playoffs, but the Pacers got off to a tough start before the season even started. Caris LeVert missed training camp with a stress fracture in his back, and after optimism was expressed at Media Day that T.J. Warren might be able to return in “weeks, not months,” he ended up being sidelined for the entire season.

Then, once the actual games started, they kept finding falling pianos to stand under during crunch-time, with credible spacing resurfacing as a recurrent issue along with what seemed like a divide between the makeup of the roster and how Rick Carlisle would prefer to play.

Put simply, the clock ran out on waiting for that core to jell and be healthy — especially with how the team as a whole was shooting (or, rather, misfiring) from long distance. As such, changes had to be made at the deadline to escape from what had become stale and purgatorial, so they pivoted toward a rebuild by exchanging what Domantas Sabonis adds in dimension with the upside of Tyrese Haliburton, who they view as a franchise point guard.

As it stands now, they’re on track to get their first single-digit draft pick since 1989 while picking a direction that will allow them to still pick from among several directions — whether retooling or further rebuilding — this summer.

Who are the foundational players of this roster?

Haliburton is the main building block, along with Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson as the young core. Whether Malcolm Brogdon (29) and T.J. Warren (28) factor seems plausible to hinge on how willing the front office is to carry on with two players who have struggled to be on the floor, with the latter missing all but four games over the last two seasons and the former yet to appear in 60 since signing with the Pacers three seasons ago.

Granted, the Pacers have been outscored by 16.3 points per 100 possessions (allowing 124.4 per 100) in 201 minutes with Brogdon on the floor with Haliburton, but the quality of opponent (i.e. losing by 33 to Memphis) and how some of those opponents have altered their late-game coverages (i.e. switching) in the absence of other key pieces deserves consideration along with any potential concerns, if there are any, about playing two “point guards” at the same time.

As for Myles Turner, who fills an obvious hole on the defensive end while being nearer in age (25) to the roster’s timeline, his future — by comparison — will likely be tied to how willing he is to sign an extension, as the Pacers surely won’t want to risk losing him for nothing. Apart from those three, Buddy Hield (29) has expanded his secondary skills since being traded to Indiana, which could potentially present opportunities to either flip his descending contract or retain the benefits of his gravity, even if what else he has done proves difficult to scale in a lesser role.

What are your expectations heading into the offseason and start of 2022-23?

Genuinely? No idea. If they retain their existing veterans and nail the draft, they’ll likely be better than they were this season, but how much better is the question. As was the case last offseason, there’s no sample size for how the projected starting lineup (whatever it is) will mesh or how competitive they can be. The Pacers haven’t won a playoff series since George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014 — nearly a decade ago.

There’s a middle way where they can probably balance winning with development, but if they make any sort of short-term moves at the expense of draft capital or potentially adding other young players, the expected ceiling has to be higher than “tough out” or “first-round exit.” Otherwise, exercising patience, with a longer view, will arguably be a virtue.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

The remainder of this season isn’t about results for the Pacers and they aren’t going to stop, or likely even limit, Joel Embiid. As such, what’s arguably more interesting (and informative) to monitor is how Haliburton reacts to different types of coverages. By nature, he rarely hunts bad shots and often looks to make the extra pass, but he can be too deferential, either hesitating against switches or truncating his drives without forcing the defense to commit.

If he finds himself in this situation again, for example, will he back up to the 4-point line and force Embiid to cover a larger distance with a running start or will he shot-fake out of a side-step three, instead throwing a grenade to a teammate? Also, if he throws the grenade, will the teammate look for the go-and-catch as a potential escape hatch for what his straight-on attacks can lack in juice?

Evaluating those types of trees, rather than forests, is what should matter to the Pacers, particularly as it pertains to overall team-building and gauging how to best amplify Haliburton’s unique passing talent.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

Acquiring Tyrese Haliburton in only the second year of his rookie contract is probably the most obvious answer (who saw that coming?). However, given the team’s recent track record in the draft, with TJ Leaf signing to play in China, Goga Bitadze still struggling to distinguish himself from other options on the roster, and Aaron Holiday playing for three different teams in the last calendar year, the overall quality of the rookie class has been a boon by comparison to the prior established norm.

Isaiah Jackson has wowed with vertical pop. Chris Duarte oozes instinct, with the potential to have his burdens eased by Haliburton as the purer passer, and both players on two-way contact recently earned promotions. Of course, all four have areas where they need to improve.

Jackson, in spite of his raw tools, can be undisciplined on defense. Duarte has yet to master the nuance of when to pass, when to dribble, and when to shoot. Duane Washington Jr. gets in over his head when pressed into making plays for others. For all the props Terry Taylor deserves for his quirkiness as a 6-foot-5 roll-man and putback machine (shameless plug), he could stand to be more aggressive hunting bully drives and searching for his keeper to mitigate for what he lacks in consistency as a shooter, particularly from the corners.

On the whole, however, the rookies have been a bright spot, with room to grow, in what largely has been a disappointing season.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

The defense. Along with “togetherness,” fixing what went wrong at the end of floor last season, when the team was whirling between hyper-aggressive and under-baked schemes on autopilot under Nate Bjorkgren, was a major point of emphasis heading into Carlisle’s tenure; and yet, with only two games remaining on the schedule, the Pacers currently rank 28th in defensive rating.

To be fair, not having Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon, and Chris Duarte for large portions of the schedule certainly factored, but things started to go south — with the Pacers surrendering over 120 points per 100possessions in December even with those three on the floor together — long before the concurrent injuries occurred.

In that regard, given that the defense took on more and more forms as the season progressed, balancing hedging with Sabonis at solo five (as an attempt at rim deterrence) to later hedging with both Turner and Sabonis (to mask for lingering issues at the point of attack) and eventually surrendering to switching (without any real opportunity to implement a new, fully-formed scheme post-deadline), there was never really a clear direction as to what they were consistently aiming to take away.

That has to change moving forward. Otherwise, they’ll be recycling the same point of emphasis at this time next year.