Wesley Matthews and Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers

Meet “Tall Ball” — the Pacers new wrinkle

The Indiana Pacers have a new lineup wrinkle.

Darren Collison missed a 3 game stretch for the Indiana Pacers, and the team lost 2 of those games. On the surface, it was a tough stretch of time without him.

But it may have been a blessing in disguise. It allowed the Pacers to discover a new wrinkle that could help their team long into the season. While other teams zig and play “small-ball”, the Pacers have discovered “tall-ball”.

It’s glorious, and it features 5 players all taller than 6’5 as well as 2 centers. And it has some flexibility, making it harder to contain. The group consists of the following 5 dudes.

PG: Tyreke Evans

SG: Wesley Matthews

SF: Bojan Bogdanovic/Doug McDermott

PF/C: Domantas Sabonis

PF/C: Myles Turner

The glory of the height is that it isn’t a surrogate for skills like it would be in a lot of other instances. Tyreke Evans can handle the ball. Myles Turner can defend. Domanstas Sabonis can pass and screen. Wesley Mattews and Doug McDermott can shoot. Bojan can do a little bit of everything. They have just enough skill to make their collective size smothering.

Most of the time, this group was used as the first group off the bench, which meant that McDermott was the guy at the 3. When that was the case, this group was a machine of success, swarming their opponents in route to a 53.8 (!) defensive rating.

Yeah, it’s only 7 minutes, but hot damn. Length is smothering, we have learned that from Milwaukee’s sensational defense all season long. This group has length, and they force turnovers at a decent rate because of it:

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This group forces turnovers at a rate of about 14 per game, right around league average. That isn’t awesome, but it gets the job done considering their defense is effective due to this groups ability to force missed shots.

Against these 5 men (featuring McDermott) opponents have shot 3/13. Included in that number is a 2/7 figure at the rim, where the dominance of Turner and Sabonis just crushes people:

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Beyond Turner contesting the hell out of that Montrezl Harrell post up, the swarming closeout on Patrick Beverly’s three made this possession the perfect microcosm of how these 5 play defense. They use their length to pressure the offense into mistakes, and it works! That’s about all you can want a group of 5 to do.

There is a reason to believe it is unsustainable. That percentage conceded at the rim is impossible to keep up. 77 percent of opponents shots are 3s or shots at the rim, which are statistically the best shots in basketball. Maybe we’ve just seen a flukey clump of defensive minutes.

But I think we’ve seen in the NBA, from other teams and from these minimal Pacer minutes, that length can strengthen defenses in ways that aren’t normal. This group can still be great on D even with a bit of progression to the mean from opposing offenses.

Speaking of offense, that’s the other half of the battle for this group of 5. Their D is elite, but can they score?

Sticking with the iteration that features McDermott, the answer is… only kinda. Their offense rating is atrocious (83.3) which suggests it is bad. But they are generating good looks.

Their shot quality has been .55, meaning their expected EFG% is 55% (1.1 points per shot). That is very very good. The reason their offense rating stinks is that they have missed all 4 of their 3-point attempts.

This group manufactures fake spacing by having 3 floor spacers to go along with Tyreke Evans’ ability to put pressure on the rim and Domantas Sabonis’ screens. It’s awkward, but it works. It looks like this:

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And this:

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When I say this group manufactures just enough space to get it done, I mean just enough. But that’s with just Tyreke Evans in there to generate shots.

When Bojan is put in for McDermott, the offense finds more ways to score. That lineup has a 114.3 offensive rating, an elite figure, but instead struggles mightily on defense. It’s a tough tradeoff. But it is a wrinkle that the Pacers can use to throw off opponents:

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These hobbled together groups felt like they would be a disaster to me, but they got the job done. And they are a wrinkle that opposing teams have ever seen. Perhaps we will never see them again now that DC is healthy, but if the Pacers need one more trump card in the playoffs, they have found a group that can get it done, and one that surprises the opponent.

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