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Pacers Newcomers Prove There's Power in Freedom

For Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, the Paul George trade showed there's power in freedom. Neither played very well in Oklahoma City. They also were never positioned to be.

When a team signs over control of its offense to a single, dominant creator, it binds the rest of the roster in contract. The idea that there is only one ball to share—and the zero-sum nature of a team’s total shot attempts—can undersell what’s actually at issue. The problem is often not whether there are enough shots to go round, but whether there is enough creative momentum.

Teams are carried by dynamism. When one star assumes every ounce of dynamic responsibility, they tend to reduce those players around them to static participants. One stands in the corner, another plays for the rebound. Therein lies the difference between the Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis we thought we knew and the versions we see now as Pacers. What each meant to the Thunder last season was qualified by Russell Westbrook, whose mammoth production became its own elephant in the room.

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There is a basketball talent in making the most of what Westbrook serves up. Oladipo does not have it. Waiting for a pass on the perimeter will never be his strength, not so long as his game finds its flow in movement. Park him off to the side and Oladipo can produce to a reasonable extent, as he did in Oklahoma City. Give him room to run, however, and every sharp edge to his game apparently becomes a weapon. There is power in freedom, so much that it can completely change how we think of a player—or even a trade.

The deal that sent Paul George to the Thunder in exchange for Oladipo and Sabonis will be revisited for years. It is a market setter for a star with a wandering eye; a conceivable rental for OKC; and an investment in young, still-growing talent by Indiana. To the extent that there are winners and losers of it all, they are months and years from being decided. Their pronouncement is also far less interesting than the immediate contextual transformation of two of the players involved. Part of the reason the trade was regarded as such a windfall for the Thunder is that Oladipo and Sabonis were not these players. Each had been given a relatively straightforward role with the Thunder and underperformed it. 

It was clear, even then, that both were being asked to play well outside their comfort zones. While Oladipo worked from a standstill, Sabonis—a skilled, physical big—was made to be only as valuable as his corner three. Those decisions made a certain sense for the Thunder at the time, but basketball players are not function agnostic. What they’re asked to do is a matter of consequence, responsible for enabling the best in their play. Oladipo and Sabonis were not very good in Oklahoma City. They also were never positioned to be.


Indiana didn’t unlock some great secret. It simply availed itself of a different calculus. Siphoning off possessions from Westbrook so that Oladipo—by all accounts a lesser version of a similar model—could freelance didn’t add up. Nor did reorienting an offense around a 20-year-old when a playoff berth was at stake. The Pacers were free of those factors in a way that the Thunder weren’t, making the unleashing of both Oladipo and Sabonis a pragmatic reality. What’s shocking is the extent to which both have thrived. One might expect that Oladipo would look like a more confident player with the ball in his hands again, but a borderline top-10 scorer? Sabonis needed a fresh start, but who anticipated a hyper-efficient double-double in just 27 minutes a game? Change the framing around them and each looks like a foundational part of the Pacers’ next step.

That might be an even greater accomplishment for Oladipo, who had three years of data in Orlando to suggest that his work off the dribble was no surefire means of success. As it turns out, maybe Oladipo needed even more rope. Nate McMillan has given the 25-year-old license to fire away, to push the pace, and to lunge into passing lanes. Those prerogatives have turned him into an electric open-court player:

This is the fastest Pacers team since 1986 and Oladipo is a crucial reason why. Between him and Darren Collison, there is always some ball handler streaking down the court in anticipation of an outlet. That either can handle the ball opens up the other to release, applying pressure to a defense before a possession even really gets started. At their most enthusiastic, Indiana is even running off its opponent’s made free throws, searching at every opportunity for easy baskets. 

That constant pressure reframes what Oladipo does best. Rather than be an underwhelming complement to Westbrook or the so-so finisher he was in Orlando, Oladipo is finding great looks at the basket and drawing fouls along the way. This is the first time in his career that Oladipo has been able to get to the line consistently (his 5.7 free throw attempts per game rank in the top 20), in part because nearly half his free throws have come in transition. Tilt the court to make everything downhill and suddenly Oladipo looks damn difficult to stop.

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Questions of sustainability, that great buzzkill, are understandable. Some of Oladipo’s numbers will fade over time; I’d wager he won’t finish shooting better on pull-up jumpers than any player in the league did last season, that he didn’t become a 45% three-point shooter overnight, and that his worst spots on the floor haven’t magically become his best. The change in tenor, however, feels real. An Oladipo working this fast and encouraged to lean into that instinct is a dangerous player. And at least thus far, Oladipo has helped Indiana sustain itself beyond its initial sprints with one of the three most efficient halfcourt offenses in the league, per Synergy Sports.

A critical part of that success is the interplay between Oladipo and Sabonis. Watch them at work and tell me you don’t see shades of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in Memphis:

Already Sabonis is a natural pressure release. Trap Oladipo—as is increasingly tempting, with the way he’s able to turn the corner—and he can whip the ball back to Sabonis in the middle of the floor to keep the play moving. That the Pacers can trust Sabonis to make decisions from that space is huge. He has the free throw line jumper, the push shot in the lane, and the footwork to get inside and finish. He also has the discretion to make reads and call for a reset when needed, a rarity for young bigs. The Thunder knew upfront that what they were asking of Sabonis last season was a bit perpendicular to his skill set. That much is even clearer in retrospect, now that we’ve seen the work of a player too nimble and too deft for such a marginal role. 

Flow alone has turned an awful finisher a year ago (53.2% shooting in the restricted area) into a great one (77.6%). There is no question that Sabonis dealt poorly with the pressure of converting every potential Westbrook assist last season—even to the point that he would blow easy layups. Ease has made him a different player, one who plays older than he is. Sabonis has only been running NBA pick-and-rolls on a regular basis for a few weeks, but already he’s dancing through screens and re-screens like an old pro:

When the roll comes, Sabonis makes himself available by matching the speed of his roll to Oladipo’s drives. Even if he winds up receiving a pass in the high paint, Sabonis has the sense to rev up just before the catch so that what might have been a standstill play instead works as a step-through layup:

There’s a lot left to sort out—not least of all how both players will work alongside Myles Turner. So much of what we’ve seen from the Pacers has come in Turner’s absence; a concussion and neck injury kept him from the lineup for seven of Indiana’s 10 games, leaving little indication of how all the pieces will ultimately fit. Turner and Sabonis have barely played together. Oladipo and Turner should work as a pick-and-roll pair, but their chemistry doesn’t seem quite as natural. 

That these are considerations at all is evidence of a terrific start. A change in scenery always seemed positive for both Oladipo and Sabonis, but both have taken to their new environment like migratory animals. What opportunity they found in Oklahoma City had run dry. Indiana, with its far more accommodating food chain, offers up all that they need to thrive.