Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis give Pacers non-stop production, long-term conundrum at center

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Last fall, the Pacers made Myles Turner a centerpiece by signing him to a four-year contract extension worth $72 million-$80 million. Turner has made good on that deal, even in a league overflowing with solid centers. He belongs in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation thanks to his strides in recognition. He has become a more reliable 3-point shooter. He’s delivering on his promise as a modern center.

“Knowing your future is set, knowing you don’t have to worry about numbers or anything crazy like that, just go out there and play,” Turner said, “it lifts a burden, for sure.”

Yet, Indiana backup center Domantas Sabonis has arguably outperformed Turner this season.

Sabonis said he was happy for Turner when Turner got his extension. However, the Pacers allocating all that money for Turner meant there might not be much left for Sabonis, who’ll be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension this offseason.

Or Indiana could pay both.

The Pacers have a good problem – too many good players. But it’s particularly complicated with multiple centers. That’s the position where it’s most difficult to play two simultaneously.

So, what will Indiana do with Turner and Sabonis?

The Pacers have enough financial flexibility to keep both. They could give Sabonis a sizable extension and continue to always play at least one quality center.

Yet, that could eventually come with drawbacks down the roster. Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Wesley Matthews, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans will all be free agents this summer. Decisions on those players must come in conjunction with a decision at center.

Turner, who seems more comfortable in the locker room since securing his long-term deal, said he has talked to Sabonis about Sabonis’ potential extension. Both players sound eager to continue together.

“I’m very happy here,” Sabonis said. “They play me in the way I want to be played. I feel like I’m effective. We’re winning. That’s the most important thing. And the culture – everybody here is like family.”

For now, the results are certainly impressive. Here are Indiana’s offensive, defensive and net ratings by center:

Player Off. Def. Net
Just Turner 106.8 103.5 +3.2
Just Sabonis 108.8 102.8 +6.0
Both 100.1 96.6 +3.5
Neither 102.9 105.0 -2.2

Turner is more of a pick-and-popper, Sabonis more pick-and-roller. So, the Pacers’ guards adjust depending on the screener, but the team’s scoring remains similarly effective with either center.

Turner protects the rim in a way Sabonis can’t. But Sabonis has gotten into better shape this season, and his higher energy level shows up on defense.

Sabonis will get outsized credit come award season as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Averaging 14.1 points and and 9.3 rebounds per game, he definitely deserves consideration. But if Turner (who averages 13.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game) came off the bench, he’d contend for the award.

Turner (29 minutes per game) and Sabonis (25 minutes per game) each warrant enough playing that it’s impossible to avoid them playing together. When they share the court, they wall off the paint, allowing Indiana to reach an elite defensive level.

But the Pacers score just well enough to keep their heads above water in those two-big lineups. Despite Turner’s and Sabonis’ differing offensive styles, there’s too much overlap in the space they like to use. Here are their shooting heat maps on shots from at least 10 feet:

shotchart (1)shotchart

The Pacers already do an excellent job of staggering Turner and Sabonis as much as possible. Those two increasing their minutes would mean much more time playing together. They’d inevitably more frequently face an opponent capable of exposing them, especially if Indiana advances in the playoffs.

Is it worth paying both?

No decision is necessarily imminent. Even without an extension, Sabonis won’t become a restricted free agent until 2020. On his relatively cheap rookie-scale contract, he’s a very affordable backup. The Pacers can keep him and Turner another season without compromising the rest of the roster.

But it’s often better to get out ahead of these things. The 76ers infamously kept Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor until trading Noel and Okafor for very little.

Of course, Philadelphia wasn’t any good with those three centers. There was no balance worth preserving.

The Pacers are 46-32 and tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference with Turner and Sabonis playing major roles. Turner just turned 23, and Sabonis is only 22. Indiana is in a good place.

Eventually, though, the Pacers must determine how they’ll proceed at center.