These last years have been the first period of my life where I felt dedicated to watching basketball even though I do not currently play regularly, semi-retired due to this bum shoulder & a general distrust of my own ability to not get hurt in competitive action. In the past, when I did not play regularly--say, that fiften-to-sixteen year-old period when I wooed my first significant other or those early post-collegiate days when the shoulder first imitated a wet noodle--I found my desire to watch hoops, even my beloved Pacers, dwindled in tandem with my lack of playing time. Or maybe it had to do with confidence, anxious some meatball might call me a poser, or fearing my lack of up-to-date-in-the-game experience might zap the punch out of my ability to usefully watch a game, whatever the heck that means.
Last night was the first Pacers game of the 2019-2020 season, a nine-point lost to our rival Detroit Pistons, & I can honestly say my lack of playing time has not deleted my ability to understand the game’s complexities (duh). Without our superstar (Victor Oladipo), as the Pistons (Blake Griffin) were, too, the Pacers showed what I suspected they might:
Domantas Sabonis hustling all over for rebounds, loose balls, & shifty buckets (more on him soon)
The continued growth of Myles Turner’s offensive game (that between-the-legs-step-back-three was fire)
An early-season eleven-man rotation as coach Nate McMilllan figures out his lineup (I love how he won’t give up on TJ Leaf being a rotation player)
New point guard Malcolm Brogdon’s quiet 22 pt / 11 ast debut (stay healthy, please!)
A streaky offensive output (what’s new!)
Communication troubles between new teammates (I think Jeremy Lamb bumped into more teammates than he scored points)
Turner’s terrible footwork / chasing blocks thus allowing layups & dunks (I’m so tired of this!)
Sabonis’s three bloopers (two late-game airballs, one off the backboard pass, yikes)
Giving up two thirty-point games (one to freaking Luke Kennard!)
TJ Warren’s faceplant (glad to see he’s okay)
Still, I was distracted much of the game by a burning question. Not the “When will Oladipo return?” or the “How will the new guys fit?” or even “Can Turner & Sabonis play together?” (hopefully by the new year; mostly well, I think, in time; yes, absolutely,). My burning question is, “Who would be Wendell Willkie’s favorite Pacer on this lineup?” I think the answer is Domantas Sabonis; he’s a tough hustler, a good sharer (with the ball & the spotlight), & he doesn’t quit (on his team or the play).
When it comes to sports, those were the attributes I might contribute, too; I’ve always been “not bad enough”: second guy off the bench on the b-squad of the middle school basketball teams, a collection of mental attitude awards from various leagues (given to the player who sucks but plays hard & has a good enough mindset to not quit), the disc golf player that occasionally can shoot with the best of them but who anytime he actually plays a tournament ends up on the bottom of the scoreboard. When I played football in sixth grade, my coach told my parents, “If I had eleven Tylers, I’d have the hardest-working & kindest team ever; we’d lose every game, but it would be a pleasure to coach.”
I grew quickly, reaching my current height in middle school, living off the lore that my parents were told I’d be at least 6’6”. From an early age, I understood my physical limitations--strange body shape, three-inch vertical leap, lack of ligaments in my knees--& instead focused on utilizing my emotional & social components, such as an intense desire for everyone to get along & a frenetic energy for getting stuff done, to contribute.
Here are some of my highlights of my playing days, following quickly by the lowlights:
Like my basketball-playing self, the Pacers face their own natural limitations. In the NBA, outside of internal player development, there are three ways to improve--at the draft, via trade, & in free agency. Unfortunately, each option is limited in its own way for this team. The Pacers are never bad enough to get a good draft pick, not having drafted in the single digits since the late 80s, instead happening upon their best players in the late lottery or beyond, such as current starting center Myles Turner & recent hero Paul George. Without high drafts & the top prospects that come with them, they often have little trade leverage, only acquiring current starters like Victor Oladipo & Domantas Sabonis through trades gone better than expected. As for free agency, it’s even harder, as big stars choose large markets, leaving us with third-tier guys hoping to make the leap to stardom (like Malcom Brogdon) or cagey veterans making their way around the league (like TJ McConnell & Jeremy Lamb).
When I moved to Austin, I found a binder of letters I had written to NBA executives giving my pre-teen / barely-teen opinion on upcoming draft selections, trade ideas, & free agency hopes. This activity had entered the blur but then it bubbled forth, recollections of me sitting in the passenger seat on the drive down to North Carolina, flipping through issues of SLAM Magazine & ESPN the Magazine, jotting down my silly thoughts. I wasn’t going to impress anyone with my cross-over or my hops, so I felt it necessary to impress with my knowledge of the game, its inner-workings & trappings.
I also impressed (read: annoyed) my peers with my vast basketball trivia skills. On the bus to field trips or games, I’d nudge my classmates to quiz me & if there were no takers, I’d spend the travel reading the backs of whatever stack of basketball cards I had convinced mom to let me bring that day. My college sweetheart’s friends came to visit the first time & all I remember about meeting them is they laughed at the stack of books I had on my bedside, which included Can I Keep My Jersey? by Paul Shirley & Tip-Off : How The 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy. Even to this day, I listen to multiple basketball podcasts a week -- The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Lowe Post, The Mismatch; I made one friend at my last job in Austin & it was because I informed him of the historical significance of Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 game winner last year, a fact I am sure I borrowed from The Sports Guy himself.
It is probably self-centered, me just moving back to Indiana & all, but I have high expectations for the 2019-2020 Pacers season. I am stoked to watch them grow as a team with Oladipo out, young fellas like Edmond Sumner & Aaron Holiday getting lots of fieldwork in & Brogdon getting reps as “the guy.” I am stoked to see Turner’s improved shooting (4-7 3pt FG in opening game) & rim-protection (league leader in blocks last year) side-by-side in the starting lineup with Domantas Sabonis’s reliability (11/15 from the field last night / 8th in the league last year in FG%) & hustle (team leader in rebounds the last two years) in an expanded role. I am stoked about these new players coming in: Brodgon showed a willingness & capability last night of running the offense, Jeremy Lamb is our most-tenured player, TJ Warren was aggressive, at least offensively, & TJ McConnell came in crafty in limited minutes. Additionally, I was happy to see Justin Holiday playing on the same team as his brother & Gogo Bidatze looked good in his tracksuit.
Problem is, the same things that get me stoked about this team are the ones that make those expectations so shaky. As we saw last night, Sumner can play some aggressive defense & get some sparky buckets, but he’s very limited both in size & skillset. Offensively, Turner & Sabonis shot well, but Sabonis seemed winded in starter minutes, leading to those two airballs & that bonehead turnover, while Turner was chasing blocks on the other end instead of moving his feet & being intelligently aggressive, both getting dominated by Andre Drummond. The new guys did not impress me with their defense, though McConnell was surprisingly pesky. D-Rose & freaking Luke Kennard were getting to their spots & being left wide-open, respectively. Despite the loss & the questions, I still feel like this is a solid mid-standings playoff team with the chance for a Conference Finals run; they should reach between 44 to 46 wins, for the fourth or fifth seed in the East.
I guess the question I’m left with now is who my favorite Pacer is now that Thaddeus Young is gone. We could always count on Thad to guard one of the top guys on the other team, get his average stats, & keep the bonehead moves to a minimum. Historically, I have gotten most stoked about players like that--hustlers, dependables, & just the right amount of butthead. See also: David West, Antonio Davis. If I was a betting man, I’d say my answer will be the same as the one I predicted for Willkie: Domantas Sabonis.