The 2021-22 season could be a make or break campaign for the Indiana Pacers. Fresh off of a 34-38 year in which the team missed the playoffs for just the second time in the last decade, the blue and gold are hoping to regain their footing and reach the postseason again this year.
After hiring Rick Carlisle to coach the team, the Pacers are attempting to put last season in the rear-view mirror. In order to accomplish that, and in turn achieve their playoff goals, Indiana is going to need a ton of production from their new(ish) dynamic duo: Caris LeVert and Domantas Sabonis.
LeVert was acquired by the Pacers in a trade last season and missed time immediately after the deal. That limited him and Sabonis to just 25 games together and only 761 minutes of simultaneous action. The duo’s chemistry is still in its infancy.
And yet, the moments when those two shared the court were some of the Pacers’ best down the stretch last season. Despite typically playing as the only healthy starters for Indiana during the last month of the season, the LeVert-Sabonis duo posted a +1.3 net rating last year — they buoyed a struggling team.
From April 1 onward, after LeVert had a few weeks with the team under his belt, he and the two-time All-Star combined to lead the Pacers to a +2.8 net rating when both were in the game — a quality number. Especially impressive was the 114.8 offensive rating the team posted in those instances; the duo was nearly impossible to stop.
“Both of them are very, very dangerous so you have to find a way to stop each of them,” Pacers forward Justin Holiday said of defending the pairing last season.
The Pacers are desperate for that to continue to be the case this season. Carlisle needs LeVert and Sabonis to be a 1-2 punch that he can rely on on every offensive possession, — a threat that he can turn to down the stretch of a close game. Last season, those two proved that they can lead the Pacers in important moments. This year, they might need to do more.
Sabonis is already difficult to contain. His lethal finishing, strong screen setting, and astute passing abilities make him a threat from all areas of the floor, and he has improved every season of his career. And still — with LeVert on the court, all of those skills are amplified.
When the Lithuanian big had LeVert flanking him on the court last season, he dropped in 57.3% of his shots from the field. Without his pick-and-roll partner on the hardwood, he knocked down just 50.2% of his shots. His rebounding rate per minute increased, as did his turnover rate and three-point accuracy, when he was combining forces with the 27-year old LeVert.
It’s simple — everything Sabonis does is that much easier when the Michigan product is on the court with him. “It’s great,” Sabonis said of playing alongside LeVert last season. “I love playing pick-and-rolls, being in the two man game with someone aggressive. He’s that man. He’s making great reads, he’s making shots. Every game, we’re just trying to find more and more what we can do.
“We just want to improve and build that chemistry,” he added. An offseason in the same building should enhance their chemistry to a degree, though Sabonis spent some time overseas after playing in the Olympic qualifiers this summer and LeVert is currently injured.
The stats tell a similar story for LeVert. While he couldn’t finish around the basket as well with a center occasionally clogging the way, he still saw noticeable improvement in several key areas when sharing the floor with the Pacers’ All-Star. Sabonis’ forceful screens freed up LeVert for easier outside shots, and as a result, the shooting guard shot 7.4% better from three-point range when they played simultaneously.
LeVert also got to the free throw line more often, grabbed more rebounds, and wiggled free for more looks from inside 10 feet per minute when playing with the five-year veteran center. Their skills work incredibly well together, and when they play at the same time, it allows both players to thrive.
“He’s a special talent,” LeVert said of Sabonis. “He finishes great around the basket, he has great hands. He’s a great passer. It’s going to be important for us to keep growing, it’s [chemistry] grown so much since I’ve gotten here, and I think you can see that just watching. Each and every game, each and every rep and possession I think it gets better.”
There’s that chemistry word again. Integrating LeVert during the middle of the 2020-21 campaign was difficult not only because it was a drastic midseason change, but also because the shortened season rarely featured off days where practice, and growth, was possible. It made building chemistry difficult — it was essentially only doable in games.
That’s what makes the growth of the Sabonis-LeVert pairing more impressive, they both got visibly more comfortable playing with one another on a game-by-game basis. With more time together to grow this offseason, their partnership could turn into something even more dangerous.
“He complements it [my skills] really well. Like I said, he’s a great passer. He’s probably the best passing big I’ve played with,” LeVert explained of Sabonis. “He gets me a lot of easy baskets on backdoor cuts, running in transition, things like that.”
LeVert is patient and is often exploring the lane for scoring opportunities. Sabonis, meanwhile, plays a very calculated style in which he looks for the best angles and spaces where he can get an advantage. Both players, despite being inquisitive, are aggressive when they see an opportunity. Their styles are different, but they are similar enough to punish opposing teams who play lazy or simple defense. It works extremely well in tandem, and Carlisle’s spread out system where player roles can change from possession to possession will be a good home for the duo.
“He [Sabonis] is a leader by action,” Carlisle explained. “He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do. We’re doing some different things offensively and he’s just flowed with the whole thing… he’s been really, really good.”
Not only does the pair elevate each other, they elevate their teammates, too. With so much attention being put on their two-man game, other players are often open for a great look at a jump shot when they catch the ball, or they have more space to cut into away from the play. The Pacers raised their two-point accuracy with the pair on the floor thanks to the gravity the LeVert-Sabonis duo has — while they draw in the attention of the defense, other members of the blue and gold were free to finish plays.
“I think Caris is a really good ball handler for us, and Domas [Sabonis] is a playmaker himself. They’re clicking, they’re communicating all the time. Just trying to get guys shots,” former Pacer Doug McDermott said of the duo last season. He played alongside the pair for 237 minutes last season. “I feel like they are really hitting their stride together.”
Both Sabonis and LeVert are entering just their sixth season season in the NBA, and they each still have growth in their future. If they can both take a step forward this season, they could be the pairing that helps guide the Pacers back to the postseason — exactly where they want to be.
Of course, each player still has their weaknesses. Each of them struggle with certain aspects of defense, though Carlisle noted that Sabonis is improving on that end of the floor. “Defensively, he’s been really, really solid,” he said. “Always well positioned.”
Both struggle with turnovers too — their aggressiveness gets in the way and leads to mistakes. And neither can rely on the three-point shot as a weapon; they create space by being shot creators, but not as much by being floor spacers.
Overall, though, they are an incredibly skilled duo that complement each other and elevate those around them. Carlisle will be able to rely on them to lead the Pacers this season, and as their chemistry grows, they could be the dynamic match that pushes the Pacers back into playoff relevancy.
In past seasons, Indiana used a balanced attack to achieve success. This year, that may be necessary at times, but leaning on the basketball stylings of Caris LeVert and Domantas Sabonis could better the team’s fortunes. After years of floundering in the first round of the postseason and fresh off of a ninth-place finish, it’s time for the Pacers to be carried to better heights by their best players. LeVert and Sabonis can do that.