Domantas Sabonis was the reason to watch Pacers games last season. Well, that and the fact that they’re often on when hardly anyone else is, in that early evening League Pass time slot that exists an hour ahead of any and all relevance. Seemingly every week for the past decade, I have chopped vegetables while half-watching Indiana-Orlando, Indiana-Atlanta, Indiana-Cleveland. It’s a sedate experience, the pesky flesh of sweet potatoes and basketball with the atmosphere of a laundromat open mic, but there is a place for modest spectacle. (If that place is anywhere, it’s evangelical Indiana.)
And the Pacers are typically pretty good. They went off the rails this past year only because they took down a pint of Jim Beam and got the bad kind of lofty ideas, snatched at the Raptors USA dream by hiring Nick Nurse’s underling, forgetting that a crucial part of Nick Nurse’s success is that he knows how to talk to people. Nate Bjorkgren’s personality inspired a mutiny in the space of a few short months. Top brass could have kept the Pacersly competent Nate McMillan in their employ, but you get what you deserve as an organization—The Good Nate had a grand time in Atlanta—and the Pacers fans, thankfully, still got to enjoy Sabonis proving that his breakout 19-20 was no fluke. If you’re going to go sub-.500 for no real reason, make sure to fall in love in the process.
Sabonis does things that he doesn’t look like he should be able to. (This is not because he’s white and floppy-haired, I promise.) He has a way of moving that’s like if you put Paul Pierce in a big fella’s body. The pitch is all windup, an oh-what-is-this-nonsense fake transitioning—not suddenly, not even quickly, perhaps too slowly for you to register its culmination—into a shot attempt that you realize as it’s in the air you’re doing a hell of a job closing down. Sabonis makes tough, muscular shots in the paint but he also quite often separates from his defender completely, goes left when they’re reaching right, shoots over them before they’re ready, busts out a eurostep and ambles toward the rim like it’s an open doorway. This knack for syncopation is his greatest strength: arriving, leaping, picking the pass when the other guy doesn’t know that it’s time yet. It’s how you play too fast when speed is not necessarily your game.
None of this is cute anymore; Sabonis is just plain good. We know it because he’s done it for two years now, in both McMillan’s slow but relatively DIY offense and Nate Bjorkgren’s rapid but regimented one. It feels overly credulous to say that Rick Carlisle, fastball perhaps losing a few degrees in Dallas, will find the perfect middle, but Carlisle does prefer a system that fades into the background, structure that resembles five guys simply sharing the ball and moving as if controlled by a single intelligence. And he still lets players express themselves, provided he trusts them. And he’ll trust Sabonis, he’ll like him a lot and use him everywhere, which is where Domas likes to be. He’s got nice footwork down low and that’s where he does his best work, but he likes to get there using all manner of routes: post-ups, fake dribble handoffs, winding in from the elbow, straight up drives from the top of the key. Sometimes he’ll be deployed as floor spacer—Carlisle loves a stretchy big—and he’ll hate standing in the corner, but he’s too talented to stay there for more than a possession or two at a time. Domas and Rick should get along.
The two of them will trace no sprawling arc. That’s not the way this Pacers season is set up. It’s a back-to-business type of task, after a disappointing year with a boss who made everybody miserable. 45 wins would be swell, 50 would be something approaching a triumph. This is the register they’re operating in. Minor but meaningful pleasures. I took a couple wool blankets to the dry cleaner a week ago and realized I had not properly appreciated the ragged, sweat-drunk state they were in—or how soft how they could be. But not too soft, you know? Still with that stern wooly grain and weight. It’s very satisfying, when things get back to the way they should be. It awakens you, if not to the abundant possibilities of what’s to come then to the depth your reality already contains, if you pay it some extra attention. What I’m saying is T.J. Warren played four games last year. Caris LeVert had a tumor removed from his kidney midseason. There is room for improvement in Indiana. Limited but spacious room.
To be fair to Domantas Sabonis, he’s 25 and ascendant, coming off career highs in points and assists per game. Nobody should be telling him what is and isn’t possible. He’ll gun for an All-NBA spot, and at least get close. It’s not crazy to consider that maybe he too was brought lower than he belongs last season, the team’s bummer workplace morale seeping into and encumbering what merely appeared to be his best. Something to think about, when you’re draining pasta and Young Sabonis has 15 and 8 in the first half. You could flip away, there are other contests on at this point, but no, you think you’ll stick around. You find that you like it here. You just hadn’t noticed until now.