Basketball, as Tyrese Haliburton plays it, is about other people. Sure, he’s the franchise standard bearer and a near lock to start in next month’s All-Star Game, but he’s loath to make any of this about himself. Whereas other star players look inward, Haliburton plays so selflessly that it borders on cliché. Watch enough Pacers games and you’ll become convinced that teamwork truly makes the dream work.
Through the power of friendship (and Haliburton’s genius), the Pacers have parlayed a historically potent attack to a surprising 24-17 record—and, with All-NBA forward Pascal Siakam joining the fold, they now have the talent to match their vibes. Collectively, Indiana has maintained a 58.5 percent effective field-goal percentage as a team—for reference, Michael Jordan’s personal high water mark for effective field-goal percentage was a scant 55 percent. Similarly, eight Pacers players average more than 10 points per game (the most of any team in the league) and their 31.1 assists per game are the most of any team in the last 40 years. The Pacers, unsurprisingly, have the highest-offensive rating in NBA history, scoring 122.1 points per 100 possessions. As they say, there’s no “I” in greatest offense ever.
During his time in Indiana, Haliburton has subtly reimagined the conventions of stardom, functioning as equal parts conduit and conductor. He’s ball-dominant without being domineering. His 93.9 touches per game are the second most in the NBA, but he’s hardly a glutton—he leads the league with 12.5 assists per game and doles out 71 passes per game, nine more than any other guard.
Like all the NBA’s best players, he’s a system unto himself—every quickstrike Pacers’ possession carries his imprint. But if the James Hardens and Luka Doncics of the world carry themselves like frustrated parents who have decided it would be easier simply to do their dumb kids’ math homework themselves, Haliburton creates a more nurturing environment.
Accordingly, Haliburton is such an inventive and dangerous playmaker, he makes any collection of prosaic play-finishers dangerous by proxy. With Haliburton on the court, his largesse elides any potential offensive weaknesses—Obi Toppin may dribble slowly and cautiously like he’s worried that the ball can feel pain, but he’s still the most efficient interior scorer in the league because he is spoon-fed a diet of unmissable shots by Haliburton; it doesn’t matter that Aaron Nesmith can’t create his own shot when Haliburton creates so many open looks on his behalf.
In turn, Haliburton’s passing carries a certain anti-gravity that frees up his own scoring. Defenses are so fearful of his passing that they practically forget to play defense. Opponents are too squeamish about leaving an open shooter to wall off his drives that expansive boulevards to the paint open up before Haliburton. He can saunter into threes because opposing big men don’t want to venture too far upstream, lest a lob is tossed into the space behind them.
As such, Haliburton is a prolific scorer, despite lacking all the hallmarks of a prolific scorer. He’s not terribly quick, his jumper looks kind of janky and his bag is shallow and full of cobwebs–but he’s pouring in 23.5 points per game all the same. No matter where he is on the court or whom he shares it with, he’s fracking in rich wells. He’s uniformly, wastelessly excellent as both a slasher and pull-up shooter, an isolation scorerand pick-and-roll ball handler.
Granted, there’s a lingering sense that any team or player this manicured may be somewhat counterfeit—and not just because their defense is nearly as lousy as their offense is outstanding. For the most part, Haliburton has thrived by eschewing traditional aesthetics (drawing fouls, getting to the rim, being Him), but those aesthetics exist for a reason. Even at his best, Haliburton has always exploited advantages more than he’s created them. Like Chris Paul (complimentary), he understands which instabilities are programmed into generic NBA defenses and how to beat them most effectively. And like Chris Paul (derogatory), at a certain point in the playoffs, he’ll run into a defense that he needs to outgun, rather than merely out-think. How will he adjust when coaches scheme to run him off the three-point line and are attuned to the exact ways that his screwball shooting form makes it difficult for him to shoot mid-range jumpers? Can the Pacers’ offense keep humming when Haliburton squares off against muscular guards and switchy big men that he can’t summarily discard?
By trading for Pascal Siakam, the Pacers have found their answer, for better and worse. In many respects, Siakam is the Bizzaro Haliburton: an entropic one-on-one killer. He moves in random, asynchronous spurts, alternately dashing and burrowing his way to the rim. Since breaking out as a souped-up role player in 2018, Siakam has quietly established himself as one of the most unguardable players in the league. Although he had to toil to carve out elbow room amidst Toronto’s middle-seat half-court offense, he nevertheless ranks in the 95th percentile and 99th percentile as a post-up and isolation scorer respectively, per Basketball Index.
An unremarkable off-ball threat and piddling defender, Siakam derives the bulk of his value from his on-ball abilities, which makes him an All-NBA player and also a difficult one. Like other Raptors legends Vince Carter and DeMar DeRozan, Siakam occupies a knotty space where he needs the ball as much as possible to be at his best, but isn’t quite at a level that would compel a contender to give him free rein or the max contract that Indiana is slated to offer him this summer. This is a difference of degree, but an important one—it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this version of Siakam and his team can both reach their potential.
Still, this weird misalignment in Siakam’s game is what makes his pairing with Haliburton so exciting. Haliburton is so accommodating and Siakam is so specific that it creates an unexpected congruence. They’re not so much complementary as ancillary. Away from the court, there are second and third order concerns about team building and salary cap arcana, but, at the very least, Haliburton and Siakam should transform the Pacers from an aspirationally good team to an actually good one. Suddenly, the Pacers can dream beyond pyrrhic victories.