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The case for Domantas Sabonis’ fit with the Warriors

Should the Warriors do the unthinkable (i.e., make Wiseman and the rest of their young talent available), Sabonis could be a better option than most people think.

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers are outscoring opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions, but possess an underwhelming record of 11-16 — which is perhaps why a report recently surfaced that they’re on the verge of hitting the reset button.

Per The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz:

“Multiple sources said that the Pacers are receptive in trade dialogue with rival teams centered on potentially moving guard Caris LeVert and either two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis or center Myles Turner. All three players have frequently garnered significant interest from rival teams.”

The part of that report that immediately piqued Warriors fans’ interest is Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner potentially being made available. Once that nugget was made public, several trade machines were fired up, and a bunch of mock transactions were immediately hypothesized.

Par for the course for such a lively, fiery, and extremely passionate fanbase.

In a theoretical trade between the Warriors and the Pacers — emphasis on “theoretical,” because for all we know, the Warriors aren’t even looking the Pacers’ way — the Warriors may have to part with several assets in order to obtain one of Sabonis or Turner. Such assets include, but aren’t limited to, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and/or Kevon Looney.

That is one heavy price to pay, but one that may send the message that the organization is willing to surround their core with ready-made, win-now pieces.

As such, I took the time to obtain a pulse on the mindset of Warriors fans on Twitter concerning this development:

Keeping Wiseman has certainly been the more favored option, and the reasons are incredibly valid: a 20-year-old center with a boatload of potential in terms of athleticism, speed, rim-running force, and being a huge body to throw against the behemoths of the league is extremely hard to pass up on.

But setting aside the strong argument for Wiseman, the more favored trade target between the Pacers’ twin towers seems to be Turner, a floor-stretching athlete who has the defensive chops to make opposing marquee centers’ lives difficult, as well as the rim-protecting pedigree to virtually seal off the paint. Add his three-point shooting (39.5% this season on 4.6 attempts), and he is, on paper, a seamless fit alongside someone like Draymond Green.

Sabonis is more of a fit when it comes to system-wide offense. He’s a back-to-the-basket/roll big who can thrive both in the post and as the dive man in pick-and-roll situations. He’s equally adept and comfortable as a passing hub on the elbow/high post or low post, displaying a synergistic connection with cutters — not too dissimilar to that of a post passer in the Warriors’ vaunted split-action sets.

Sabonis is a handoff-generating machine. He’s the perfect big-man partner for shooters (e.g., Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or Jordan Poole) in two-man-game situations. He sets solid screens after handing off or pitching the ball to his partner, which are often effective enough to set them free for an open look, especially against drop-coverage schemes where Sabonis’ defender is dropping back, unable to step up to challenge the shot.

Against more aggressive coverages, however, such handoff possessions can turn into screen-and-roll situations — and Sabonis can be a potent release valve as the roll man.

Sabonis has adequate size and strength to act as a power big who can bulldoze his way to the rim. He has the ability to carve out space on seals and post ups, or use power moves on face-up possessions to best his defender.

Having a bona fide post-scoring big is an element the Warriors have really never had during the Steve Kerr era. Sabonis can add such a novel dimension, which can also help his post passing when surrounded by shooters and cutters. The spacing allows him room to work inside, and should defenses collapse inward, he is perfectly capable of finding cutters and spot-up shooters on the weak side.

Peep at the deft footwork that Sabonis displays on the possessions below. He combines old-school post bully-ball with sleek post skill, complete with a soft touch on jump hooks that serve as his finishing move.

Sabonis can be thought of as a super-charged, All-Star-level version of Looney, at least on the offensive end. Looney provides value in terms of screen setting, handoffs, and a general knowledge of the offense and knowing how to play around the likes of Curry and Poole. Sabonis ups the ante exponentially by being a better decision maker and finisher on the roll, and also by being a better post scorer.

The one question mark when it comes to Sabonis’ fit with the Warriors, however, is his defense.

Sabonis (0.4 blocks per game) is unquestionably inferior as a rim protector compared to Turner (2.8 blocks per game). Opponents shoot 59.5% at the rim against Sabonis — 29th among 49 players who defend at least four shots per game. That pales in comparison to Turner: opponents shoot 52.2% at the rim against him, good for 10th among the 49.

Defensive versatility isn’t exactly in Sabonis’ wheelhouse. The plethora of options on offense that open up when he’s on the floor exudes the opposite effect on the other end. He’s not a switchable big, which limits him to drop-coverage, step-ups to screen level, or hedge/shows and blitzes.

The Warriors may have to eschew heavy switching with Sabonis on the floor. Relying on drop coverage entails the presence of capable on-ball defenders who can navigate their way around ball screens and are capable of locking and trailing. Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II fit the description, but placing such responsibilities on Curry and Poole could wear them down too much to be effective on the offensive end.

Hedging/showing or blitzes entail a capable backline defense that can shore up against a potential 4-on-3 disadvantage. Having the likes of Green and other schematically sound team defenders certainly places the Warriors in that category, which can potentially cover up and mask Sabonis’ deficiencies.

Sabonis will have flashes of competence, especially on screen-level step-ups, hard hedges, and blitzes, where his pressure on the ball handler can force a deflection or outright steal, while occasionally recovering back and being able to track and intercept pocket passes to the roller. He has deceptively quick hands, and should he manage to stay attached to his man, he can poke or swipe at the ball cleanly and force a turnover.

The Pacers have allowed 107.2 points per 100 possessions during Sabonis’ 920 minutes on the floor this season, which would be equivalent to a fringe top-10 defense. A deeper look at the lineup data, however, reveals that sharing minutes with Turner may have played a part in that number being surprisingly decent.

With Sabonis and Turner on the floor (459 minutes), the Pacers allow 102.2 points per 100 possessions — equivalent to the second-best defense. With Sabonis on the floor without Turner (461 minutes), the floodgates open — 112.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, equivalent to the fourth-worst defense in the league.

Such data implies that Sabonis can survive in an ecosystem where there is ample defensive support behind him, anchored by a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-caliber teammate. Coupled with a strong culture of defensive accountability, the concerns about Sabonis’ defense — while valid — may be slightly overblown.

But the pieces the Warriors will have to give up in return for Sabonis could give them pause, depending on ownership/front-office priorities. Wiseman still hasn’t been given a chance to prove what he can do, while Kuminga and Moody are both burgeoning talents with plenty of promise, should they be properly nurtured.

Should the Warriors leadership suddenly do a 180-degree turn in philosophy and shift into complete win-now mode, Sabonis is someone they should highly consider acquiring. The offensive fit is a no-brainer, while the defense around him is within the realm of workable.

The prospect of Sabonis partnering up with Curry and providing a whole new dynamic to the team is a mouth-watering prospect that should at least give the Warriors something to think about.

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