Pacers are trying to prep the runway for Tyrese Haliburton to takeoff

The Indiana Pacers are rebuilding. While doing so openly and without shame by accumulating draft picks and pursuing young talent, the foundation of it all is Tyrese Haliburton and everything they’ve done this off-season has giving their point guard every opportunity to make a leap in mind.

MFW when a Pacers front office isn’t scared of the word “rebuild”

The first step for the Pacers front office was to move Malcolm Brogdon who didn’t fit a rebuilding timeline and limited Haliburton’s impact when they shared the floor last season. It was only eight games, but in over 200 minutes the Pacers had a net rating of -16.3 with both guards playing together and Haliburton’s usage rate dropped to just 16.1% which was far below his 20.5% rate in his Pacers minutes without Brogdon.

In clutch moments, Brogdon was far too likely to be handling the bulk of playmaking duties instead of the more dynamic threat in the Pacers newcomer. Moving the veteran leaves no doubt about who should be running the offense and Haliburton, who can be deferential to a fault, knows his team will be relying on him more than ever next season.

“The load, or what I’m being asked to do, is more than probably I’ve ever been asked to do in terms of responsibility,” Haliburton, who averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists per game with Indiana, told USA Today. “So, yeah, I’m just really excited for it. It’s an opportunity that everybody wants in their life and grew up wanting this opportunity in the NBA.”

Then of course, you had the will-they-won’t-they Deandre Ayton saga that came to an end with the Phoenix Suns instantly matching the 4-year, $133 million max offer sheet that he signed with the Pacers. Ayton and Indiana were excited about potential pairing up the center with Haliburton where Ayton’s roll game combined with Haliburton’s ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes would have made for a match made in basketball heaven.

You can see some of Haliburton’s affects on making teammates better with the Pacers various bigs from last season and how their 2-point percentages faired with and without the point guard on the floor. Goga Bitadze, Isaiah Jackson, and Terry Taylor all shot over 5% better on twos with Haliburton than without and Jalen Smith shot 2.6% better—stats via Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows and her fantastic Ayton article that’s still worth a read if you haven’t yet. It would have been a hell of a duo with the former number one pick.

While this pursuit didn’t end the way the Pacers hoped it would, you have to appreciate the vision of trying to maximize Haliburton’s strengths and the fact that Herb Simon allowed the front office to pursue the restricted free agent with an offer sheet at all. This a big free agency swing, something the Pacers have never done. Not to mention one of the biggest free agents on the market wanted to come to Indiana to play with their star player, which is something Rick Carlisle brought up during the team’s last Summer League game.

With the sixth pick in the draft and the Pacers highest selection in over 30 years, they took Bennedict Mathurin, a wing used to playing off the ball in Arizona and known for shooting the ball off of movement, making big plays in transition and utilizing backdoor cuts. He seems like the perfect backcourt fit next to Haliburton without taking many creation duties from the team’s budding star. With both the post-draft and Jalen Smith re-signing press conferences, Carlisle has intentionally brought up how Haliburton is going to make these players better and make their jobs easier.

So without any other moves, the Pacers are likely starting some combination of the following players: two of Chris Duarte, Buddy Hield, and Mathurin, Jalen Smith at power forward, and Myles Turner at center. You can’t imagine Turner is too thrilled with the only franchise he’s ever known at the moment but he’s got a golden opportunity to have the best season of his career playing alongside Haliburton and then cash out in a big way next summer in free agency. The biggest thing about this lineup though is that there’s not a ton of self-creation here; you can see why Haliburton expects his playmaking burden to be higher than it’s ever been.

“I’m not gonna lie to you to tell you it’s easy,” Haliburton told Jackson Frank of Uproxx. “I’ve never had to be a scorer in my life. … It’s a challenge, but one that I’m up for, and one that I’m really excited about. It’s not often that you have to tell somebody to shoot more.”

All these stars have aligned to push Haliburton to the be the current betting odds favorite for Most Improved Player, an award won by numerous Pacers in the past including Jalen Rose, Jermaine O’Neal, Danny Granger, Paul George, and Victor Oladipo. The Pacers have a history of trading for players and unlocking them in new ways. Three of their five MIP winners were acquired via trade like Haliburton (Rose, O’Neal, and Oladipo). Ron Artest, who won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004, was another player that reached his peak after being traded to the Pacers. Domantas Sabonis never won an MIP award but he did make two All-Star teams after he was acquired in trade. Haliburton looks like a continuation of the Pacers consistent success in finding talent via trades.

Haliburton oozes efficiency and with the Pacers had shooting splits of 50.2/41.6/84.9. What the Pacers and Haliburton want to find out is how much of that efficiency is sacrificed if the pass-first guard is more assertive in looking for his own shot.

“Trust me, the growth period, it never looks amazing. Truthfully, it looks ugly sometimes. There’s days where I leave the gym, even today, even this last week. I’m like, ‘I look sloppy, like it doesn’t look right,’” Haliburton told Uproxx. “But that’s OK. Because it’s kind of just part of the growth of it all. Somebody else is gonna make an adjustment, I gotta make an adjustment towards that.”

There’s plenty of work remaining to do on this roster long term—especially when it comes to defense—and while Carlisle has noted how Haliburton makes everything easier for his teammates, eventually they’ll want to find players that do the same for him. But right now, Haliburton is excited about the state of the Pacers team bringing up that while the team is young that means it has a lot of room to grow in interviews during the Summer League games in Las Vegas. Growth and having fun are the primary goals of this season. It should be a blast watching their young point guard adjust to life as the guy on an NBA squad and seeing whether or not he can fly to new heights in a starring role.

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