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NBA Fact or Fiction: Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and the puzzling value of NBA centers

·9 min read
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Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[ Last week: Respect for the Phoenix Suns and NBA COVID-19 protocols ]

The Pacers are about to learn how little the NBA values bigs

The NBA trade market for big men in recent years has not yielded much of value, but the Indiana Pacers are here to test the limits of what teams will pay for either a bona fide All-Star center or a second-tier big.

The 13th-place Pacers (11-16) have opened the bidding for either Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner, along with sixth-year wing Caris LeVert, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz. Indiana has inserted itself into a market largely devoid of impact players beyond Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons, whoever the Portland Trail Blazers decide to deal and potentially Houston Rockets center Christian Wood.

Turner added some urgency to those trade discussions in a conversation with The Athletic's Jared Weiss.

"It’s clear that I’m not valued as anything more than a glorified role player here, and I want something more, more opportunity,” said Turner. "I'm trying really hard to make the role that I’m given here work and find a way to maximize it. I’ve been trying to the past two, three seasons. But it's clear to me that, just numbers-wise, I'm not valued as more than a rotational role player, and I hold myself in a higher regard than that."

Simmons, Wood and Portland's Jusuf Nurkic are all cautionary tales of the NBA's big-man trade market that the Pacers are now attempting to navigate. Maximizing the return for Sabonis or Turner won't be easy.

Simmons is a 25-year-old three-time All-Star and two-time First Team All-Defensive selection who has averaged a 16-8-8 on 58% true shooting through his first four seasons. He is under contract through the 2024-25 season on a max rookie extension anyone with his credentials would have received. Yet, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey can't find anyone to exchange his dollar for enough cents.

Wood was a promising 25-year-old who averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds on 56/40/76 shooting splits as a starter entering 2020 unrestricted free agency. The Detroit Pistons would not offer more than a $10 million starting salary to retain Wood, instead dealing him to Houston for what amounts to the difference between drafting Isaiah Stewart 16th overall in 2020 and a less certain protected future first-round pick.

Wood signed an affordable three-year, $41 million deal with the Rockets, for whom he has averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds on 50/37/61 splits, and he is already the subject of trade speculation. He is an in-his-prime double-double machine shooting better than league average on five 3-point attempts per game, making little more than midlevel exception money, and he may be bound for a third team in three seasons.

Portland acquired Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets for Mason Plumlee and a first-round pick in 2017. What was considered a steal mere days into the deal has proven less so over time. The Blazers suffered an upset first-round sweep to Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans in Nurkic's lone fully healthy season in Portland. They reached the 2019 Western Conference finals with Enes Kanter filling in for the injured Nurkic at center. Now, Nurkic could be valued more for his $12 million expiring contract than his production in the meantime.

The Blazers gave up nothing for Nurkic, a quality center bound to be exposed by the NBA's select few great bigs (i.e., Davis and Nikola Jokic, who handed him three first-round exits in four years). They gave Nurkic a four-year, $48 million deal, and they're still looking for a difference-maker at the position. In the meantime, they won their only two playoff series of Nurkic's tenure with a low-cost journeyman in his place.

This is the problem Indiana is about to face.

Indiana Pacers big men Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are five years into a partnership that has zero playoff series victores. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Indiana Pacers big men Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are five years into a partnership that has zero playoff series victores. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Few teams are willing to invest heavily at center, because they rarely pay dividends. Unless you have a truly elite big, the difference between a second-tier and replacement-level center in the pace-and-space era is not worth the added cost, especially if that price includes future first-round picks on rookie-scale contracts.

The Pacers know this all too well. They wanted Gordon Hayward in 2020 free agency, and he wanted them. Indiana offered Turner, Doug McDermott and a first-round pick to facilitate the sign-and-trade swap, only the Boston Celtics balked, instead sending the one-time All-Star to the Charlotte Hornets for a trade exception. The Celtics saw more value in a reserved seat at the table than they did in Turner occupying it.

Turner has since been one of the NBA's best rim protectors, averaging a league-high 3.4 three blocks per game and finishing top-10 in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season. He is shooting 79% at the rim and 40% on nearly five 3-point attempts per game this year. There is little more you could ask of him. Yet, who is giving up the sort of quality young wing or high-end draft pick the Pacers might want in return?

Pacers executive Kevin Pritchard was straightforward with The Athletic's Weiss about his restructuring plan.

"At some point in time, we've got to figure out how to manufacture that real star,” he said, citing recent examples Paul George and Victor Oladipo. "In this sort of marketplace, how do you get a star? It’s hard for us to sign one in free agency, that’s a challenge. But there are other ways to do it, and I think we can do it."

Even Pritchard seems to concede that Sabonis — a 25-year-old two-time All-Star — is not a "real star," at least not the kind you need to contend. If the last decade (or the last four decades) has taught us anything, you need what people have started to call an apex wing predator to be a viable contender, and teams are stacking picks to either find one in the draft or trade for one in the rare instance one becomes available.

This is not to say Sabonis or Turner have no trade value.

The New York Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, then a promising 23-year-old All-Star big recovering from knee surgery, for two first-round picks, also parting with Tim Hardaway Jr. in the process. Not great value, considering the first of those picks landed at No. 21 in this year's draft, and the second is top-10 protected. But Porzingis is now viewed as an albatross contract, and New York did get two bites at the draft apple.

It is not so bad, once you remember Clint Capela and Jarrett Allen, two of the league's top rim runners and protectors, were each acquired over the past two years for a late first-round pick and a second-rounder.

Shopping 30-year-old two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic at the deadline in February, the Orlando Magic did find a Chicago Bulls team desperate to make the playoffs and willing to trade two top-four protected picks, plus recent lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr., in order to make it happen. That is the steepest price a team has paid for a big not named Anthony Davis the past few years, and the deal was widely panned once Vucevic did nothing to alter the Bulls' playoff hopes. The sting from gifting the Magic a top-10 pick (Franz Wagner) has dulled since the arrivals of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso transformed Chicago's roster.

Still, the lesson remains: Rarely is it worth parting with anything of value for a sub-superstar big. The Pacers must find a team convinced either Sabonis or Turner will make them a bona fide contender, or at least one that thinks either Indiana big could be a steppingstone to contention in the years to come. And they must do so in a market that has let Simmons sit on ice for months and may soon include more quality big men.

The Hornets and Minnesota Timberwolves have expressed significant interest in Turner over the past year, according to the Orlando Sentinel's J. Michael Falgoust. Would Charlotte pair James Bouknight with Kelly Oubre Jr.'s contract to plug Turner into its starting lineup? Might Minnesota part with Josh Okogie or Jaden McDaniels, along with Taurean Prince's expiring contract, to play Turner alongside Karl-Anthony Towns?

The Atlanta Hawks wanted Malik Beasley and a first-round pick from the Wolves for John Collins last season, and Minnesota rejected the offer, according to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor. Turner might carry similar value, but is Pritchard not looking for more than a heat-check scorer and a protected draft pick?

Most potential suitors have exhausted assets to reach the NBA's upper echelon or already have a quality big on the roster. Pritchard might as well inquire about the availability of Jonathan Kuminga in Golden State, R.J. Barrett in New York, Deni Avdija and future picks in Washington, Pascal Siakam in Toronto, De'Aaron Fox in Sacramento, Brandon Ingram in New Orleans, C.J. McCollum in Portland or Jerami Grant in Detroit.

Only, why would any of those teams give up a creator of any significance for one of Indiana's centers when so many bigs have changed hands for less in recent years? And why trade multiple first-round picks when San Antonio Spurs small-ball center Thaddeus Young might only cost you a second-round pick or two?

Both Sabonis and Turner are more valuable to Indiana than they are around the league, which is why they remain together five years into a misfit partnership. Three coaches have tried mediating to no avail in three years. Barring a shift in the NBA's valuation of centers, the Pacers will pay a price for the breakup of theirs.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach