The retooling of the Indiana Pacers has already been met with challenges in its beginning stages. Perhaps the most demanding of all thus far has been finding the best way for T.J. Warren to succeed.
“It’s still early. We’ve got to get a feel for T.J. and he has to get a feel for us,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said in a pregame media session last week. “We’re still trying to figure out each other and, for me, how you challenge these guys. What do you do to push their buttons? It’s really too early in the season. That’s where we are.”
Looking at the first six games of the season, it’s been a mixed bag for Warren, most noticeably the fluctuating usage that has led to a lack of consistency across the board. We saw his capabilities in a 26-point outburst Sunday against Chicago, but consistently finding his stroke from deep as a catch-shooter (2-for-15) and finding a true rhythm within Indiana’s offense is what both parties are aiming for.
On the flip side, Warren can also affect other areas of the game. According to Cleaning The Glass when he’s sitting, the Pacers’ free throw rate is 15.4 percent worse, while their opponent’s 10.9 percent better. He’s also helping keep teams off the boards on both ends and not turning the ball over, continuing what he’s done over the course of his career.
“I feel like it’s going pretty well,” Warren told Basketball Insiders of getting acclimated to his new team. “Still getting familiar with the system, environment, everything. It’s going to take some time, but we’ve got a lot of good players that’s going to make the transition that much easier.”
After spending the first five seasons of his career with the Phoenix Suns and another staff change coming to the desert, Warren sensed he might be headed elsewhere.
In late June, he received a phone call from his longtime mentor and former AAU team headman, David West, telling him a trade to Indiana was highly likely.
“I don’t know how he knew before me, but when he broke it down to me – him and my agent (Ty Sullivan) – it made a lot of sense and the situation was perfect for me,” Warren told Basketball Insiders during a pregame chat in Cleveland. “And I was very excited to be able to come to the Pacers. Just looking forward to the season and us growing together.”
For Warren, this is completely fresh and “eye-opening.” All he’s ever known is one franchise — a place that, despite the early success this year, has been the definition of instability with head coaches and front office executives flying in and out the door. And the team’s season-by-season record in the recent past reflects that.
The Pacers have been almost the exact opposite. Team president Kevin Pritchard and McMillan have been together in their respective positions for three years. It’s not all that long, but they’ve had continuity at the top of the organization and on their coaching staff for the past decade-and-a-half. Not the kind where it’s only one coach and president/general manager forever, but the kind where the leash is long enough to the point that it’s not a turnstile.
Warren hasn’t truly been associated with anything stable since he’s been in the league, so joining this Indiana group with the knowledge that there won’t be major turnover anytime soon is admittedly helpful.
“That’s how you build trust, build good relationships, when you see the familiar faces every year,” Warren told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s what I’m most excited about, being able to build these relationships over time. The more relationships you build, the more trust and confidence you have, the better you perform.”
According to Warren, everybody has been welcoming him with open arms, so forming bonds has come naturally. It’s figuring the on-court side of things that isn’t coming quite as easy, which shouldn’t be unexpected with a partly reshaped roster.
Diving into two-man lineup data on NBA.com, Warren’s most compatible teammates by net rating have been Domantas Sabonis (plus-7.1) and Malcolm Brogdon (plus-4.5) in the early going — min. 100 minutes. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been glaring defensive issues when he’s shared the floor with Edmond Sumner (121.2 DRTG) and he’s definitely still feeling out things with Myles Turner, per IMPACT stats on NBA.com
Yes, the sample sizes are growing with each game, but cracking the code to what gets the best out of Warren – and even the others, individually – simply comes with time.
“We have a lot of new faces, as well as me. Just us building that chemistry, getting familiar and familiar with the system. Everybody’s learning each other’s game,” Warren told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve only been together a whole month, so it’s going to take some time. But I feel like we’ve got a really special group and I’m just ready to experience that with success.”
Maybe another factor in finding comfort is Warren’s position. For the first time in his career last season, he was primarily used as a power forward. He concedes that this was an adjustment for him defending bigger players, although the mismatches on the offensive end allowed him to take advantage. Still, his preference is to operate as a wing.
“It’s good to just match it up, see how the other team’s playing and then that’s for coaches to make the in-game adjustments with that,” Warren told Basketball Insiders.
“I’m getting more familiar back at the three. Just being at the four last year, it’s kinda new again, playing the three.” Warren told Basketball Insiders. “But it’s in a new system. So you’re just trying to get reacclimated to it, but it should take no time for me.”
No matter where Warren is slotted in the lineup, Indiana brought him into the fold for a reason.
“His ability to put the ball in the basket,” McMillan said.
McMillan is no stranger to the fact that T.J. Warren is 1 of 17 players in the league to average at least 19 points and 5 rebounds per 36 minutes over the last three seasons combined. Being in Phoenix might be the reason he had been overlooked by some, but he’s been a reliable bucket-getter for a number of years. When healthy and in a zone, it’s just his nature to be one.
Warren is focused on taking what the defense will give him instead of the numbers game he likes to stay away from. So if that’s an open look on the perimeter, he’ll fire it up. If there’s an opportunity to knife inside, he’ll go to his floater.
“Being the scorer I am, just be myself,” Warren told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been a scorer my whole life. I’m just ready to capitalize on that on a big stage.”
Warren plans to bring that to the Pacers and hopefully more, such as improving his playmaking ability and locking in to guard his assignments — sharpening the strengths, working on the weaknesses.
And, of course, stacking up the W’s.
“(I want to) take the next step into my career and maximize my potential,” Warren told Basketball Insiders. “I have goals for myself, as well as the team. Just have a lot of success on the winning stage. I know a lot of stuff comes with winning, so I’m just ready to experience that.”