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Pacers Taking a Chance With Chase Budinger

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers had an extremely busy offseason. Not only was it full of serious changes in personnel, but the Pacers literally shifted their fundamental basketball strategy as well.

The team made the decision this summer to focus on a more modern “space-and-space” style of play, a choice that played a huge role in all the player turnover. Indiana added a bunch of players –– veterans and younger, rawer projects –– who fit their new mold, then went out and purchased the last remaining unaffiliated D-League team to help develop their newfound young talent.

Obviously, the transition has been comprehensive, and the Pacers appear to have a strong vision for each of their additions, including Chase Budinger, who was brought over from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Damjan Rudez. The move seemed a bit surprising, given that Rudez’s three-point shooting fit the team’s new vision, and Budinger has been plagued by injuries for the last few seasons. According to Indy Star’s Candace Buckner, though, Indiana is hoping for a lot from its new forward:

There’s a lot going on in that tweet. Based on what she’s saying, the Pacers appear to be legitimately ready to start Paul George at power forward, which is almost as remarkable as the team’s faith in Budinger to be a rotation-worthy player. If they’re right, it’d be a huge boost for Indiana, especially if the Pacers plan to play George at power forward that often.

Outside of PG, Indiana is thin on guys who are big enough to vacillate between the 3 and 4 positions. They’re basically limited to C.J. Miles, Solomon Hill and Glenn Robinson III, but the latter pair is far from ready to log reliable minutes as a small-ball stretch 4, and Miles’s services will be needed just as much on the perimeter.

A healthy Budinger would, in theory, give the Pacers another player capable of playing both positions and stretching the floor from either spot. Although Miles is a superior defender, Budinger is a tick bigger than Miles at 6-7 versus 6-6, and he’s just good enough as a three-point shooter to garner defense’s respect.

The problem for Budinger is that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy for a long time. The 67 games he played for Minnesota last season were the most he’d played since 2010-11 with Houston, and he played less than 20 minutes per game. On the other hand, it was his best season in several years, including a final two-month stretch that, on paper, features some of his best basketball.

In Budinger’s final 20 games last season, he played 30 minutes per game, scoring 12.8 points per game with a 49.7/39.7/85.4 shooting slash line and a plus-minus of just -1.0 according to NBA.com. Those are solid numbers, but consider their context, and they’re less impressive. While Budinger’s plus-minus was respectable while playing 30 minutes per contest for a team that went 2-18 down the stretch, he only started four games all season for Minnesota, which means the bulk of his minutes came against other teams’ second units as well.

It’s easier for Budinger to put up numbers playing as part of a bench unit against opposing bench rotations; it’s another for him to do it as a starter. The context of bench units versus bench units also makes his plus-minus less impressive as well. And again, the Timberwolves went 2-18 during that stretch, often facing huge deficits that must be considered when looking at the performances of situational players.

There are reasons to be positive too. Zach Harper did a terrific write-up of Budinger’s last season for a Wolf Among Wolves and pointed out that Budinger’s confidence had been eroded after suffering so many injuries, and that he largely won it back during his strong play late in the season last year. Those variables are impossible to measure for players, but it’s an element of the game that Budinger has also talked about himself and could bring a necessary decisiveness to his recovering game.

Importantly, Harper also notes that Budinger had six dunks in the Wolves’ last 14 games, a rate that’s on par with his dunk numbers from early in his career. It’d add another dimension to his attacking game on offense if he could recapture even a bit of his old explosiveness.

More reliably, Budinger has proven himself to be an above-average three-point shooter who understands his role. He even shoots better on corner threes at a touch better than 38 percent. He can get up and down the floor and works hard at both ends. There are places for guys like that on any team.

How big his role becomes with the Pacers will first and foremost depend on his health and his athleticism. If some of his explosiveness and other unique traits are diminished, Budinger isn’t a special enough passer or rebounder to significantly surpass Miles in the rotation, and he’s a bad enough defender that even Hill could prove just as useful.

There’s no doubt he’ll have a chance to prove himself, especially if George does see big minutes at the 4. Indiana gave up a similar asset in Rudez to acquire him as well, not to mention they could really use Budinger’s size and positional flexibility. Everyone on the Pacers will be learning a new system, so his opportunity will never be greater.

At 27 and in a contract year, Budinger is surely hoping he still has the ability to make a difference for Indiana this year and revive his reputation in the process.

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