The Indiana Pacers season has begun, but their team-building decisions didn’t end when the offseason did. They finished making roster cuts and extending the contracts of veteran players just before the 2021-22 campaign kicked off, but there is still one move the team needs to make before they can fully turn their attention to the on-court product this year.
November 1 is the deadline for teams to decide on rookie-scale contract team options for future seasons, and the Pacers have one player who that deadline impacts: third-year center Goga Bitadze. By next Monday, the Indiana front office must decide if they want to pick up or decline Bitadze’s $4.8 million option for the 2022-23 season. And there are a lot of factors at play that make this decision somewhat complicated for the Pacers front office.
Bitadze is in a unique situation. Since being drafted with the 18th overall pick in 2019, the Georgian center has steadily improved and added skill to his game. But the Pacers have two other players younger than 26 who both also play center in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, so it has been hard for Bitadze to get playing time despite his growth. He currently ranks 33rd in his draft class in total minutes played, and that trend could continue this season with all three players still on the same team.
“We’ve got four guys that are very good players. All of them are young. The oldest guy is 25, Domas and Myles are 25 years old,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said of his team’s center rotation during the preseason. Rookie Isaiah Jackson is the fourth player Carlisle is referring to. “Isaiah is 19. Goga is 22… We have a great luxury there that we have a lot of depth and we know they are all ready.”
Depth is good, but it also means somebody, maybe more than one somebody, won’t play every night. And through four games in the regular season, that has impacted Bitadze’s playing time — Sabonis and Turner have soaked up essentially all of the big man minutes while Jackson received a pair of opportunities in Indiana’s third game. It took foul trouble in the Pacers fourth outing for Bitadze to get in a game, and he took advantage of the opportunity with a strong debut.
None of those playing time decisions are perplexing or surprising. Both Turner and Sabonis are top talents at the center position, and Jackson has unique skills that make him an effective utility player, even as a rookie. But this situation does mean the Pacers are, when healthy, likely staring at another season with a lower total minutes load for Bitadze, barring injuries.
That’s tough for his development, and it makes it harder for him to succeed in games when he does play. “It’s hard, not going to lie, when you don’t know when you’re going to get in the game. You’ve got to stay professional,” the 22-year old said of his role during the preseason. “It’s the NBA, you’ve got to win whenever you go, whenever you get a chance. You’ve just got to stay ready.”
Simply from the perspective of playing time — if a bit role is all that can be expected for Bitadze going forward, then paying the big man $4.8 million seems like a misguided choice. Reserve big men, even some young ones, can be had for essentially the league minimum salary. But there is much, much more to the decision on Bitadze’s option than that — and calling him a depth piece may be too reductive in the not-so-distant future.
First and foremost — Bitadze is better than the typical reserve piece, and he has much more potential than any big man available for a small role. On defense, in particular, is where the young center shines. His 8.7% block percentage during 2020-21 was the second highest in the NBA among players who played more than 500 minutes, and the Pacers limited opponents to 58.23% shooting at the rim with Bitadze in the game last season. When the former first-round pick was on the bench, that number was an elevated 61.98%. Despite having an issue with foul trouble and struggling to defend in space at times, Bitadze is a net positive on the defensive end at this early stage in his career, and he aides the teammates around him with his ability to slow down opponents.
“When you look at his blocked shots per minute, they’re up with some of the best in the league already,” Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard said of Bitadze earlier this year. “We value rim protection, so we’re going to need him this year.”
Pritchard noted that Bitadze needs to work on his craft on the offensive side of the ball, though. That’s where the center is still struggling to impact winning basketball. Despite being a good outside shooter prior to coming to the NBA, Bitadze has struggled to knock down threes with Indiana, canning just 23.4% of his 124 attempts. His finishing from inside the arc has been a struggle as well — Goga’s touch in the paint has been a weakness when he doesn’t have a size or strength advantage over his defender. And his screen setting is forgettable for someone of his size.
But Bitadze has some redeeming qualities on that end of the floor. His playmaking, and general ability to read the patterns of the game, is advanced for someone of his age. He is relatively turnover free. His talents on the offensive glass have improved in his three-year career — he had seven in his only outing this season — and he’s a solid scorer and dunker around the basket. Reduced playing time has slowed his growth, but Bitadze has shown at least some skill on offense so far.
“I like his game, really on both sides of the ball. He’s got great basketball IQ. He’s got a high level of skill. He shoots the three easy. We’re encouraging him to shoot that shot when it’s open,” Carlisle said of Bitadze during training camp.
“He rolls well. He passes. He’s a big that can make plays. He does some of the things that [Domantas Sabonis] does so well,” he added.
While Bitadze’s skill level mirrors that of a backup big more than a prominent player, he is still developing, and he could be much better by this time next year. Even if he doesn’t take a large step forward, paying a depth piece $4.8 million to grow and soak up a few minutes as a backup big is a fine use of money; the Pacers essentially did that in 2018-19 with Kyle O’Quinn. So, at worst, Bitadze is a worthy gamble at that salary figure next season, especially if he improves.
“Just overall, man. Getting quicker, faster, in better shape. Cut down body fat, be in the best shape possible,” Bitadze said of the things he worked on in the offseason. “Overall, play great, make good decisions. Be able to catch some some lobs. Three-point shooting because my percentage was not that great the last couple of years.”
The Pacers salary cap situation might be the biggest factor in the decision to pick up Bitadze’s team option. Indiana will likely, barring multiple cost-cutting trades, be over the salary cap next offseason before adding a single player. In the absence of cap space, the Pacers would be unable to sign a player for $4.8 million (Bitadze’s salary figure) next summer without using their mid-level exception (MLE), a salary cap tool available to over-the-cap teams. Regardless of what Pacers brass decides to do with Bitadze’s option, they will have that exception available to them, so keeping the Georgian big does little to impact the Pacers spending power next summer. They can use the MLE with or without Bitadze on the team.
Granted, the same argument was made for keeping T.J. Leaf a few seasons ago, and the Pacers did end up picking up his rookie scale option for his fourth season. They lived to regret that choice, though, as the pandemic caused the salary cap to fall, meaning the blue and gold had to dump Leaf’s salary to avoid the luxury tax. But, barring another world-altering event, that incorrect decision can’t be repeated by the Pacers. They can plan more effectively this time.
A team option is a salary cap decision, after all, so the monetary musings are perhaps the most important factors to consider. And because the team is over the salary cap regardless of the choice they make about the future of the big man, it makes logical sense that the team would pick up his option for that reason alone. The tradeoff is pretty simple — would the Pacers rather have Bitadze, or a roster spot for a minimum-salary player?
Outside of some marginal savings and distance from the luxury tax, there is little reason for Indiana to prefer a player who is only worth a minimum deal. Typically, those players are older or less skilled. Bitadze is better, and has more potential, than most guys who would take the league minimum from Indiana.
One additional salary cap rule that complicates things states that if the Pacers do decline Bitadze’s fourth year team option, Indiana is still limited to sign him to a deal that tops out at $4.8 million next season. But in such a scenario, Bitadze would be an unrestricted free agent and could sign with other teams for a larger price tag, only Indiana would have that salary limit since they declined his option in this scenario. Declining Bitadze’s option would drastically limit the Pacers ability to bring him back if he does make a leap in ability during his third season, which is a year in which several young players have finally taken off. It’s a huge risk for that reason.
So, despite Bitadze still lacking some offensive skills and not having an obvious role going forward, for many reasons it still makes sense for the Pacers to pick up his team option for the 2022-23 season. That said, most teams have already decided on the options of their eligible rookie scale contract players, so the fact that the blue and gold have yet to announce anything indicates they may still be mulling over the future of the big man.
“I’ve got to prove myself again. I’m still a young player,” Bitadze said earlier this month. “We’ve got two great bigs on my position. This year, I’ve got to really improve.”
A final consideration for the Pacers in making this decision is the future of those two great bigs that Bitadze referenced. Turner and Sabonis have been teammates for years, and in that time there have been constant questions about how well the two players fit alongside each other on the hardwood.
Should Pritchard and the rest of the front office finally decide to pull the trigger on a trade that involves one of Turner or Sabonis, then Bitadze would be in line for a much, much bigger role. And if his role expands, then it becomes far more palatable for the organization to pay him $4.8 million next season — that is a more-than-fair salary for a backup center that plays consistently. The odds that either Turner or Sabonis ends up getting dealt has to be a consideration for Indiana as they decide what to do with Bitadze, as any trade would completely change the calculus on how valuable the three-year veteran is to the team.
“He’s a 5. He’s got to be ready,” Carlisle explained of Bitadze. “He’s a high level depth player, he really is.”
There are a ton of factors at play in relation to the future of Goga Bitadze. But one thing is clear for the Indiana — even at his current talent level, the positives of keeping Bitadze around for another season beyond the ongoing one far outweigh the negatives. The young center still needs to make some improvements to his game, but if he can grow, and a consistent role ends up being available to him, he could be an important piece for the team from the Circle City going forward.
There are reasons why the Pacers might decline Bitadze’s team option for the 2022-23 season — his price tag might exceed his role — but most of the contributing factors involved in this decision point to the team option being picked up. If the Pacers do decide to keep the former 18th overall pick around, they will have their center rotation set for at least the next two seasons at a manageable salary number. Even if Bitadze doesn’t develop how the Pacers hope, that is still an appealing outcome, and perhaps the most likely one with five days until the deadline for the team to make this decision.