2018 Preview — Indiana Pacers

2018-19 Indiana Pacers


Projected Record: 47-35 (5th in East)

Over/Under: 47.5

2016: 48-34 (5th in East)


Key Additions:

  • Tyreke Evans (Free Agency)
  • Doug McDermott (Free Agency)
  • Kyle O’Quinn (Free Agency)
  • Aaron Holiday (Pick #23)
  • Alize Johnson (Pick #50)

Key Subtractions:

  • Al Jefferson
  • Lance Stephenson
  • Glenn Robinson III

Summary

Strengths:

  • Rotation depth
  • Defensive toughness and versatility
  • Three-point shooting

Weaknesses:

  • Potentially short on star power
  • Possible Oladipo regression?
  • Development needed from Turner

Fresh off Paul George’s dramatic exodus to Oklahoma City, most — including your’s truly — saw the 2017-18 season as something of a lost one for the Indiana Pacers. The return for George — underachieving former lotto pick Victor Oladipo and underwhelming center Domantas Sabonis — felt light, and relatively pricey deals for journeymen Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison signaled that the organization was fighting against the possibility of a rebuilt. Indiana appeared devoid of star power, but with too much NBA talent to truly bottom out, ticketing them for the dreaded NBA purgatory that is the 8-11 range of the Eastern Conference.

Clearly, the Pacers saw something we didn’t.

Forget purgatory — the Pacers rampaged their way to a 48-34 record and the five-seed in the Eastern Conference, trampling trendy darkhorse picks like Milwaukee and Washington along the way. Oladipo blossomed into a bona fide NBA superstar, locking up the Most Improved Player award by January, and the Sabonis/Bogdanovic/Collison trio provided vital, productive rotation minutes throughout the season. Indiana was confident, plucky and never slowed down. Though their season would ultimately end at the hands of LeBron James, the Pacers were never outmatched, pushing the King to seven games and one of the toughest series of his Eastern Conference career.

Now comes the most difficult part of any NBA redemption act: the follow-up. James is gone, at least, but a three-headed beast has risen up to take his place: Boston, Toronto, and Philadelphia. These Pacers will have no time to rest on their laurels this season, as an improvement in station is far from assured. Indeed, even with the Cavaliers functionally out of the picture this year, I have Indiana posting an identical 48-34 record to their breakout 2017-18.

Lack of win-loss improvement does not mean this team is worse this season, however. In fact, the Pacers had a utilitarian offseason that leaves them undeniably improved. The crown jewel here is Tyreke Evans, who rewritten his career trajectory from “underachieving future trivia question” (look at this list!) to “useful contributor on a good team.” Last year’s Pacers struggled to find much secondary shot-creation outside of Oladipo, and Evans will help tremendously in that regard — especially as a replacement for Lance Stephenson, who is one of the worst rotation players in the league at this point in time. There are justifiable questions about whether Evans’ electric 2017 season with Memphis is sustainable, and he hasn’t yet contributed to a legitimately good team, but by and large, the fit here is obvious.

As for their other moves, Doug McDermott comes in a bit too expensive at three years, $22 million, but he’s a useful threat from beyond the arc, and Kyle O’Quinn (one year, $4.5 million) is a clear upgrade over the aging Al Jefferson, bringing some toughness and physicality in the paint and on the glass. I’m not incredibly high on first-round pick Aaron Holiday, who likely won’t contribute much this season, but the case can be made that there weren’t many players left on the board by pick #23 who would. De’Anthony Melton, who slipped to Houston at #45, might have been an interesting fit with Indiana’s hard-nosed culture.

The Pacers are not without their flaws, most notably the fact that, of the East’s elite, they have arguably the least star power. Evans is a nice addition, but he’s no star, and a massive burden will continue to rest on Oladipo’s shoulders. The Celtics, Raptors, Sixers, and Bucks all boast the best player in a potential playoff matchup, and the Wizards at least have #2 through #5. While I believe in Oladipo’s dramatic emergence, if he regresses a notable amount from last season, the Pacers could find themselves closer to the Miami Heat at the back-end of the conference than the elite — a plucky team with depth, but not quite enough top-end firepower.

Defensively, the Pacers will be what they’ve been for the better part of the decade: tough, versatile, and prideful. Last season, they finished a respectable sixth in the Eastern Conference in defensive rating, and I would expect that to stay fairly consistent this year. Oladipo has been a standout defender on the wing since college and led the league in steals last season, Myles Turner is well on his way to becoming a true defensive anchor at the five, and players like Thaddeus Young, Cory Joseph and O’Quinn bring toughness in spades. The departures of Stephenson and Jefferson remove some targetable weaknesses in the rotation (though McDermott is a defensive sieve himself), and this unit should remain solidly above-average as a whole.

It’s on the other end of the floor that the Pacers might be something of an adventure. As I touched on above, Oladipo is the only player here capable of carrying a high volume scoring load (unless you’re VERY high on Evans). One thing the Cavaliers exposed about this team in the first round was that if Oladipo’s shots aren’t falling, the Pacers aren’t scoring, and while this offseason is a step in the right direction, inconsistency will likely still be a concern. Indiana was one of my favorite hypothetical landing points for Charlotte’s Kemba Walker at last year’s trade deadline for this reason, and the Pacers might ultimately regret not swinging a deal for such a player when and if they have the opportunity.


Most Valuable Player: Victor Oladipo

There’s no debate to be had here: the Pacers will go as far as Oladipo can carry them this season. Few players in NBA history have enjoyed as dramatic a breakout as the former Hoosier did last season, rising from borderline NBA irrelevance to an All-NBA Third Team selection in a calendar year. Whatever Indiana coach Nate McMillian changed last offseason worked wonders, as Oladipo has grown from an uncertain, inconsistent guard without a truly defined role to a dominant lead ball-handler who can win any one-on-one matchup. Oladipo set a career-high in true shooting percentage (57.7%) and maintained a turnover rate below his career average (12.7%) despite by far the highest usage rate of his career (30.1%).

With any such breakout campaign, there are going to be concerns that season was a flash in the pan, and Oladipo will have to assuage those concerns if the Pacers want to take the next step. He’s simply too important to this offense. While I am a big believer in his talent, and I think he’ll maintain his place among the NBA’s stars, I wouldn’t be surprised if last season ends up being the apex of the 26-year-old’s career. A half-step back production-wise won’t break the Pacers’ offense, but the rest of the roster will need to prove it can step up around him. Starting with…

X Factor: Myles Turner

Myles Turner might be the only Pacer who had a season to forget last year.

Turner was my pick for Most Improved Player coming into last season, and while injuries and his own teammate held him well short of that mark, my reasons for the choice still stand. Few frontcourt players in the league boast the collection of tools Turner does; he has the upside to become a fabled “unicorn” center in the vein of a Kristaps Porzingis or an Al Horford, contributing in every facet of the game while taking nothing off the table. The physical tools are obvious — he’s 6’11” with a mammoth 7’4″ wingspan, and he can jump out of the gym — and he complements those tools with an impressively skilled all-around game. While he’s already entering his fourth NBA season, he’s still only 22 years old.

In lieu of a second established star to support Oladipo, this team is likely going to need a collaborative effort from the bulk of its rotation. On the defensive end, Turner should be primed for big things, but scoring the ball remains something of a concern. While it’s probably unrealistic to expect Turner to develop into a true high-volume scorer at such a young age, but the Pacers would no doubt like to see some more assertiveness from him on that end of the floor.

Turner has evidently discovered yoga and found himself a big boy diet this year, as well. Keep an eye out for him this season.

Don’t Forget About: Ike Anigbogu

Anigbogu is a player many may have forgotten about these days, because although he was a moderately popular sleeper among his draft process, he slipped all the way down to the 47th overall pick in last year’s draft.

I fell in love with Anigbogu during the pre-draft process for a very specific reason: his defensive upside. This is a kid who has the ceiling, however unlikely, of a Clint Capela-type center: the ideal athletic, versatile, modern NBA center. Anigbogu is immensely unrefined, and barely played during his lone season at UCLA, posting only 13 minutes per game. Still, he showcased exactly what his strengths will be: he’s an explosive finisher, with serious upside as a rim-runner, and an energetic rebounder and defender. At his peak, he could conceivably protect the rim while also stymieing the pick-and-roll due to his immense physical gifts.

Anigbogu barely even saw the court for the Pacers last season, playing only 11 games, and odds are this season won’t be any different. Still, I can’t get him out of my head, just based on sheer potential, and that makes him worthy of a mention here.


Second Opinion

Andrew Doxy, CelticsBlog (@ParaDoxy11)

The Indiana Pacers were a few mistakes away from changing the entire landscape of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. If they had pulled it off, the ripple effects that would have come from knocking out LeBron James and the Cavs so early would have reverberated far and wide.

The Pacers didn’t beat James, but they did put the NBA on notice after a successful season of out-pacing (hah) expectations following the Paul George trade. (Editor’s Note: I frown upon that pun.) The Indiana Pacers have had the summer to analyze and adjust where they can get better, and they addressed some of their primary needs. For one, the Victor Oladipo was really the only player capable of creating consistent offense. This was debilitating at times against Cleveland when they would trap Oladipo in the pick-and-roll. Darren Collison did the best he could, but it wasn’t enough.

To combat this, the Pacers brought on Tyreke Evans, who had somewhat of a renaissance year with the Memphis Grizzlies last season. He’s still relatively young player who can ease the burden on Oladipo for several stretches at a time which will, in the end, improve the team both offensively and defensively. Indiana also drafted Aaron Holiday, who will help in stretches with the primary ball-handler issue.

Another thing that the Pacers have going for them is their age. As an overachieving young team last year, a lot of their progress will come from internal progression. Myles Turner will improve, Domantas Sabonis will improve and other players up and down their roster will simply improve with age. “Elder statesmen” like Thaddeus Young will continue to be a crucial part of the team with his playoff experience after re-signing with Indiana this summer as well.

If you’re a Pacers fan, you have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. This team will continue to get better, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them make the leap to having home court in the first round of the playoffs this year. For a franchise that appeared to have traded away their superstar last summer, that’s exactly where you want to be now.


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