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Indiana’s Aspirations Could Require More Help

The Indiana Pacers had lofty goals this season, even without Victor Oladipo around for a while. Those hopes may already be slipping beyond reach only a few weeks into the year. Douglas Farmer explains.

Douglas Farmer

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If anyone is desperate to know when Victor Oladipo will return from his catastrophic knee injury, it is his Indiana Pacers. Their panic may have subsided some in the last week, responding to an 0-3 start with a quick three-game winning streak, but it is clear the Pacers will be treading water in the East until the All-Star guard returns.

Treading water may not be good enough. As of Monday morning, Indiana is tied for sixth in the conference standings, only above the playoff cut line because of the East’s general mediocrity. Even amid that tepid play, three of last year’s playoff teams lag behind the Pacers in the standings.

There is reason enough to presume the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets will not continue at a 2-4 pace; both teams improved this offseason, leaning into the development innate to stability more than Indiana did. And until the Detroit Pistons decide to end this Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond era, they seem destined to strive for that No. 8 seed each and every season.

Those ticks upward alone would be enough to jeopardize the Pacers’ playoff hopes, and that does not even get into the less likely uprisings of the Atlanta Hawks or … okay, just the Hawks, and that uprising is exceptionally unlikely.

Nonetheless, Oladipo’s absence puts Indiana’s postseason intentions on the fritz. Those intentions were not to merely make the playoffs, a la Detroit. They were to contend, possibly have home-court advantage. Missing Oladipo until December at the earliest, and some speculate his return could come closer to the All-Star Game, the chances of snagging a top-four seed become slimmer each week he spends on the sideline.

Consider a year ago, when Indiana fell one game short of hosting a playoff series. They went 22-21 after Oladipo ruptured a tendon in his knee, having jumped out to a 26-13 start with him. That near-.500 pace seems to be afoot again, largely thanks to Malcolm Brogdon’s start. The newcomer from Milwaukee is averaging 22.5 points, 9.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. Those numbers will assuredly slip when Oladipo gets back, but for now, they are picking up much of the slack.

More help could be on the way, in one form or another.

Myles Turner missed the last two games with a sprained ankle, both Pacers wins. It is unfair and too focused on a small sample size to say Indiana won those games because Turner was sidelined; it certainly helped that neither the Cleveland Cavaliers nor the Chicago Bulls have imposing frontcourts. But it also cannot be ignored that the Pacers beat the Cavs by 13 a mere week after losing to them by 11 with Turner. Home-court advantage does not explain a 24-point swing.

The fit between Turner and forward Domantas Sabonis has always been a tenuous one. Sabonis cannot keep up with most stretch-fours on the wing, forcing that defensive assignment to Turner, but he is best used as a rim protector. On the other end of the court, Sabonis’ vision makes him an excellent facilitator from the high-post, while Turner likes to roam the arc, making for frequent spacing snafus.

Sabonis missed the Turner-less game against the Bulls with a calf contusion of his own, but against the Cavs, he snagged 17 rebounds to go along with his 18 points. When given this kind of room to work, he has routinely become a force to reckon with.

The Pacers cannot currently trade Sabonis, not fresh off his rookie contract extension, but there is no such prohibition on moving Turner. Without many other high-caliber players on the market, there may be an impetus to explore that option and find supplements for this depleted roster.

The pairing of Brogdon and Sabonis may be enough to keep Indiana afloat, at or near .500, until Oladipo’s return. While this offseason’s roster churn cost the Pacers the likes of Bojan Bogdanović, it also brought in help like T.J. Warren. The pieces are there for Nate McMillan’s team to keep pace in the back half of the playoff picture without its star. Finding another quality piece to burgeon the cause, one that may fit better with Brogdon and Sabonis, would also serve to lessen the pressure on Oladipo to return quickly.

For math’s sake, let’s presume the .500 pace continues, and let’s give Oladipo not only the benefit of the doubt that he will return healthy enough to lead a .667 pace again, but also the cushion of needing some time on the court to get back to that level.

And also for math’s sake, let’s use last season’s Boston Celtics’ record of 49-33 as the needed mark to enjoy home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

By that math, Indiana would need to return to the .667 rate of winning no later than Jan. 20, a trip to the Utah Jazz. That is a full three weeks ahead of the All-Star Break. If Oladipo needs only two weeks to get up to his standard, that means he would need to return by a Jan. 6 trip to Charlotte. Frankly, a two-week build-up feels ambitious, just as that Jan. 6 date may be.

This is all to say, the Pacers put themselves in a costly hole by starting 0-3, including two losses to the Pistons. On paper, they have already recovered, but the reality is, more may be needed to be in the wanted position when Oladipo returns, whenever that may be.

Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

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