The Indiana Pacers have boasted tremendous continuity over the past few years, going from inevitable rebuild to genuine darkhorse. That continuity will be put to the test again this season following a smorgasbord of moves over the summer.
After losing four of their five starters from last season, Indiana will have plenty of new faces that will need time to gel. Even with All-Star guard Victor Oladipo returns from his torn quad, the team chemistry will be rigorously challenged. On paper, the fit looks fantastic but until we see it on the court, no one can be sure how it will all work out.
In terms of returning players, the Pacers rank 28th in both minutes played and points scored from last season. Indiana’s first ten games are very forgiving, so the schedule Gods may help them get off to a good start this season. That will be key for them if they expect to secure one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference.
With that said, let’s dive into another edition of Basketball Insiders’ season previews — this time, the focus lies on the Indiana Pacers.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Indiana is coming off an incredibly impressive 2018-19. But instead of resting on their laurels, the Pacers went in for a face-lift of sorts – and allowed Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph to leave as free agents. But the departing players were replaced by Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. A returning Victor Oladipo should add another level to the Pacers and their backcourt will be among the most versatile and dangerous in the NBA. Rookie Goga Bitadze should add something to the team with an incredibly efficient offensive game and great rim-protecting instincts. The Pacers have a high ceiling this year – but they will be thoroughly tested by the likes of the 76ers and Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
2nd Place – Central Division
The Pacers, despite losing Victor Oladipo, still had a great year. They finished just shy of 50 wins as the rest of the team came together and showed a lot of fight. This summer they made some very quality free agent signings with Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday, also adding a good trade for T.J. Warren. Each of these players should add to the Pacers depth, but they already must find players that can replicate the contributions of Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.
With a healthy Oladipo though, there’s no reason why this team should take a step backward as he was well on his way to becoming a legit star. With him, and the surrounding supporting cast, they’re a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The next step for them is not only reaching the postseason but perhaps securing a top-four seed and possibly even winning a series — it could happen this season.
2nd Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
If there’s anything we know about the Pacers, it’s that when they’re down, they’re never out. You can throw a wrench into their plans and they just come out with a new blueprint. Last season, it was Victor Oladipo’s devastating injury. This time, Indiana lost Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young to free agency; two valuable pieces on the court and in the locker room. Kevin Pritchard acted on this quickly with the additions of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. The team still has dynamic, versatile big men in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who, according to Nate McMillan, will be playing together. If this altered version of the squad works and Oladipo comes back as the Vic everybody knows, this is going to be a dangerous group to reckon with.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Indiana Pacers might be the best team no one is giving credit to. If Victor Oladipo comes back after the All-Star break, the Pacers could be set up to secure home-court advantage in the first round. Indiana had a solid offseason by netting Malcolm Brogdon in a sign and trade, plus they even hung on to their young guys too. So if Oladipo is back to his All-Star form, the Pacers could be really good. if Oladipo needs more time, then maybe the Pacers are simply a playoff team — but, overall, the franchise is in a fantastic position going forward.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
I think that at some point this season the Milwaukee Bucks are going to second-guess not doing everything in their power to retain the services of Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon will bring a lot of value to the Indiana Pacers on both ends of the court and could form a dynamic duo with Victor Oladipo. Indiana also made other savvy moves, adding quality players like T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday. Between Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and now Goga Bitadze, the Pacers have a lot of depth at the center position as well and may need to make a decision on what to do between Sabonis and Turner. Despite making some nice moves this offseason, I don’t believe Indiana has the talent or overall to match the firepower of the league’s top-tier contenders. I think Indiana can make a strong push this season and exceed expectations but I am not convinced that they have quite enough to make it to the Finals.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Pacers used their cap room to bring in players like Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb. Having used their room exception on Justin Holiday, the team can only add players via minimum contracts or trade. Indiana is well below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with 15 guaranteed players, along with three camp invites (C.J. Wilcox, JaKeenan Gant and Amida Brimah) who are unlikely to make the regular-season roster.
Before November, the Pacers need to pick up team options on T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday. Domantas Sabonis is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. The Pacers are also heavily invested for the 2020-21 season, projected to be over the $116 million salary cap.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo
Since acquiring him in the high-profile trade for Paul George, Victor Oladipo has been the engine that runs this team. The energy, hustle and clutch performances have invigorated this Pacers team and their fan base. His days in Orlando and Oklahoma City were about learning and applying that knowledge to his game.
Oladipo burst onto the national scene during the 2017-18 season where he was named to the All-NBA third team. That same season, he made his first All-Star game appearance and was named to the All-Defensive first team after leading the league in steals. Not only has he lifted the Pacers franchise, but he has been carrying the offense quite well as indicated by his 17th-ranked player efficiency rating from two years ago.
Top Defensive Player: Myles Turner
You won’t find a better rim protector in the league today than Myles Turner. The 23-year old center led the league in blocks last season and found himself in serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. While his offensive game and rebounding are the focal point of most conversations, Turner has long been a steady defensive force throughout his four-year career.
Turner’s numbers go much deeper than blocks, however. Last season, the big man ranked seventh in the league in defensive win shares and had the third-best defensive plus/minus in the NBA. His overall defensive rating was fifth-best in the league and greatly contributed to the Pacers being ranked No. 1 in opponent points per game a year ago.
Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon
Despite not having the burden of being the playmaker in Milwaukee, Brogdon is going to be forced into that role from the very beginning in Indiana. With Oladipo out for at least the first couple of months, Brogdon will be thrust into the creator role. It will be an adjustment for the former Rookie of the Year, but it is a challenge that he’ll welcomes. The task is even more difficult when you consider the roster turnover Indiana has gone through from last season.
Brogdon’s biggest strength is his ability to go downhill, straight to the basket. This penetration will open up kick-outs to shooters and many swing-swing plays on the perimeter. Last season, Brogdon’s usage rate was around 20 percent. He will now become the ball-dominant guard that he never had to be next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can expect plenty of pick and roll plays with Sabonis too. Brogdon has an exceptionally high basketball IQ and uses it to his advantage. He gets to the line, wherein which he’ll make opponents pay dearly. His 93 percent free throw rate was best in the league last season.
Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo
His full name is Kehinde Babatunde Victor Oladipo, but his middle name may as well be Clutch. Before he went down with his ruptured quad tendon, Oladipo was leading the league in clutch field goal percentage (63.2 percent). He ranked second in the NBA in points per clutch possession with 1.59 on 39 such possessions. During the final minute of fourth quarters last season, the star guard was 4-of-5 shooting on lead-altering shots, which were all three-pointers.
In a memorable Nov. 3 contest against the Boston Celtics last year, the All-Star put the Pacers on his back and got them in the lead with a 22-foot jumper with 52 seconds remaining. He followed that up with a pair of crucial free throws, plus a game-winning three in the final seconds. He hit a ridiculous game-tying shot against the Rockets two nights later and ripped out the hearts of Bulls fans with two clutch buckets in the final minute – one of which was the game-winner with one second remaining.
Needless to say, Oladipo is not shy of the moment and has proved on multiple occasions that he’ll raise his game when the brightest lights are on him.
The Unheralded Player: Aaron Holiday
Indiana drafted Holiday with the No. 23 overall pick last summer and the former UCLA guard displayed plenty of promise over his 50 games with the team. Holiday averaged nearly six points, two assists and had an effective field goal percentage of 48.3 during his 13 minutes per contest. His role will increase this year, providing him with more time on the floor with the second unit. As the backup point guard, he will be responsible for getting his teammates involved in the offense, which can be difficult for a 22-year-old in his second season.
The biggest hurdle for Holiday will be improving his shooting. Last year, he shot 40 percent from the field and just under 34 percent from behind the arc. For a guy that is viewed as instant-offense off the bench, those numbers will have to improve in his sophomore season. Indiana had the third-most roster turnover from this past season, so the only guys remaining that Holiday played with last year are Oladipo, Turner, Sabonis, Doug McDermott and TJ Leaf.
Best New Addition: Malcolm Brogdon
Indiana paid a steep price for Brogdon’s services, but it was money well spent. For the Pacers, a swift upgrade at the starting point guard position has never been more clear. Darren Collison was a fine player that could do a few things proficiently, but replacing him with Brogdon will be like going from a Honda to a Ferrari.
The most significant area of improvement will be on the defensive end. Collison was small by every definition of the word. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Brogdon has a much better frame for defending multiple positions. Even better, the promising newcomer was arguably the best defender on Kawhi Leonard during the playoffs.
– Chad Smith
WHO WE LIKE
1. Myles Turner
The time is now for Turner to make his biggest leap yet. With Oladipo out to start the season, he is the guy that needs to step up his game. If he can graduate to more than just a pick-and-pop guy on offense that also blocks shots, it will go a long way toward Indiana’s ultimate successes. Often a half-step behind, Turner just needs to hone in his skills and be more effective inside 15 feet.
Being a reliable second or third option on offense should be a goal for Turner this season. The Pacers like to spread the ball around and don’t exactly score at an amazing clip and the team finished 22nd in points per game last year. He looked engaged in a couple of FIBA games this summer, but he also had some poor performances. Like many players in the league, consistency will be key for Turner.
2. Domantas Sabonis
After nearly winning Sixth Man of the Year last season, Sabonis will move into the starting lineup with the departure of Thaddeus Young. A bump in minutes may come as well, provided he can stay out of foul trouble. The big man ranked 12th in personal fouls last year, 14th the season before that. He must refrain from the temptation to reach in or bump inside. Sabonis also tends to pick up cheap fouls away from the ball and that will need to be remedied.
Another area of concern for Sabonis is on defense. Playing the power forward position, he must be able to guard quicker, more athletic big men on the perimeter. Turner needs to stay near the basket for rim protection, so Sabonis may be on an island at times. As for the offensive side of the ball, there is not much than he cannot do. His offensive game is smooth and he is easily one of the best passing big men in the league. That is something this Pacers offense will need desperately in their All-Star’s absence.
3. Jeremy Lamb
Speaking of Oladipo’s vacancy, enter Jeremy Lamb. The long, versatile wing does not do one thing exceptionally well, but he can do what the Pacers need. He can score, rebound and defend in a positive way with his large wingspan. He should slide into the starting lineup until Oladipo is ready to return, and his fit should be excellent.
When Oladipo does reclaim his starting position, Lamb should have no qualms about moving back into the sixth-man role that thrived at down in Charlotte. Lamb has only missed a total of five games over the past two seasons and went from 12.9 points per game to a career-high 15.3 points per game last season. His three-point shooting still needs to be more consistent, but he can score in multiple ways from many, many spots on the floor.
4. T.J. Warren
The wild card for the Pacers this season just might be T.J. Warren. The offensive weapon has shown that he can score, but how much of that was fool’s gold playing on a terrible Suns teams? The big question with Warren is his three-point shooting. In 2016-17 he shot 26.5 percent from behind the arc and two years before that, it was just 22.2 percent. Last season, however, he shot 43 percent from three-point range, which definitely raised some eyebrows around the league. He has averaged 31 minutes per game or more in each of the last three seasons, but how much time he gets in Indiana is yet to be determined. There are a bunch of assets competing for minutes, so there could be a proverbial log jam brewing. Warren should enter the season as a starter, but for how long will depend on his shooting and whether or not his subpar defense improves.
– Chad Smith
Like many Pacers teams of the past, this group will hang their hat on defense. They have some outstanding individual defenders and guru Dan Burke has gotten many to play much better on that end of the floor. Between Turner’s rim protection and the lockdown defense in the backcourt with Brogdon and Oladipo, Indiana should stay close to their defensive rating from last season, which was third-best in the league.
The talent on this roster is also still very young. Oladipo is just 27, Brogdon is 26, while Turner and Sabonis are both 23 — hell, even Warren is only 26. In fact, every player on Indiana’s roster is 27 years old or younger. Most everyone is under contract for after this season and they have loads of flexibility that Kevin Pritchard can work with.
The rotation is solid, rife with contributors that can slide into different, flexible positions. Rookie Goga Bitadze should see ample minutes behind Turner and will be a nice pairing with T.J. Leaf on the second unit. Indiana should have more offensive firepower this year with the additions of Lamb and Warren. Their offense went stagnant far too often during the playoffs last year, but the front office has addressed that very nicely.
– Chad Smith
The offense went through stretches last season that were often difficult to watch. Without Oladipo generating things, they fell flat on their face, especially against good defensive teams. The additions of Brogdon, Lamb and Warren should alleviate those concerns to some level. Still, the absence of their franchise player at the beginning of the season will be a major concern. The Pacers need to be at or above .500 by the time Oladipo makes it back. Even when he does return, he will likely be on a minutes restriction, sitting out on back-to-backs too, presumably.
Perhaps the biggest concern with the defense is this: Who guards Giannis? Who guards LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Ben Simmons? Young was usually that guy, but it’s a legitimately important question. Today, it’s hard to be convinced that anybody on the roster that can handle those assignments right now.
Indiana ranked 24th in pace last season, which was a likely reason for their 22nd-ranked scoring offense. That might not improve much, but they have the pieces to push the ball more if they so choose. It is difficult to imagine that without their All-Star on the floor though.
– Chad Smith
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Indiana’s version of the Twin Towers work?
They might not be Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but the Pacers do have themselves two very talented big men. Head coach Nate McMillan has stated that he wants them to play together, even if they have not done much of it in the past. Last year, they never practiced with the two on the same team, so that could be a starting point to figuring this thing out.
Thankfully, they play off each other pretty well as Sabonis is the better offensive player and Turner is the fiercer defender. Turner excels away from the basket on offense, while Sabonis is a force inside. Feeding Sabonis the ball inside can only net positive results for both parties. Turner will need to make his open looks though as he has only scored 1,000 points once over his four seasons.
Leaf and Bitadze are going to work similarly when they are on the floor together too. Still, a whole lot of this will ride on the shoulders of McMillan and his staff. Look for him to incorporate Turner in the corner more, especially on pick and roll opportunities with Brogdon and Sabonis.
Should things ultimately not work out there, the Pacers do have some options. Sabonis is extension eligible as this is the final year of his current contract. It would be wise for them to find a new deal before the season begins. Importantly, he’d be far more appealing to other teams if he already has a long-term deal signed. Doing so would also mitigate the risk of letting him become a restricted free agent next summer, forced to match a higher salary if a team makes an enormous offer.
In the end, the two should figure out how to not only co-exist but to complement each other. If they can do that –plus, obviously, with a healthy Oladipo — the Pacers could be looking at advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in six years.
– Chad Smith
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