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NBA Daily: Indiana’s Roller Coaster Ride

In what has already been an emotional week for the basketball world, the Indiana Pacers will have a beam of positivity as Victor Oladipo makes his return to the floor.

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Fans of the Indiana Pacers will finally be able to see their star player in uniform at Bankers Life Fieldhouse tonight when they face the Chicago Bulls. It has been more than a full calendar year since Victor Oladipo suffered his torn quad on the very same floor in Indianapolis. The home crowd was filled with shock and concern then, but tonight the arena will be oozing with celebration and anticipation.

This season, Indiana has already compiled a solid record, going 30-17 without their franchise player. The additions of Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and TJ McConnell have been crucial in getting them into the position they are in. In short, the Pacers are an incredibly deep team that is well-coached by Nate McMillan and his staff.

These are all things that most NBA fans already know. What many of them might not know is the amount of patience, persistence and what-if possibilities that have flowed throughout this organization over the past two decades.

The Pacers were dealt a tough draw, to begin with. The two greatest players to ever play the game were in their division. They were never able to break through those Michael Jordan and LeBron James teams. In the years between those two legends, Indiana finally made it to the NBA Finals. Even then, they ran into the greatest duo of all-time in Shaquille O’Neal and the late Kobe Bryant.

After spending the first six years of his career with the Pacers, Antonio Davis was traded to the Toronto Raptors for a talented high school prospect named Jonathan Bender. The Raptors selected the 6-foot-11 forward with the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. The flashes of talent were apparent during his rookie year but troublesome knee injuries plagued his career. Over the next four seasons, he was only able to play a total of 76 games for Indiana.

The McDonald’s All-American Game MVP was never able to live up to the high expectations that were placed upon him. In 2005, he was ranked No. 11 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 20 biggest busts in NBA draft history. The Pacers ended up having to waive Bender in 2006 and his career was over after a 25-game stint with the New York Knicks.

The next sour taste was delivered amid a much uglier scene. The Detroit Pistons beat Indiana in six games during the 2003-04 Eastern Conference Finals and went on to win the championship. The next time the division rivals met was Nov. 19, 2004, at The Palace in Auburn Hills. The Malice at the Palace was a massive black eye on the league as a whole – and, naturally, the Pacers found themselves right in the middle of it all.

The league handed out a bevy of fines and suspensions, in no particular order: Metta World Peace was suspended for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, which amounted to 86 games. Indiana also lost Stephen Jackson for 30 games, while Jermaine O’Neal was given a 25-game ban, though it was reduced on appeal to just 15. This was Reggie Miller’s final season – one in which many hoped it would end with another title run. Miller, of course, retired ringless.

After fighting to earn their way into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Pacers were eliminated by Detroit in the second round. Indiana then went four consecutive years without making the postseason after saying goodbye to their legendary three-point marksman. Their 2004-05 team had arguably their best opportunity at winning a championship since their NBA Finals run in 2000.

In the aftermath of that mess and Miller’s departure, the Pacers were tasked with rebuilding their team with character guys. It meant asking their fans for an abundance of patience while the losses piled up. The fans and the city were in support of the organization and had made significant progress with the additions of guys like Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Paul George.

Indiana selected George with the No. 10 overall pick in 2010 and Granger was an important role model and mentor to the Fresno State product. The two would excel on the court together as the main building blocks for the franchise. That only lasted a few years as Granger dealt with injuries and was shipped off to Philadelphia, who then waived him.

In the midst of all of this was the 2011 draft, where Indiana selected Kawhi Leonard. George and Leonard were able to coordinate their pairing in Los Angeles this past summer, but the Pacers could have had both of them in Indianapolis. At the time, the team felt they had depth and stability at the position, so they opted to trade Leonard to San Antonio for hometown product George Hill.

Nearly six months after Granger was traded, George suffered his gruesome leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas. Just when it appeared Indiana had their franchise star ready to burst onto the scene, their hopes once again took a drastic hit. After back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, their season was quickly lost. Not only that, but it was going to be years – not months – before he might possibly be able to return to the type of player he had become.

After his hard-fought battle to return to the floor, George was growing increasingly frustrated with his situation. He had always been upset about the Granger trade and began to feel as though the organization wasn’t surrounding him with enough talent. Eventually, George made it be known that he wanted out of Indiana and the fan base was thrown another curveball.

At the time, Indiana took a lot of criticism for its return in the trade with Oklahoma City. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were young and didn’t seem to have the upside to whet the appetite for most Pacers fans. Nowadays, it feels almost like a heist. Oladipo has since won Most Improved Player, led the league in steals, reached both the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, all in addition to being a two-time All-Star.

Indiana has a rich history with the Most Improved Player award, as Oladipo, George, Granger, O’Neal and Jalen Rose have each won it over the last 20 years. Sabonis has flourished as a Pacer too, getting serious All-Star consideration this year after missing out on the Sixth Man of the Year honors last season.

But now, today, can they breakthrough? Is this the moment? Expectations were high after the addition of Malcolm Brogdon in the summer. Elsewhere, Myles Turner has been able to fit alongside Sabonis, while the role players have all been exceptional. Still, the four pillars in Indiana still have not yet played on the floor together. The biggest unknown in the Eastern Conference right now is what happens to the Pacers when they have a healthy Oladipo and Brogdon in the backcourt along with Sabonis and Turner. That is something everyone is anxious to see.

In the end, Oladipo’s brutal injury was another dip in a long and winding road in Indiana – needless to say, however, it is a road filled with potholes, bumps, roadkill and cracked asphalt.

But if Oladipo returns to form things could finally be looking up again for the Pacers.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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