The Indiana Pacers were a pleasant surprise this season, mostly because in essentially swapping Paul George for Victor Oladipo—a player on the verge of being written off by many as a draft busy (Oladipo was the No. 2 pick in 2013)—the team never missed a beat and in fact, improved their record by six games over the year prior. Oladipo raised his game to All-Star level and appears to have found a home in the same state where he played his college ball and was an All-American and National Player of the Year. Yes, Indiana fell in the first round to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games, but there’s no shame in that. This team can be confident knowing it took a Herculean effort on the part of the greatest player of this era to beat them, a sign they are well on their way to being a formidable opponent in the Eastern Conference. Of all the teams in the playoffs eliminated in the first round, the Indiana Pacers might be the only one in the best position to duplicate and even eclipse the success they had this season.
Indiana doesn’t have many issues on its roster. The talent is good enough to make the team competitive, and there isn’t one player you can point to with a bad contract. The Pacers only have two unrestricted free agents in Glenn Robinson III and Trevor Booker, two players who are solid, but replaceable. Thaddeus Young and Corey Joseph both have player options and could decide to opt out of their deals and test the free agent market, but that seems like a more realistic option for the younger Joseph than Young. As for Young, he might be an overlooked cog in the Pacers’ success. Long one of the best jack-of-all-trades glue guys in the NBA, Young is much like Andre Iguodala in that he provides whatever is necessary for success. Be it defense (where he can guard all five positions), rebounding or some scoring, Young can play the role.
Lastly, general manager Kevin Pritchard has team options on four players—Lance Stephenson, Joe Young, Darren Collison, Al Jefferson and Bojan Bogdanovic—which gives the the Pacers leverage and flexibility. If there is anything you can point to as being a problem area or weak spot for the Pacers, it’s at point guard. Collison has been a solid lead guard in his career, but he isn’t the kind of player teams have to gameplan for because he puts almost no pressure on opposing defenses. His backup, Joseph, honed his skills playing behind Kyle Lowry in Toronto, but he couldn’t beat out Collison for the starting job. Both would be ideal playing behind someone better, and an upgrade at the position isn’t something that’s entirely out of the question. Oladipo could play some at the 1, but he’s likely more effective paired with a full-time floor general.
Another question mark is Myles Turner. In his third season, the big man from Texas was expected to flourish after getting his feet wet in the League and gaining experience in the pro game. But statistically, Turner regressed across the board this season. Second-year man Domantas Sabonis, during many times this season and in the playoffs, outplayed him. Turner has all of the skills and tools to become a featured player in this League, but he doesn’t always play like he wants that status. The Pacers will continue to develop both young bigs and expect next season to be the one to determine each of their futures with the team.
How To Fix Things
If the Indiana Pacers’ biggest issue is at point guard, that’s a problem that can easily be fixed in free agency or quite possibly via trade. Pritchard has a nice combination of assets in terms of players and picks that he can use in any trade scenario. He might be wise to hop on the phone and give the Portland Trail Blazers a call to assess the availability of Damian Lillard. There has been lots of Lillard trade talk around the League, and it’s certainly a conversation worth having for a team like the Pacers who would leap to the top of the Eastern Conference totem pole with an acquisition like that. It’s also a plus that Lillard has experience sharing the backcourt spotlight in Portland with CJ McCollum.
“The trade market could be better than ever,” Pritchard said during the team’s exit meetings. “There’s not many teams with cap space this summer and when that happens normally teams get aggressive with trades to change their team. How aggressive we’ll be, I don’t know yet.”
And if that conversation goes nowhere with Portland, Indiana can still test the free agent market where a player like Isaiah Thomas or even Tyreke Evans would give Oladipo more talent in the backcourt to play with, and make the Pacers that much more dangerous. Either way, Pritchard in his opinion, feels this roster and this team offers something very few of the other 29 NBA franchises can.
“I think [players are] going to recognize this roster has a chance to win,” he said. “Winning brings players more than anything except the beach. The beach tends to win everything. Other than that, we can (offer) a winning culture and that’s what we want to do.”
Getting Turner back on track is key. The young center is only 22 and there is plenty reason that the poor season was an aberration. If you wanted to look at a positive from an otherwise bleak year, Turner did show more confidence in his three-point stroke. He averaged almost one make per game, while shooting 36 percent.
Turner will have Sabonis pushing him for his spot in the lineup, but in a perfect world for Indiana, the two would form a two-headed big man rotation that would give the team an enviable problem to have.
While it won’t grab headlines, the retention of the underrated Young is crucial to the Pacers’ continued growth. The aforementioned versatility Young brings shores up many deficiencies and players of his ilk are what teams are always on the lookout for. You can be sure rival GMs with championship aspirations will be courting the veteran.
With respect to how their current players develop and the way the front office will make moves to ease this team into contender status, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a fun and exciting team to watch over the next few years.