While the Eastern Conference has undoubtedly been considered the weaker of the two conferences over the past few decades, one of the constant contenders out East has been the Indiana Pacers.
Whilst the days of Reggie Miller and Paul George are now planted firmly in the past, the Pacers will be hoping to race ahead of the competition this season in an Eastern Conference which is as wide open as ever.
Last season finished the exact same as the previous three seasons before this had – a first-round exit. Whilst in each series Indiana had optimism, the end result was another disappointing end to a season.
The early part of the decade were magical years for the Pacers, with a second-round visit in 2011-12 and two straight Conference Finals trips in the two seasons after this, led by a young Paul George, interior force Roy Hibbert and excellent complementary pieces in George Hill and Lance Stephenson. However, much like every other team out East, they were defeated by LeBron James, who made eight straight NBA Finals during this time span.
Coming into the season Indiana had lost Stephenson to the Lakers, and waived Al Jefferson, which were considered to be key pieces for the team at one time. Despite this, for the first three-quarters of the season, Indiana were strong- a surprise considering they were without their star Victor Oladipo for a large chunk of the action. Coming back after the All-Star break, Indiana had a 40-20 record, which at the time was the third-best record in the conference. Their form took a serious slide after this date, going 8-14 in the final quarter of the season, resulting in the fifth seed and a loss of home-court advantage.
In the playoffs, the Pacers faced off against the fourth-seeded Boston Celtics, who had come into full health by season’s end. Behind Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and head coach Brad Stevens, Indiana were swept. On paper this seems like another wasted season, however, Boston only won the series by an average of 7.5 points per game. When considered, the fact that Indiana were without their leading scorer, the feeling around the franchise was that had Oladipo played, the series may have ended differently.
Going into the season the Pacers will be quietly confident, yet again, for playoff success. Bojan Bogdanovic – who finished the season second in points per game for the team, and first in games started and minutes played – left in free agency for the Utah Jazz, and Thaddeus Young also departed from the franchise after three seasons, signing with the Chicago Bulls. Although statistically past his peak from his seasons with Philadelphia and Brooklyn, he provided the Pacers with a veteran presence and experience in crunch time situations.
Other notable loses include Wesley Matthews who signed with the Bucks, and former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, who was banned by the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug program.
Acting almost as a replacement for Bogdanovic, Indiana executed a sign and trade with Milwaukee for Malcolm Brogdon, coming off a season in which he became only the eighth player ever to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 90 percent from the free-throw line. His sharpshooting and ability to handle the ball will be a much-needed relief for Victor Oladipo coming back from his quad injury, after Darren Collinson retired in the offseason to focus on his faith.
Jeremy Lamb is another under the radar pickup that will give the Pacers meaningful experience (being the only player currently rostered with more than six years of experience). Over the years, Lamb has been cited as a weak defensive player, however, last season (for the Hornets) he ranked in the top 15 amongst Shooting Guards in defensive real plus/minus and defensive player impact plus/minus (both stats that are generally cited as evidence of good defense).
T.J. Warren from the Suns was a surprise pickup for Indiana. Warren is a versatile scorer; however, he will have to remain healthy if Indiana are seriously looking to contend (having only played an average of 52 games a season since joining the league five seasons ago).
Indiana became a national underdog story going into the playoffs, after relying on the play of big men, Miles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Turner led the NBA in blocks per game at 2.7 (and ended the season only 6 blocks away from beating the rest of the entire roster combined) and provided interior defense the Pacers haven’t had since – in retrospect – the transcendent seasons provided by then Defensive if the Year candidate, Roy Hibbert. On a team which have been characterised as hard-nosed and rugged, Turner is the alpha dog on defense and will be an intimidator to anyone looking to challenge him in the paint.
Sabonis may have been the best Pacer on paper last season, leading the team in rebounds per game at 9.3, and shooting a franchise record 59 percent from the field. He also led the team in PER (21.9), TS percent (.630) and Win Shares (7.6). Despite this, scepticism persists on if Sabonis should be a starting player for Indiana, considering with him and Turner on the floor together smaller teams will have a huge speed advantage and could dominate on the perimeter. If Nate McMillan decides to pair the two near-7-footers, he will have to figure out a defensive scheme in which he can exploit the marked height differential.
It should be noted that whilst the only team in the NBA who have are not in negative cap space are the Atlanta Hawks, overall the Pacers have the fifth-most cap space, and currently sit around $14 million under the luxury tax threshold. Whilst unlikely, if the Pacers front office feels it necessary they can make more moves either this off-season or during the season.
Due to LeBron James’ exit to the Lakers in 2018, Kawhi Leonard’s move to the Clippers this year and Kevin Durant likely to miss the entirety of this season, the Pacers will have a similar sentiment to that of the 76ers, Celtics, Raptors and Bucks; the East is there for the taking.
1. Shoot More
In days past the Pacers had the most prolific three-point shooter of his time. Reggie Miller – hitting his shooting peak in the mid to late ‘90s – was able to capitalize off of an inside-out offensive game-plan and excellent off-ball movement, which helped elevate Indiana to perennial contenders during his tenure, as Indiana led the league in three-pointers made in 99-00, the year they faced Shaq and Kobe in the NBA Finals. Since Nate McMillan took over the Pacers head coaching role from Frank Vogel three seasons ago, his Pacers have finished 23rd in three-pointers made in 2016-17, 25th in 2017-18 and 29th in 2018-19. With the league becoming ever more a shooters paradise, one of the key improvements needed for Indiana will be an increase in shots taken from behind the line (having finished fifth in three-point field goal percentage).
The Pacers will go as far as Victor Oladipo can take them. The former second overall pick back in the 2013 Draft, Oladipo was considered at one point to be a below-average return on Paul George after underachieving in Orlando and Oklahoma. However, in his first season in Indiana, Oladipo showed that all he needed was the right situation and a genuine opportunity. He finished the 2017-18 season as an All-NBA Third Team selection, named Most Improved Player, an All-Star and perhaps the toughest test LeBron James ever faced in the Eastern Conference. He averaged 22.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6 assists per game in the first round against Cleveland, whilst playing elite defense (shades of Dwayne Wade) and was instrumental in pushing the Cavs to a seven-game series. Oladipo isn’t expected to suit up until around December, but if the Pacers can avoid a horrendous start to the season, they should be hopeful Oladipo can pick up where he left off and lead them into the postseason.
When we think of all-time great defenses, we think of teams such as the Bad Boy Pistons (and later the Larry Brown Pistons of the 2000s), the Jordan/Pippen/Rodman led Bulls or the Twin Towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. One backcourt which never gets the credit they deserve were the Seattle Supersonics of the ‘90s. Every NBA fan worth their salt consider Gary Payton to be amongst the best defensive guards of all time, however, Nate McMillan gets lost in this. As a player, he made two All-Defensive teams and led the league in steals in 1994. It is no coincidence that his Pacers team have been amongst the best defensively since he took over. Last season they finished third overall in defensive rating, and thanks to interior force Myles Turner had the fourth-fewest points scored in the paint against them at 44.8 per game. Finding the right defensive line-up will be a challenge for Nate McMillan this season, and maintaining their reputation as one of the league’s most psychical teams is a priority.
Victor Oladipo | 18.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.2 apg
Indiana won 69 percent of the games that Oladipo played in, going 25-11 before he was shut down for the season. Although not as dominant as he was in his first season with the Pacers, if he comes back fully healthy we should be expecting another All-Star year, and potential All-NBA return depending on how quickly he can get back to lead the team.
Myles Turner | 13.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.6 apg
Turner finished the season fifth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and he will be looking to move up in the voting in the coming campaign. The Pacers will be focused on involving Turner more on the offensive end after a season in which for the most part he was relegated to the perimeter. Larry Bird once predicted that Turner would go on to become the greatest Pacer ever – and the whole team will be hoping his fifth NBA season will see him improve even more.
Malcolm Brogdan | 15.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg
Arguably the Bucks’ second most important player throughout the playoffs after Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brogdon became one of the best low-usage, high-efficiency players in the league. With even more offensive fluidity expected, Brogdon may go on to be the natural leader for Indiana whilst Oladipo is awaiting his return from injury, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he has another 50-40-90 season.
Domontas Sabonis | 14.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.9 apg
Sabonis continues to be a difficult piece of the puzzle to figure out, and the regular season will likely be used as a testing ground in determining if he is best as a starter alongside Turner, or as the best player off the bench (having led the NBA in double-doubles off the bench at 27). Regardless of his minutes or spot in the rotation, Sabonis provided huge scoring and rebounding numbers for Indiana and became a deadly post scorer and slasher (with his average shot distance going from 12.7 feet in 2016-17 to 6.2 feet in 2018-19).
T.J. Warren | 18.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 apg
Perhaps the most underrated pickup of the off-season by any team, Warren will be a key contributor for Indiana. Although not quite the shooter Malcolm Brogdan is, Warren went from averaging 1.3 three-point attempts per game in his first four seasons on 28.3 percent shooting to 4.2 attempts last year at a percentage of 42.8. If he can continue to provide burst scoring as he did for a Phoenix team who never quite figured out how to use him, we could see him become the second scorer for the Pacers.