• Alec Liebsch

2019-20 Team Obituaries: Indiana Pacers

In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing obituaries for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.

Small market teams have to be good on the margins, and the Indiana Pacers are exactly that. Constantly on the verge of losing someone important, Indiana continues to find just the right pieces to stay competitive.

The Pacers lost Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Cory Joseph and Darren Collison in free agency last offseason. As a response, they took on T.J. Warren (and a second round pick), managed to court Malcolm Brogdon in a sign-and-trade, inked Jeremy Lamb to a reasonable deal, and added T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday to round out the bench.

This collection of talent was theoretically a great fit around Victor Oladipo. Brogdon proved to be a very important secondary player to the Milwaukee Bucks, and possessed the skill set to be Oladipo's partner in crime in the backcourt. Warren could moonlight as a scorer with the bench units, and provide spacing with the starters. Lamb knew what he was as a low-maintenance wing on both ends, the ideal fifth starter or sixth man on a contender.

The results

There was just one problem: Oladipo couldn't get going. He didn't return from his quadriceps tendon injury until January 29th, barely started to get his legs (or knees, rather) under him, and then the season shut down for four months. Only at the end of The Bubble was he close to himself.

The Pacers managed to stay afloat though, buoyed by internal improvements from Domantas Sabonis, who made the All-Star Game, Warren, who proved to be more than an empty calories scorer (especially in The Bubble), and Brogdon, who almost made the All-Star Game himself. They finished 45-28, good enough for 4th in the East.

But that wasn't enough to compete with Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, who made quick work of them in four games. Indiana stayed close in each contest, but ultimately couldn't get much going in crunch time. Miami's playoff-tested veterans, Butler and Goran Dragic, took turns burying Indiana late in games.

And after being swept in the first round in back to back years, head coach Nate McMillan was let go. It's hard to blame those shortcomings on McMillan, who deployed very good defensive units and lacked the requisite star power to thrive in the playoffs, but he had his warts.

The Pacers never had a modern offense, finishing in the bottom five in 3-point attempts each of the last four seasons. Even though Sabonis, a non-shooter, split time at the 4 this season, his frontcourt partner was typically Myles Turner, a big who is comfortable firing off 3s. The personnel was always in place for a 3-heavy attack; McMillan just never instituted one.

The outlook

When a head coach is fired, it's common for a team to look for a completely different style from the next coach. Indiana may do exactly that to try and shake things up, which would mean a lot more 3s, a more communicative culture, and a more flexible coaching style. Many coaches around the league are stringent with their game plans, often to a fault, and team president Kevin Pritchard may be looking for a completely different approach here.

While searching for a new head coach, the Pacers may also look to shake up their core. Oladipo is an unrestricted free agent after next season, and it's unclear whether or not he'd agree to an extension before the season starts.

That could force Indiana's hand. Small market teams often have a disadvantage when trying to recruit star players, and Oladipo hasn't exhibited much of a commitment to Indiana past 2021. To avoid losing him for nothing, it's very possible that the organization looks to trade him.

As you'd expect, there will be no shortlist of suitors for Oladipo. Despite the injury risks attached, he's early in his prime (28 years old), two years removed from an All-NBA nomination, and a volume scorer with defensive prowess at the guard position—in a league where guards are more valuable than ever before.

The shift to smaller lineups may force the Pacers' hand with their bigs too. At the highest levels, teams only deploy one big, and sometimes even less than that; the Pacers don't need to spend $35.2 million on two centers next season. The fit questions between Sabonis and Turner have been audible since they became teammates back in 2017-18, and they've only gotten louder as the league has evolved.

If you ask Pacers fans who they should trade, Turner is the reflexive answer. Sabonis is the better player right now, which is surprising when juxtaposing their strengths and weaknesses. Turner is more talented and a better fit for the modern game, but Sabonis is far superior at using the tools he has, most notably his motor and playmaking acumen.

The Pacers have the luxury of trading either one now that they're both locked up. Turner has three years left on his deal, and Sabonis' four-year extension starts next season. Both salaries are also reasonable hits now, rather than rookie contracts, making them much easier to match with a veteran.

Even though so much about the Pacers is up in the air heading into 2020-21, the uncertainty also provides opportunity. Pritchard can build the team how he wants going forward, and he doesn't have to undertake a full rebuild to do so.

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