Are the Pacers Contenders or Pretenders? Yes
There’s a pretty obvious quartet at the top of the Eastern Conference power rankings. The Raptors, the Bucks, the Celtics, and the 76ers widely assumed to be the East’s best teams. The Indiana Pacers, despite their record, are usually an honorable mention.
Behind Victor Oladipo’s immense leadership, the Pacers are 28-14 at the time of this writing, and sit third in the East standings. Despite a recent loss to the Celtics, the team does have a few big wins on the season, including against Milwaukee, Boston, and Philly (Indiana has twice lost to Toronto).
Because of its limited star-power, its old-school playing style, and its relatively low-profile, Indiana is easy to dismiss and to forget. And indeed, there is enough reason to think this club doesn’t have the chops to go the distance.
At the same time however, it isn’t inconceivable that Indiana could represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals this spring.
The Pacers as contenders
There is a lot to love about this iteration of Indiana Pacers basketball. The teams has an established, no-nonsense coach in Nate McMillan. A bonafide star in Victor Oladipo. And a crop of savvy and exciting role players.
The Pacers own the second best defensive rating in the league. Likewise, they’re 25th in pace. That’s a winning formula in the postseason, when things inevitable slow down anyway.
At the same time, Indiana’s offensive rating is 16th in the NBA. This team does lack some of the firepower other clubs might have. Last season, however, the Boston Celtics reached the Eastern Conference Finals with the 2nd best defense and the 18th best offense. With no LeBron in the picture, perhaps the Pacers could take things a step further.
The Pacers pass and rebound the ball reasonably well, and this club is among the best at scoring off of turnovers and on fastbreaks. Indiana also is one of the most efficient teams shooting the ball in the Association.
Indy is a team that executes, and punishes opponents who don’t. Certainly Indy has the chops to take down just about any opponent on any given night.
Oladipo continues to play at a high-level, and having himself a career year. Veterans Tyreke Evans and Thad Young have also impressed, as have the team’s up-and-comers. Myles Turner is finally coming along, and averaging nearly three blocks per game. Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, and rookie TJ Leaf, meanwhile, have been big surprises for Indy this season, and are playing critical roles in the team’s success.
More excitingly, the Pacers roster may also not be set in stone. I fully expect the team to be buyers heading toward the NBA trade deadline. We’ve already outlined a trade the Pacers could make.
Darren Collison has been having a fine year, but leaves a little to be desired as a starting point guard. The trio of Turner, Sabonis, and Young has been exceptional, but this too could be a place to make a change.
Indiana owns all of its future first-round picks. If the front office really believes in this group, it would be wise to attempt a talent upgrade. Already this club has proven its ability to hang around in a crowded Eastern Conference; what if they brought another star into the fold?
The Pacers as pretenders
Unfortunately for the Pacers, there’s a lot standing between this team and a shot at the Finals. Indy has a few fatal flaws. And playing in one of the strongest Eastern Conferences in a decade doesn’t help either.
Indiana is, at the end of the day, decidedly untested. Though some of its featured players are hardened NBA vets, there’s no one on the roster that has even sniffed a title. In fact, the Pacers had the sixth youngest roster at the start of the season.
When firing on all cylinders, the Pacers really can hang with just about anyone in the league. Should Oladipo hit a slump or suffer an injury, however, the club is likely to sink like a brick in the standings.
In the playoffs that would be a fatal blow. Last year the Pacers went 48-27 with Oladipo in the lineup. With Vic sidelined, Indiana was 0-7. That said, the club went 7-4 when the All-Star suffered an early-season knee injury.
Indy’s peers in the Eastern Conference are also a problem. Both the Raptors and the Celtics are in the top-10 in offense and defense, while it’s fair to wonder if any team has an answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo. I think the Pacers have a fair shot against the Sixers, but from there, the path to the Finals is a frightening one.
Usually when we say a club is “one move away,” it serves as a euphemism for a team that doesn’t have a real future. As stated above, perhaps this Pacers roster is not a finished product. Indy has just about the most room for improvement of any top team in the East. The Pacers may truly be one move away, and from there, look out.