Can the Indiana Pacers Win With This Core?
There’s a lot to like about the Indiana Pacers. They’ve got a young core, led by All-Star’s Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Under the leadership of head coach Nate McMillan, they’ve made back-to-back playoff appearances, and were on track for a third this season. Can this group take it to the next level and challenge for a championship?
In short, no.
But with the right plan, the Pacers can get on the right track.
At the moment Indiana sits in that awkward in-between position, where the team looks like a perennial playoff contender, but not at a conference or world champion level.
New York went through the same thing in the Carmelo Anthony era. Three playoff appearances in a row but never getting past the second round because there was no second star. First year they lose to Boston’s big three, second year to Miami’s big three and the last year funnily enough to the Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert Pacers squad.
To be fair, since Oladipo’s breakout season in 2017-18, but his gruesome leg injury derailed some of the momentum. We haven’t got a big enough sample size of Oladipo with new teammates like Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, and Doug McDermott. But reading the team on paper, they need another star.
In a healthy Eastern Conference, Indiana is no better than the fifth or sixth best squad. Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto all have a chance to be great for a long time, and Miami has made a strong case to be included in that conversation. At full tilt, Brooklyn immediately jumps into the upper echelon in the East.
Anything could happen in this era of player movement, but as it stands, the Pacers are stuck in that middle pack, and already paying guys a lot of money. Sabonis is locked in for $77 million over four years, Myles Turner is in the first year of a $72 million deal, and Malcolm Brogdon is in his first season of an $85 million deal.
Now, there is nothing wrong with paying these guys. Brogdon is almost a career 50-40-90 shooter and Sabonis has improved every season culminating in his first All-Star appearance. You can make the argument for Turner as well, his strong defense a pillar of his game and his improved three-point shooting something to watch for. But paying all of these guys big money with Oladipo due for a new contract in 2021 means the Pacers are putting all of their eggs in an unproven basket.
It’s a fine squad, but there doesn’t seem to be an obvious path to a championship run with this roster. That issue can be fixed when the 2021 free agency period begins. Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard (player option), Paul George (player option), LeBron James (player option), Donovan Mitchell (restricted), and Jayson Tatum (restricted) headline a historically strong free agent class. No promises that any of these guys will sign, but the option needs to be there.
If they stick with this core group, they do have age on their side. Oladipo and Sabonis turn 28 and 24 respectively this month while Brogdon and Turner are 27 and 23. But do you risk sticking with this group, led by Oladipo who is returning from a ruptured quad tendon?
If the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers are anything to go by, then no. The window to win in this league is small and while you have a star like Oladipo and his right hand man in Sabonis, you need to find another star.
It may mean Turner is shopped around. Sabonis and Brogdon provide playmaking and scoring alongside Oladipo so you can accept paying their contracts at the moment. Turner will be valuable on the trade market and will assist in the salary cap issue.
Just look at DeMar DeRozan in Toronto. An All-Star and great team guy but to get to that next level the team needed to make a move. Indiana is in that same conundrum and moving Turner on might be the first step in the process.