The top of the Eastern Conference is of great interest as the 2019-20 NBA season approaches. The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers seem to be consensus picks to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals and, even when a few exceptions emerge in that projected hierarchy, a great divide emerges as to which teams seem to be the greatest challengers. One such entrant into the race is the Indiana Pacers, fresh off a 48-win season and a summer that saw the acquisitions of Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, and Jeremy Lamb. However, there are reasons to believe Indiana is in for some serious growing pains, as the team is facing injury, fit, and upside questions.
The elephant in the room is the injury status of All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. When the 27-year-old All-Star went down with a brutal knee injury in January, the Pacers were red-hot, sporting a 32-15 record. From that point forward, however, the team went 16-19 and, while Indiana did make the playoffs, they were swept by the Boston Celtics.
At present, there is no formal timetable for Oladipo’s return. Even if he takes the floor by the end of calendar year, there’s no guarantee he plays at an All-Star level on a nightly basis right away. Indiana did respectable work without Oladipo a season ago, especially on the defensive end, where the Pacers were a top-10 unit. But the team was 23rd in the league in offensive rating over the final 35 games of the season. In the 47 games prior to Oladipo’s injury, the Pacers were tied for 14th in the NBA by that same metric.
It is a fool’s errand to attempt to accurately guess Oladipo’s date of return but, in attempting to look ahead to the upcoming campaign, it is safe to assume that the Pacers will have to win a bunch of games both without him and with him as a player working his way back from a major injury — Indiana will reportedly employ a load management strategy with Oladipo. To that end, Indiana must be evaluated in split fashion and, in glancing ahead, we must look back to what they were a season ago.
The Pacers finished the 2018-19 campaign with the No. 3 defense in the NBA, buoyed largely by the performances of Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young. Turner made the leap to elite-level status and, on a relative bargain of a contract, the talented center projects as a key cog for Indiana, both for this season and beyond. Young isn’t walking through that door, though, as the veteran power forward inked a deal in Chicago. Young’s lack of dynamic ability on the ball and questions about the team’s floor-spacing with him on the floor made him a tricky fit offensively, but he is a tremendous defensive player. Without him, it is hard to envision the Pacers replicating a top-three, or even top-five, defensive unit.
Young wasn’t the only piece that the Pacers lost in the offseason, as Bojan Bogdanovic signed a lucrative four-year deal with the Utah Jazz. At first blush, it may seem as if Indiana can replace most of Bogdanovic’s production with the acquisition of Warren, but Bogdanovic was fantastic for the Pacers last season. In addition to his underrated defensive contributions, Bogdanovic led the team in minutes and was comfortably its leading scorer when removing Oladipo from the equation. The 6’8 forward averaged a career-best 18 points per game, and beyond that, Bogdanovic posted an off-the-charts true shooting percentage of 61 percent. That kind of two-way impact was enormous in propelling the Pacers and, even if Warren and Lamb provide real contributions, it is tough to envision any combination of the two fully standing in for what Bogdanovic produced last season.
In an overall sense, the absence of Young defensively and Bogdanovic on both ends is significant. To a lesser extent, Indiana’s point guard rotation could conceivably take a step back as well, even if Brogdon is a good player worthy of the $80 million he received from the team. The Pacers received strong performances from Darren Collison and Cory Joseph last year. While Brogdon is better than either player on his own, his pairing with Aaron Holiday could constitute a closer facsimile to what happened last season, rather than a substantial upgrade.
It would be aggressive to simply project the roster to be as good as it was a year ago, especially when factoring in the reality that Indiana lost three of its top-5 players in terms of minutes. Even with Turner providing strong anchor play and a cast of largely solid defenders, the Pacers don’t project as a top-five defense. With every caveat involving Oladipo on the table, it isn’t hard to see a replication of a below-average offense for lengthy stretches this season.
There are arguments in favor of the Pacers, though, including more time on the court for Domantas Sabonis. Aside from Oladipo’s status, perhaps the single biggest national talking point with Indiana is the team’s big man conundrum, with many believing Sabonis is best used at center. The former Gonzaga star will hit free agency next summer and, if an adequate fit is not found between Sabonis and Turner, it would be perilous for Indiana to invest another large contract in the frontcourt. The Pacers did find a possible gem in rookie big man Goga Bitadze but, ultimately, a lot of the team’s success this season could stem from how the Sabonis-Turner pairing actually works on a larger scale.
Offensively, the Pacers have fun pieces, with Warren able to create his own shot, Brogdon providing all kinds of steady play in the backcourt, and players like Lamb and Doug McDermott bringing floor spacing to the table. Turner is a useful offensive player and Sabonis has shown the ability to bludgeon second units. It is still fair to question Indiana’s overall upside and consistency on that end of the floor regardless of Oladipo’s ability to play.
On the defensive end, Turner is elite and the combination with Sabonis could be tantalizing, particularly against starting units that don’t feature prominent small ball looks. The loss of Young, and to a lesser extent Bogdanovic, absolutely hurts, and the upside just isn’t there with Warren, Lamb, and other options. In fact, Indiana might have an active problem checking twos, threes, and fours until Oladipo returns, with real uncertainty aside from Sabonis at the power forward spot. Can Warren take on a prominent role? Is Lamb ready to be the No. 1 wing? Can they get anything from McDermott and Justin Holiday?
Provided Oladipo returns at some point this season, the Pacers should end up as a top-eight team in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps that would not be the case if he missed the year, but as long as he plays, the relative weakness at the bottom of the East should get them in. Still, there is a sharp difference between battling for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and battling for the No. 8 seed and, unfortunately for the Pacers, it is easy to see how they’ll be closer to the latter this time around.