Only three holdovers remain from the roster the Indiana Pacers entered the 2021-22 season sporting: Myles Turner, T.J. McConnell, and Isaiah Jackson. The fourth-longest-turned Pacer is a tie between Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield, both of whom came from the Sacramento Kings in a February 2022 deal centered around Domantas Sabonis that signaled a directional pivot for the franchise.
Since then, Indiana’s further remade itself, sending out the likes of Caris LeVert, Malcolm Brogdon, and Chris Duarte. In their stead stand Andrew Nembhard, Bennedict Mathurin, and Bruce Brown. The former two were selected in the 2022 Draft and sparkled during the rookie campaigns. The latter agreed to a two-year, $45 million with the Pacers during the initial minutes of this summer’s free agency period.
Over the past two weeks, Indiana has also addressed its hole at power forward in contrasting ways. With the seventh overall pick, it selected Jarace Walker, a multifaceted defender touting an intriguing package of offensive skills. A week later, it acquired Obi Toppin from the New York Knicks in exchange for a pair of future second-rounders.
For long stretches last season, the Pacers started Aaron Nesmith at the 4. Nesmith, who stands 6’5, learned to embrace the role, but the lack of a legitimate power forward often reared its head against big wings and towering frontcourts. Now, they have two dudes best suited at that position rather than requiring ingenuity to fill the gig. Lackluster point-of-attack and wing defense seemed to overextend Turner in 2022-23. Brown and Walker can help.
Presumably, the heart of their 2023-24 rotation will feature Haliburton, Nembhard, Brown, Hield, Mathurin, Walker, Toppin, and Turner. That’s a pretty enticing group. Five of them are 25 or younger and still on rookie deals, giving Indiana the chance to retain them long-term, which began when Haliburton inked a five-year extension last week. The other three (Brown, Hield, and Turner) are all good NBA players. A copacetic, harmonic roster is being built, particularly on offense.
The perimeter quintet of Haliburton, Brown, Nembhard, Hield, and Mathurin complement one another well. Brown’s a rugged, sprightly slasher and finisher who grew more comfortable with his outside jumper last season. Haliburton’s a premier shooter who progressed tremendously as a driver last season. Both are adept off the ball and excel processing timely reads in advantageous situations. Nembhard is a platonic ancillary ball-handler whose passing vision and quick trigger from deep let him slot in next to accomplished creators. Hield is a nomad off-ball shooter who will traverse around screens until his legs are Jell-O.
Mathurin loves fashioning space off the ball and finding lanes downhill with deceptive footwork, at which point he steamrolls through defenders to finish or draw fouls. He’s a young player who has room to grow, though, and must keep improving his discretion at the rim and decision-making as a ball-handler to elevate his scoring ceiling. The Pacers’ cast of guards ensure the second point can develop patiently. He will not be forced to accrue on-ball reps simply to gauge his readiness at the expense of other skills and foundational players. He will earn those organically.
The open floor synergy of all five, given their blend of shooting, passing, creativity, downhill gusto, and understanding of space, is tantalizing. Last season, they ranked fourth in transition frequency (17.3 percent) and second in points per 100 possessions (133.6). Make or miss, they constantly pushed to catch the defense unorganized and pounce on that discombobulation. Watching a wunderkind like Haliburton dance through ill-prepared defenders and schemes was delightful. It’ll only be better next year alongside the Pacers’ key roster additions.
Among those key roster additions is Toppin, who fits aptly into this turbocharged, open floor ethos, which represents a distinct style from the Knicks, a team that finished 29th, 22nd, and 17th in transition rate during his three seasons there. He’s a bouncy finisher who’s converted 71 percent of his career shots around the hoop, loves dashing behind defenders as a cutter and has flashed drive-and-go ability off the catch. Haliburton-Toppin pick-and-rolls flanked by three credible marksmen should be good for a highlight at least once a week. All the different avenues through which Haliburton will deliver Toppin a seamless slam will be worth tallying.
I eagerly await how head coach Rick Carlisle deploys Toppin, Turner, and Walker offensively, with their wide-ranging, divergent skill-sets. Double Drag involving Haliburton as the conductor, Toppin diving to the rim, and Turner drifting beyond the arc should be a staple of the early offense emphasis that fuels them. Indiana is piloted by a creative engine in Haliburton and cunning tactician in Carlisle, who’s provided optimal roles for various integral players.
Haliburton’s ascent accelerated what some expected to be a tricky rebuild in a small market and it’s been complemented by shrewd roster decisions. Instead, they’ll be among the many Eastern Conference teams rightfully eyeing the postseason next year. They shored up deficiencies that don’t interfere with the long-term core and even amplify it in certain regards.
Before Haliburton missed 10 consecutive games, the Pacers were 23-19 and tied for sixth in the East. When he sat out, they tumbled to 24-28 and 10th. This should be a competitive, jigsaw group next season, in large part because of the moves made over the past 16 months. And that competitiveness won’t preclude them from continuing to prioritize Haliburton’s prime, which is increasingly on the horizon. Finding the right primary initiator is among the most critical and strenuous parts of any roster construction. Haliburton, fresh off his 22-year-old season averaging 21 and 10 on 62 percent true shooting, is as good a bet as any.
Turner quietly just averaged 18-7-2 on 65 percent true shooting and added layers to his interior scoring repertoire last year. Mathurin is a keen off-ball mover, foul-line menace (.477 free throw rate), and intrepid slasher who only hit 32.6 percent of his threes as a rookie after burying 38.3 percent in two years at Arizona — it’s not guaranteed, but positive regression wouldn’t be a surprise. There are areas to address, but the outline of a rather ideal secondary scorer alongside Haliburton took shape, reinforced by his 16.7 points per game in year one. Nembhard’s pick-and-roll savvy pops. A fresh start and expanded role could be the launching point needed for Toppin, who’s long exhibited promise. Walker’s two-way allure is evident.
This is the Funky Bunch Pacers armed with a clear direction. They’re headlined by one of the league’s brightest young stars and accumulating proper secondary talent around him. Right now, the vision is logical and joyful, and it shouldn’t take too long for that to turn into on-court success.