There was a thought that the Indiana Pacers might be in a holding pattern to start this season. Yes, the Pacers had a meaningful talent infusion with Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, and Jeremy Lamb, but they also lost Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young. More importantly, Indiana started the year without Victor Oladipo, and it was unclear when he would return from a ruptured right quad tendon suffered in January of 2019.
Instead of feeling out what their team would look like, the Pacers have instead begun this season on a tear. They are 21-10, tied for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, and have still yet to welcome back Oladipo. They have capitalized on a relatively soft opening schedule (their schedule strength is 22nd, per ESPN’s rankings) and have been a dominant home team (14-3). Indiana is sitting pretty as the calendar turns to 2020, but there are still things the Pacers can hope for in the new year.
#1: A Healthy Oladipo
Oladipo took the league by storm when he first arrived in Indiana, as he instantly became one of the best guards in the Eastern Conference. Even with Brogdon’s ascent as the Pacers’ lead guard, the team still doesn’t have a perimeter creator with Oladipo’s athleticism. That’s why the number one item on Indiana’s holiday wishlist is a healthy return for their best player. The seventh-year guard is targeting a return before the All-Star Break, which would give him about a year of recovery time. He has been practicing with the Pacers’ G-League team, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as he works his way back.
The pairing of Oladipo with Brogdon in the backcourt is a tantalizing prospect for the Pacers. The team’s primary difficulty in their 2018 playoff series against Cleveland (other than LeBron James being LeBron James) was the lack of a secondary creator next to Oladipo. Darren Collison proved too limited, but Brogdon is certainly more capable. He has been the primary engine of the offense this season, but likely a little overtaxed in that role given the nicks he has suffered over the course of the season. Nevertheless, Brogdon would be well suited to play next to Oladipo, and the Pacers’ ceiling with that perimeter tandem is as good as any second-tier contender in the East.
Once Oladipo is back, the Pacers should also consider replacing their existing mascot with Thingamajig for the rest of the season.
#2: Clarity at the center position
The Pacers have two centers who deserve to be starting for a playoff team: Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. As a result, they start together even though neither is really a power forward. Turner’s injuries have cleared the way for Sabonis to excel as the lone big for much of this season, but Indiana still needs to figure out whether this is a realistic frontcourt of the future.
The Pacers have a point differential of plus-8.3 with both Turner and Sabonis on the court this year, per Cleaning the Glass. That jumps to plus-10.1 with Sabonis and no Turner, but drops to minus-10.9 with Turner and no Sabonis. Turner has the higher defensive ceiling and theoretical three-point range, but Sabonis’ production (17.8 points and 13.5 rebounds per game) has dwarfed Turner’s (12.1 points and 5.7 rebounds). A potential trade could resolve the logjam, but the Pacers need clarity. They can try to win now, and considering Oladipo and Brogdon’s ages and histories, they probably shouldn’t wait. They have to figure out which of Sabonis or Turner can help them be successful in the present.
#3: More three-point shooting
Indiana isn’t a bad three-point shooting team, but the Pacers could stand to improve their frequency. They take the fewest threes of any team in the league other than San Antonio, and like the Spurs, the Pacers love their long mid-range twos. Warren and Lamb are mid-range artists, and certainly appreciate the freedom Nate McMillan’s offense affords them to take the kind of jumpers they like, but Indiana’s offense could use some extra juice. Getting the two wings, and Brogdon, to take a few steps back when they shoot could turn the Pacers into a real Eastern Conference threat.