The Indiana Pacers And The Challenges Of Rebuilding Without Tearing Down

There is something admirable about the Indiana Pacers. As a franchise — with players, coaches, and executives coming in and out — they have only missed the playoffs five times since 2000. They’ve done so without landing a high pick in the Draft (Paul George at 10 is their highest pick since 1989), and were successfully able to transition from the Paul George era to the Victor Oladipo era with little drop-off, which few thought possible.

That level of consistency — even if it hasn’t yielded a title — is difficult. By comparison, their divisional neighbor in Cleveland has only had a pulse when LeBron James suited up for the team over the last two decades. For a variety of reasons, the Pacers have avoided that fate, but this path — no bottoming out, playing the middle on purpose — eliminates the margin for error when it comes time to turn the roster over.

The two ways to build a championship roster in the NBA are, broadly speaking, having stars come to your team (whether that be in free agency or trades) and lottery luck. The former isn’t happening in Indianapolis. The latter has been off the table by virtue of their playoff consistency. Building in-between is extremely difficult, and the 2021 Pacers are feeling those pains as they go through their latest transformation.

Right now, the Pacers are 10th in the Eastern Conference at 30-35, reaching a new low point on Wednesday when they lost to the Kings by 11. Sacramento was on the second night of a back-to-back and without De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. They are tied with Washington, which owns the tiebreaker with Indiana, and are likely to finish at the bottom of the play-in. In terms of net rating, they are exactly even and 18th overall, just a tad below even. That’s fine and, in the East, probably good enough to at least make the play-in year after year, but there is a bit of a hard ceiling on what this version of the franchise can accomplish.

How Indiana got to this point is the byproduct of some unfortunate missteps and even more unfortunate injuries. After just one year, it seems like coach Nate Bjorkgren could be on the way out. Hiring him made plenty of sense — he’s a Nick Nurse disciple who promised a more modern offense when compared to what Nate McMillan, now thriving in Atlanta, designed. But it hasn’t worked out for, apparently, a variety of reasons, chief of which being that he has been able to take hold of the locker room. The internal dysfunction was on display in Wednesday’s loss to the Kings, with Pacers assistant Greg Foster having to be held back from second-year big man Goga Bitadze during a timeout.

Those frustrations are the product of losing, and the Pacers are losing in part due to stagnation. A major reason why the Pacers have remained relevant in recent years is getting good return in trades. Turning Paul George into Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, for example, quickly led to a new All-Star core for a dangerous mid-seed in the East. Making savvy moves when able (or, in the case of George, forced) has allowed the Pacers to keep moving forward, and the value that comes from being able to do this cannot be overstated.

In theory, that should have happened with Myles Turner. For whatever reason — maybe the market wasn’t there, maybe Indiana was asking for too much — that hasn’t happened despite years of speculation that he could be on the way out. Trading Turner is perhaps the cleanest way to get another ball-handler and fully embrace the benefits of Sabonis at the five. Holding onto him prevents a possible evolution.

There were benefits to the Sabonis-Turner pairing. That duo was elite defensively in 2018-19, elite again in 2019-20, and have been solid so far this season. Maybe this happened because teams started to figure out the pairing and how to attack it with more success. Maybe it’s scheme changes from McMillan to Bjorkgren, who has tinkered more this year than McMillan ever did. Maybe it’s just a grind of a season eating away at the Pacers, which have been hammered by injuries, and causing a drop-off.

Whatever the reason, Indiana is going to have decide whether or not those two can be elite together again or if there’s a way around it. If the promise of Bjorkgren had been realized — increased offensive flow, more three-pointers, etc. — this might not matter quite as much. But that hasn’t happened and the Pacers need to weigh whether it’s worth it to try and put the pieces back in place under a new coach.

To be fair to the Pacers, they reportedly tried to lean into more of an offense-first mindset by exploring a Turner-for-Gordon Hayward swap over the summer. But the Hornets came in, offered Hayward way more money than anyone else on the market, and a possible sign-and-trade with the Celtics — the only way to bring Hayward in and make the salary cap math work — fell through.

Hayward offered a change in approach that makes sense. Another ball-handler with Sabonis at the five offered something that not only fits the modern NBA, but also probably fits what Bjorkgren wanted to do. Plus, it would allow for Bitadze — who the team used a first-round pick on and has barely played in two seasons — to get more acclimated to the rotation and let them see if he was a piece of their future. While the jury is still out on Bitadze, the Pacers have also not helped themselves by missing on the vast majority of their picks in recent years. The last player they drafted that became a starter was Turner in 2015, and only Aaron Holiday (2018) has been a consistent rotation player. Their most most recent first-round pick (Cassius Stanley) has played in only 21 games and had his best moment of the season in the dunk contest.

Being unable to fill out depth with late first and second round picks has limited their down-the-bench depth and exacerbated issues they’ve faced with injuries, which have been a major part of their unraveling this season. They also haven’t hit on G League developmental pieces a la the Raptors to fill out the roster and mask Draft misses.

Oladipo getting hurt after he hit his All-NBA apex was entirely out of their hands. He was the closest thing they had to a franchise player and his quad injury changed his career. By the time he wanted out, there was no gigantic return waiting and, to give credit to them, given what Houston got for him at the deadline, landing Caris LeVert for Oladipo seems like a serious value. T.J. Warren hardly playing this year after being one of the stars of the Bubble is another unfortunate break that has taken needed punch out of the offense. Turner’s recent foot injury sealed their fate of limping to the finish line this season.

But unlucky breaks are also part of life in the NBA. Every single team has injuries and bad bounces that impact their seasons in ways they don’t expect. The very best teams in the league are good enough to be insulated from those mistakes, while others can take a season like this and look to the future. The Pacers don’t have the depth to weather their injury woes and don’t have the young players to throw minutes at. They are stuck right in the middle. There’s no padding for the fall.

Maybe, in their heart of hearts, the Pacers really thought Sabonis and Turner could work under a new coach who would modernize the offense. Instead, that hasn’t worked thus far, and they’ve chosen to roll with more established younger players like LeVert and their only real big-money signing in recent years, Malcolm Brogdon.

LeVert is good and offers needed ball-handling and scoring, but he’s a level below a franchise level player. Indiana has benefited from his ability to handle the ball, but LeVert is probably best suited as a No. 2 who can take the reins with bench units instead of a player who boasts one of the highest usage rates among wings, but is not particularly efficient. That’s a really useful player to have, but it’s not enough to change what the team is, especially when Brogdon fits a similar mold. The upside on LeVert isn’t as a high as if Indiana were able to end up with a top-five pick for one year. Not every rebuild needs to be a full-on, Thunder style tank where the losing is blatantly, shamelessly intentional. But it helps considerably to get a chance at a player or two who could be that guy.

Look at how a franchise in a similar market like the Grizzlies pivoted, turning franchise pillars in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol into picks and endured one miserable season to get near the top of the lottery. Their first reward was Jaren Jackson Jr. and then some of that needed lottery luck to jump up and be able to take Ja Morant, but they also nailed their non-lottery picks as well, filling out their roster with young, productive players. Now, they have the potential to make a real run again sometime soon. Had they just held on, the future would certainly not look as bright.

There’s something admirable about being able to pivot from era to era and be something resembling competent and competitive year after year. It would not be a shock if a Sabonis, LeVert, and Brogdon-led team next year settles in as a top-seven seed in the East and is a pain to play in the first round, because this is just what Indiana does. At best, maybe things break right and they end up with home court advantage in the first round one year. That’s better than a lot of franchises ever do.

Having a defined floor of competitiveness is a worthy cause to strive for. The Pacers do seem content to be solid and hope the right string of moves kickstarts a deep playoff run. This has worked before — the George-era Pacers came close. But that can also put a limit on how high your ceiling can be, even if it means never going all the way to the bottom.

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