The Indiana Pacers have been trying to move for awhile. After their mostly Paul George-less 2014-15 season had them miss the playoffs for the first time in four years, it was clear that the team had lost whatever momentum built up over the brief era of defensive dominance and pushing LeBron James to the brink.
That summer, Larry Bird traded Roy Hibbert and watched David West depart for the Spurs. He put the onus on Frank Vogel to play at a faster pace and publicly proposed the idea of Paul George playing power forward — an idea that George, only a year removed from a gruesome leg injury, wasn’t exactly wild about.
All those moves turned out to be more hand-waving than ground-covering. The team improved but couldn’t recover what they had lost in their slide down from two-time Eastern Conference Finalist. Frank Vogel was let go in exchange for a coach, who, it’s worth mentioning, had achieved considerable offensive success at the helm of one of the slowest offenses in recent memory. George, possibly antagonized by Bird’s haphazard planning and certainly by the team’s step back, let it be known that he was done in Indiana and the rest of the Blue Collar, Gold Swagger Pacers were dismantled. Even Bird ended up taking a hike.
And then Victor Oladipo arrived. The Pacers haven’t stopped moving since.
Of all his impressive basketball qualities, Oladipo’s movement is the most striking. He is quite literally all over the court — only George and Jrue Holiday averaged more ground covered on defense per game; Oladipo ranked in the top-20 at the other end of the floor as well. His swarming defense, aggressive transition pushes and relentless drives helped set the tone Indiana’s offense and defense last season. And it’s not just functional — he is a perpetually coiled spring, waiting to explode. That aesthetic is infectious.
For a team that was in desperate need of productive motion, Oladipo finally provided it.
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Oladipo has played exactly one season of basketball for the Pacers but it already feels like he’s one of the most important players in franchise history. To be fair, his single Pacers season was one of the ten-best in franchise history by VORP, a list that is otherwise dominated by Reggie Miller and Paul George.
Miller is the most significant player in the history of the Pacers. George was heading towards a singular hold on second place but the way he left things in Indiana didn’t do him any favors in the organizational legacy department. These sorts of questions — legacy, historical importance, emotional weight — are admittedly abstract, divorced to some degree from what happens on the court. But the how and why Oladipo matters so much, emotionally, to the organization, especially in comparison to George is an apt lens for examining where, exactly, the Pacers are right now.
This wasn’t supposed to be Oladipo’s team. These were still supposed to be George’s Pacers. When he let the team know last summer that he was planning on exploring free agency their hand was forced and the front office landed on a trade with the Thunder. While the Pacers were surely intrigued by Oladipo’s potential, the idea that the expected what they got last year — 100 cents on the dollar for George — strains credulity.
The surprising production of Oladipo and the success of last year’s team led to a quick pivot. Along with Oladipo, the Pacers brought in Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic last season, both of whom were on deals only partially guaranteed for 2018. Along with Thad Young’s player option, the Pacers were set-up to make trades and shed contracts if they needed to. Instead, Young, Bogdanovic and Collison will all likely be in the 2018-19 Opening Night startling lineup, with Tyreke Evans, Kyle O’Quinn and Doug McDermott coming off the bench for roughly $25 million combined.
Many Pacers played well last year, but Oladipo’s star turn was the pivot point. One of the greatest seasons in franchise history has sent the Pacers down a very specific path. It is not completely defined — Cory Joseph, Evans, Collison, Bogdanovic, Young and Quinn will all be free agents this coming summer. There will be plenty of room for the Pacers to pivot again if need be.
Team-building is a an exercise is constant motion. Even the most short-sighted moves have long-term ramifications that will have to be accommodated and adjusted for — it’s an infinite line of falling dominos looping around a Penrose staircase. But where they are and where they are heading right now is because Oladipo arrived at a moment of pause and pushed them forward.
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Other than the some additional impact in the defensive counting stats department, there wasn’t much to separate Oladipo’s breakout campaign from peak George but the aesthetics of Oladipo were so much more satisfying. George always seemed to be conserving energy, moving just as far and as fast as he needed to. That’s not to say he could have played harder, but it looked that way sometimes, while no one would ever accuse of Oladipo of banking a single joule of kinetic energy for future expenditure. And there was the emotional import. George’s Pacers had stagnated, butting up against expectations. Oladipo desperately did want to be there, and his Pacers blew past their late August Vegas line of 31.5 wins.
Even when the Pacers were peaking a half-decade ago, the defining qualities of that team were of a static nature. Their offense was shaped by intentionality, with an accompanying and sometimes self-defeating stillness. Their trademark defense wasn’t built on swarming movement, but stationary obstinance — in the parlance of Stan Van Gundy, they built en effin wall, from the floor to the tips of of Roy Hibbert’s perfectly vertical fingers. George was as emblematic of that as anyone — a barrier on offense and often contributing to a stall out on offense.
These Oladipo-led Pacers may not have been what that team’s front office had in mind when they first pivoted off of the old plan three years ago. And it probably wasn’t even what they had in mind last summer (at least not this fully formed) when they started putting pieces together. But it checks the boxes. On the court, they play a style that has motion and energy at its heart. The team has gotten better and in a way that is both visually and emotionally compelling.
And for that, they have Victor Oladipo to thank.