Indiana Pacers, NBA, NBA Free Agency

Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo are an ideal match for the Pacers

The newly-signed Malcolm Brogdon could make for an ideal running mate with Victor Oladipo, once the All-Star returns from a season-ending quad injury.

The Indiana Pacers, of all teams, made one of the earliest splashes of free agency Sunday night, signing Malcolm Brogdon to a four-year, $85 million deal via sign-and-trade with the Milwaukee Bucks. There was always the possibility that the Bucks would be forced to cut bait with at least one starter from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals team, and after re-signing Brook Lopez (four years, $52 million) and Khris Middleton (five years, $178 million), Milwaukee’s path toward retaining Brogdon became murky almost as soon as free agency began.

But if his future on the Bucks was untenable, Brogdon could hardly have found a better alternative than Indiana, and the Pacers would be hard-pressed to find a more natural backcourt partner for Victor Oladipo. With the two-time All-Star sidelined for the start of next season, the Pacers found someone capable of steadying the team in the meantime and seamlessly slotting in next to Oladipo when he returns.

After an All-NBA season in 2018, Oladipo struggled last year to fully shoulder the weight of being a first option. He blossomed as a playmaker, but found lanes to the basket and open shots harder to come by as opposing defenses’ primary focus. A season-ending quad injury mandates recalibration of expectations for Oladipo moving forward, but any version of him close to peak form will benefit immensely from playing alongside Brogdon. Oladipo’s absence in Indiana’s postseason loss to the Celtics laid bare just how few creators his team had as the Pacers’ offense spent possession after possession spinning its wheels. Brogdon — and potentially Jeremy Lamb, who joined the team on a three-year, $31 million deal — should help remedy that by prying open avenues to the basket and stretching the defense thin enough that others might do the same.

Brogdon isn’t a star, but that’s precisely the point. He keeps an offense moving at just the right pace and augments his teammates’ strengths by filling the gaps that they can’t without taking up so many possessions that those strengths become mitigated. In lineups heavy on shooting, he can be a catalyst; replace shooters with slashers, and he’ll gladly space the floor and act as a secondary creator. Brogdon has increased his production and efficiency every year of his career and was the only player in the NBA to post 50-40-90 shooting splits last season. He was a critical part of Milwaukee’s offensive overhaul — and by extension, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s tour de force — and emerged as the Bucks’ second-best option attacking a seemingly impenetrable Raptors defense.

Defensively, his size allows him to blanket scorers across three positions, which will allow Nate McMillan to place more shooting on the floor in small lineups with Brogdon on the wing. Indiana prefers to deploying Oladipo as a disruptor away from the ball rather than an irritant on it (though he’s perfectly capable of playing either role) and having Brogdon scurry over screens or hound wings at the point of attack doesn’t compromise that tactic. Brogdon isn’t quite the playmaker on either end of the ball Oladipo has become, but his steadiness on both makes him as close to an ideal fit as Indiana could have hoped to acquire. Their combined size, versatility and physicality will be enough to overwhelm opponents on some nights and punch back on others. Both handle and shoot the ball well enough to initiate or finish possessions, depending on the situation.

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The challenge will be in finding where those opportunities come from in a new offense predicated upon entirely different philosophies. The Pacers won’t be working with the degree of floor spacing Milwaukee did last season, nor do they have an individual player nearly as dominant as Antetokounmpo. The frontcourt tandem of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis will cut down real estate — even if Turner has shown flashes of the type of shooting Brook Lopez provided for Milwaukee last season. While Brogdon will serve to unclutter the offense, he likely won’t have as much space of his own with which to work. He’s more comfortable attacking closeouts or otherwise scrambling defenses off of secondary actions than simply attacking his defender straight up. That could prove limiting to the Pacers’ offense — particularly as they await Oladipo’s return.

Making matters trickier are the departures of defensive chameleon Thaddeus Young and sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović, both of whom played central roles in Indiana’s playoff run after Oladipo went down. Between the room exception and its remaining cap space, the Pacers have around $10 million to build out the rest of its roster in free agency. After that, they’ll wait for their star to return to the court, and only then will they find out what they really have.

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