The Indiana Pacers have lost in the first round of the playoffs four years in a row. Looking for a higher ceiling, they gave up some of the continuity they had previously placed a premium on.
Getting to know the Indiana Pacers isn’t a daunting vetting process. Monitor them for a season or two and you will have a pretty good idea of how they operate. They value defense perhaps more than every other NBA team, even if it comes at a cost to modern offensive style. Shot quality, not quantity, is a key focus of the offense. Operating in a small market, they will look for value at any and every turn.
Indiana has been rewarded for this line of thinking. Dating back to the 2010-11 campaign, the Pacers have made the playoffs eight of nine seasons, finishing with 48 or more wins four times. When considering playoff success, the Pacers have also capped themselves out at a fairly low ceiling. They have lost in the first round five times — including the last four seasons in a row.
Indiana’s high-point of the last decade came in the 2013 playoffs when they pushed the Miami Heat to seven games but lost in Game 7 by 23 points. Since then, the Pacers have stuck to the same line of thinking but found less success. David West got older, Roy Hibbert’s impact faded, and Paul George’s was injured and then asked out. They have chosen to reload over rebuild but things just haven’t worked as well.
Trading a first-rounder for Thaddeus Young, an excellent defender and efficient post scorer, was a worthwhile gamble. So was flipping George Hill, a good defender with an inconsistent offensive game, for Jeff Teague. When that team lost in a four-game sweep at the hands of LeBron James’s Cavaliers, four starters — Teague, Monta Ellis, Ian Mahinmi, and Paul George — left via free agency or trade.
Larry Bird, the team’s lead-basketball decision-maker, left as well. Long-time executive Kevin Pritchard took over, having to piece together a lineup around Young and sophomore Myles Turner — the only incumbent starters. His best chance at adding a star to the lineup was by trading the one he already had.
George was shipped off to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
Both of these players fell right in line with Indiana’s typical thinking. Oladipo was a proven scorer and defender but wasn’t quite consistent enough at either to be taken too seriously. His four-year, $84 million extension represented expected future production over what he had shown up to that point.
Sabonis was just a year removed from being a lottery pick but seemed to be more of a high-floor, low-ceiling player, the kind many teams look at as a Plan B option. This was a trade that many around the league thought was bad — even terrible — for the Pacers. Pritchard added Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Cory Joseph to shape-out the rest of the rotation.
The Pacers trod water for the first three months of the season, struggling to get more than four games over .500. They went on a run in the second half of the season, however, finishing 48-34. In the playoffs, the franchise gave LeBron James its best-ever run — taking him to seven games in the first round and ending the series with a plus-30 point-differential despite losing.
This was no moral victory for Indiana. Pushing LeBron to the limit was entertaining but ultimately fruitless. They believed in the roster, however, and ran it back — while also bringing in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott.The roster had the upside of 50-plus wins and a top-two seed in the East. They got close, winning 48 games again and earning the fifth seed. Indiana’s season was over once Oladipo went down with a season-ending knee injury, though. The Pacers, led by Bogdanovic, kept chugging in the regular season and matched their previous season’s record.
But, of course, Boston swept them in the first round.
Pritchard knew exactly what his roster was capable of — pushing 50 wins and giving a better team a good challenge in the first round with a puncher’s chance at winning. Some teams around the league would take this outcome every season over perennial lottery appearances.
Indiana showed this offseason they were ready to leave that path, one they have been walking fervently for nearly a decade.
As mentioned earlier, the Pacers’ best shot at improving was by making a leap on the offensive end of the floor in one way or another. Outside of Oladipo and Bogdanovic, Indiana has lacked true shot creators the past two seasons. Pritchard did his best to amend this issue, adding T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb to the roster.
“Their ability to score, to create offense — not only for themselves but for teammates — is exactly what you need in this league at this time,” head coach Nate McMillan said at an introductory press conference for Warren and Lamb.
While Indiana stepped out of its comfort zone a bit with these additions, letting solid veterans walk and replacing them with more offensive-geared players, they still followed their blueprint of prioritizing undervalued players. Warren, an undeniably good three-level scorer, was sent to Indiana along with the No. 32 overall pick in the draft from Phoenix. The Suns essentially paid the Pacers to take a player that may start for them. Lamb, signed for three years, $31.5 million, was a major bargain according to some metrics.
Their largest addition, Malcolm Brogdon, wasn’t as much of a bargain (four-years, $85 million, plus a first- and two second-round picks sent to Milwaukee in sign-and-trade). Brogdon was more of a classic Pacers target — a good-defending combo guard that isn’t great at creating shots for himself. Next to Oladipo, though, he should be in the perfect spot — shooting 3s off the catch, attacking closeouts, and locking down the perimeter defensively. He’s also one of the biggest free agents the Pacers have ever signed.
While the main suspects (Oladipo, Turner, and Sabonis) still remain, the roster surrounding them looks quite different. Instead of the steady, reliable production they’ve had the past two seasons, Pritchard is riding variance to give the roster a higher upside. Variance, of course, has a positive and negative end. Abandoning the status quo could be a costly mistake for the Pacers. After two consecutive first-round exits under Pritchard, though, going all-in on a new idea may be worth a shot no matter the outcome.