Are the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are more serious threat in the Eastern Conference than most expected heading into the 2019-20 NBA season?
Before the season began, it seemed like there were three or four inner-circle contenders in the Eastern Conference. There were the Milwaukee Bucks, who won 60 games last season and nearly went to the NBA Finals. There were the Philadelphia 76ers, who nearly beat the Toronto Raptors in the second round and added Al Horford and Josh Richardson. There were the Boston Celtics, who disappointed in the playoffs but swapped out Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker in search of better chemistry. And there were the Raptors, who won the title but lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency.
Milwaukee has separated itself from the other three teams early in the season, jumping out to a completely absurd 27-4 record that damn near puts the Bucks on pace to break the all-time single-season wins record. Questions remain about whether Mike Budenholzer will be willing to make adjustments to his style or to play his starters the kind of minutes that other playoff teams do, but they look like a pretty heavy favorite at the moment.
The Bucks have a five-game lead over the next-closest team in the Eastern Conference (the 20-7 Celtics), but instead of just that trio sitting behind them, it’s actually a five-pack of teams separated by just a game and a half in the standings. In addition to Boston, Toronto (21-8) and Philadelphia (21-10), the Miami Heat (21-8) and Indiana Pacers (20-10) have joined the party. Given the state of affairs at the moment, it feels appropriate to make the case regarding whether the Heat or the Pacers are the bigger threat to the teams considered during the preseason to be the East’s elite.
The case for the Heat
In Jimmy Butler, Miami has the best player on either of these two teams. That’s especially true when you consider that Butler is healthy at the moment, while Victor Oladipo is still working his way back from a significant knee injury and is unlikely to be at full strength even upon his return. In the context of determining which team will be more of a factor come playoff time, having the best player matters a great deal. That can be an equalizer or even determinative within a small sample like a seven-game series.
In Erik Spoelstra, the Heat also have the better coach between the two teams. We’ve seen Spo shapeshift his system to fit the talent on hand several times during his tenure in Miami at this point, and he has shown an innate ability to get more out of his players than it seems like they have to offer — whether those players are stars or end-of-bench guys the Heat picked up for nothing and turned into rotation players. None of this is to say Nate McMillan is a bad coach; he’s quite good, and he’s been even better than that in Indiana. But there’s a reason Spo is talked about alongside the best in the league while McMillan is not.
In addition to having the best player and the better coach, Miami also has more ammo to go out and make a significant addition via trade. The Heat have sizable contracts that make a move for almost any star a possibility, and while a few of them (James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk) run beyond this year, Goran Dragic‘s $19.2 million salary is an expiring, and so is Meyers Leonard‘s $11.3 million deal. It seems unlikely that Miami would be willing to include either Bam Adebayo or Tyler Herro in such a deal given their development and importance to the way the team works, but they do have Justise Winslow, Derrick Jones Jr., and even KZ Okpala to add to the pile. The one drawback here is that Miami cannot trade a first-round pick before 2025, due to its having sent out its 2021 and 2023 picks in previous trades.
Oh, and then there’s Bam. The breakout season he’s having appears very, very real, and he is easily the most versatile big man on either of these teams. He combines the best aspects of Myles Turner (space defense) and Domantas Sabonis (offensive versatility), really, and he’s a significantly better athlete than either of them. Essentially the only thing he doesn’t do is shoot 3s, but when a big man can do just about everything else, that matters a bit less. His push shot floater in the lane has been a huge development in terms of making Miami’s pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off heavy offense hum, and the development of his passing both on short rolls and in the open floor has been even more important.
All of these advantages have led to Miami just having the better resume right now — even if only slightly. The two teams have an identical per-game point differential at the moment, but Miami has played a slightly tougher schedule and therefore fares better in SRS, Basketball-Reference’s rating system that adjusts margin of victory for strength of opponent. Miami also has the better offense (albeit only by 1.5 points per 100 possessions), and in the modern NBA, that’s the more important side of the floor.
The case for the Pacers
All that being said, the Pacers have managed to nearly match the Heat in every significant category despite playing this entire season so far with their best player on the sideline. In addition to Oladipo missing all 30 of the team’s games, Jeremy Lamb had missed 10, Myles Turner has missed eight, Malcolm Brogdon has missed four, and Domantas Sabonis, Aaron Holiday, and T.J. McConnell have all missed two. This is a team that has not yet played its best five players at the same time all year. The only players that have appeared in every game are T.J. Warren, Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott.
With Oladipo’s return on the horizon, we already know the Pacers will be getting a significant talent injection — and without having to make a trade where they might sacrifice a significant rotation piece or two, which would presumably have to be the case were the Heat to find a roster upgrade of their own. When we last saw Oladipo at full health, he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and he made both First Team All-Defense and Third Team All-NBA. He’s incredibly likely to be the best player either team adds to its current rotation between now and the playoffs.
Even in Oladipo’s absence, the Pacers are still getting excellent guard play. Malcolm Brogdon has slowed down just a bit from his start to the season that was frankly a little bit scary, but he has still taken a significant step forward in terms of his ability to create offense for himself and others compared to where he was in Milwaukee. Whether that step is because he is simply being asked to do more in Indiana than he ever was with the Bucks or because of actual improvements he’s made to his game, Brogdon appears to be a more dynamic player now than he was then, and that also matters in the context of a playoff series, where you often need as many avenues to offensive creation as possible.
Indiana has also gotten strong seasons from both Aaron Holiday and T.J. McConnell behind Brogdon, with both of them seemingly progressing as shooters and playmakers while being entrusted with more responsibility in the offense than they had last season. Jeremy Lamb has been inconsistent as a tertiary scoring option, but we should also expect a shooter of his quality to connect on more than 30 percent of his 3s going forward.
The step forward taken by Sabonis this season does not quite rival the one taken by Adebayo, but Sabonis has surely established himself as one of the better big men in the league. There don’t appear to be many — if any —‚ players who can stop him from scoring or from getting a nightly double-double, and with Oladipo out all year, Sabonis has been able to flex his playmaking chops more often as well. He’s still not quite a top-flight defender, but he has been more active and better positionally this season than he has been in the past, and the Pacers have not just survived but thrived (including on defense) when Sabonis has been in the game without Turner.
The Pacers also have the better defense between the two teams (albeit only by 1.7 points per 100 possessions), and a team with a top-10 defense historically has a better shot in the postseason than one that sits outside that group.