Happy NBA Schedule Release Week, everyone! With the 82-game set released on Monday afternoon, we now know what marquee matchups are on the docket for the 2019-20 campaign.
While FIBA World Cup is officially underway and training camp is right around the corner, Basketball Insiders has kicked off another week of its Grading The Offseason series. We’ll move right along next with the Indiana Pacers.
After taking the Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink of elimination in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, it was evident that the Indiana Pacers were destined for greatness. Victor Oladipo took a leap into superstardom, guided a team that was predicted to flounder following the departure of Paul George and put them on the map at a national scale.
This past season, that momentum continued with the maturation of the group as a whole. Indiana’s offense was fluid and the defense was physical. While there were ups and downs to start the first couple of months, a torrid December left them at 25-12 entering the New Year.
The staggered one-two punch of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis provided different looks between units with improved play on both ends. Bojan Bogdanovic played a pivotal role as a supplemental scorer. And, of course, Thaddeus Young did his damage on the block and assumed responsibility for guarding the opposition’s best night-in and night-out.
The Pacers rode that wave into late January and then the unthinkable happened. On a fastbreak opportunity against the Toronto Raptors, Oladipo abruptly fell to the ground and clutched at his knee as the team was gaining momentum. A hush fell over Bankers Life Fieldhouse as the All-Star guard was taken off the floor on a stretcher.
Everyone’s fears were confirmed the next day: Oladipo had ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his right knee. He would go on to have season-ending surgery soon thereafter, and head coach Nate McMillan was faced with yet another tall task to rally the locker room going forward.
Once again, there weren’t many believers. How could a group like Indiana, who fed off Oladipo’s energy and enthusiasm, possibly be taken seriously?
We had that question answered with emphasis—heart and resiliency. The very same attitude that had taken the Pacers to the playoffs the year before didn’t go away. The selfless, collective team effort McMillan helped establish proved to be more than enough to galvanize a mentally tough and battle-tested bunch.
Bogdanovic went on a scoring rampage as the Pacers’ number one option. Between February and March, the Bosnian swingman averaged over 22 points, four rebounds and two assists. Darren Collison stepped up as a floor general and consistent presence on the offensive end of the floor. Turner and Sabonis never waned outside of a few minor injuries.
In order to add another weapon, team president Kevin Pritchard went out and signed Wesley Matthews following a buyout with the New York Knicks. Unfortunately still, Indiana closed the season by losing 12 of its last 19 games heading into the playoffs—and the slide to end the campaign carried over.
Despite a closely contested four games with the Boston Celtics, the Pacers were swept out of the first round. Still, the results were not at all indicative of what they had accomplished and overcome that year. However, the scoreboard read 4-0 and the 2018-19 version of that scrappy squad had to look toward the summer.
Aside from anticipating the progress of Oladipo’s rehab, the Pacers had plenty of decisions to make with ample cap space. There were impending free agency decisions of eight different players on their roster, including three key members of the core that pushed them past adversity. There was a focus on the NBA Draft as well that preceded the moratorium period.
Right off the bat, Pritchard traded for Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren and the No. 32 pick, which was sent to the Miami HEAT later that night for three future selections in the second round.
With the 18th pick in the draft, Indiana selected Georgian big man Goga Bitadze, a highly-regarded international prospect whom Pritchard admitted he had top 10 on the team’s draft board. The organization took Jarrell Brantley with Miami’s No. 50 pick and flipped the rookie forward to the Utah Jazz for a 2021 second-rounder and cash considerations.
On June 28, Collison surprisingly announced his retirement. Free agency approached quickly thereafter and the action followed suit. Bogdanovic swiftly agreed to a long-term contract with the Jazz. Young came to terms on a three-year deal with the Chicago Bulls. Just like that, that all-so-important veteran trio was gone.
In return, Pritchard wasted no time in response. The Pacers agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Milwaukee Bucks to acquire Malcolm Brogdon, sending future draft picks in exchange for the talented guard. Immediately after that news dropped, Jeremy Lamb and the team struck a deal to bring the former Hornets wing to Indianapolis.
At July’s end, Indiana signed point guard T.J. McConnell and inked a contract with Justin Holiday to reunite him with his brother Aaron. The organization converted Edmond Sumner’s two-way contract into a standard one as well.
Brian Bowen II and Naz Mitrou-Long agreed to separate deals as the new two-way players in the building. Exhibit 10 contracts were also extended to JaKennan Gant and 28-year-old comeback hopeful C.J. Wilcox.
Their most recent move was bringing in veteran journeyman JaKarr Sampson for one year at the veteran minimum after backing out of his deal with a team in China.
So, as you can see, the Pacers have restructured over half of their roster.
PLAYERS IN: T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday, JaKarr Sampson, Goga Bitadze, Edmond Sumner (converted), Brian Bowen II (two-way), Naz Mitrou-Long (two-way), C.J. Wilcox (Exhibit 10), JaKeenan Gant (Exhibit 10)
PLAYERS OUT: Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young, Tyreke Evans, Wesley Matthews, Kyle O’Quinn, Davon Reed
Despite lacking the immediate chemistry we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons, Indiana improved significantly.
Once Oladipo returns—which Pritchard surmises will be around December or January—they should be a top-four team in the Eastern Conference on paper. The only thing that could be a hindrance is finding cohesion and the right rotations to ensure those goals are reached.
Envision the matchup issues the Pacers are going to run out there when they’re back to full health. A five-man unit consisting of Brogdon, Oladipo, Warren, Sabonis and Turner would give opponents fits on the defensive end. They won’t be as imposing as past iterations of the team, but they will have plenty of length to gets stops and create turnovers.
Depth is a huge player in all of this as well. That bench is going to be a force to be reckoned with. We, naturally, have to see how the rotations play out for McMillan and company, first and foremost. But Aaron Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and Justin Holiday would be a fine trio to pack a powerful punch while the starters catch their breath.
If you’re unaware of the most popular topic with Indiana, it’s the debate of who has a future in Indiana between the rising big men—Turner or Sabonis? The former has been on the fast track to improving his body and established himself as a top defender in the NBA with a consistent jump shot. The latter is coming off his best season as a pro where he essentially put up a double-double nightly off the bench as a presence on the block and the boards.
We’re going to find out whether or not pairing those two will work, as McMillan told reporters last month that both will be featured in the 2019-20 starting lineup. The coach said that Sabonis’ play has forced his hand to find more minutes for the up-and-coming Lithuanian.
It should be of note that Sabonis is eligible for a rookie extension going into his fourth year as a professional. According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the deadline for the Pacers to offer him one is Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.
Turner is already secured for the long term following the signing of his extension before the beginning of last season. Will Sabonis receive the same offer? And if he does, would he accept it?
These are the storylines that are going to garner the most attention as Indiana looks to make some noise in the NBA world with its fresh-faced group.
Other than that, the table is set with plenty of talent and many team-friendly contracts for multiple years. Expect this version of the Pacers to be faster and more versatile than they’ve been in quite some time.
OFFSEASON GRADE: A-