Why the Pacers are well positioned to contend in the Eastern Conference beyond 2020
The Pacers have flown under the radar during the 2019-20 season, and remain in position to only improve
Among all of the teams that were in the thick of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference before the 2019-20 season was suspended indefinitely due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Indiana Pacers received the least attention. They're not in a major market and they don't have a bona fide superstar on the roster, so it's easy for the national media to gloss over Indiana, despite the fact it sits fifth in the East -- ahead of the highly-hyped Philadelphia 76ers (via tiebreaker), and just 4 1/2 games behind the Boston Celtics for the third seed -- when the season was put on pause.
The Pacers were trending in the right direction, too, going 7-3 over their last 10 played games as they continued to re-integrate guard Victor Oladipo back into the rotation after he missed the first several months of the season as he works his way back from a ruptured quad tendon. Led by veteran head coach Nate McMillan, they weren't going to be an easy out for anyone come playoff time (and they still won't be, should the season ultimately resume). And while there is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over every NBA team right now when it comes to the current campaign, the Pacers are positioned to continue to climb toward true contention in the East beyond this season.
With the seventh-best defense in the NBA, the Pacers have established a clear identity under McMillan, and moving forward they should benefit from some consistency in terms of personnel. Four of the team's five starters -- Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, T.J. Warren, and Domantas Sabonis -- are locked up through 2022, at least. Brogdon, Turner and Sabonis are on the books through 2023.
Oladipo is set for free agency following the 2020-21 season, but he may ultimately opt to remain in Indiana -- his third NBA team, and the place where he blossomed into an All-Star. The Pacers will also be able to offer him more money than any other franchise. Even if Oladipo did opt to ink elsewhere, the Pacers wouldn't be doomed as they would then have sufficient salary cap space to be active in free agency while looking for his replacement.
Justin Holiday is the only player that played major minutes for the Pacers this season that is set for free agency this offseason. So while some of their rivals may be looking to shuffle the deck, Indiana can focus on building as a unit. And as a unit, it is well balanced and deep. The Pacers have seven players that are averaging double figures this season, and another that comes close (Aaron Holiday at 9.4 points per game).
Indiana also has arguably the two most important roles in today's pace-and-space era filled with All-Star-caliber performers. It has a dynamic play-making guard capable of creating for himself and others in Oladipo. It also has a versatile, floor-spacing big man in Sabonis. Both players are still young (Oladipo is 27, Sabonis 23) and together could potentially form a pretty dynamic duo moving forward as they grow together, and individually. Sabonis was inserted into Indiana's starting five this season. As a result, he took a major step forward while Oladipo was sidelined and was named to his first All-Star team as a result. Ideally, the Pacers would obviously like to get both Oladipo and Sabonis playing at an All-Star level at the same time. When that happens they could really take a major step forward as a team.
The Pacers have assembled a solid supporting cast around Oladipo and Sabonis. Warren is a versatile scorer who can do damage from the perimeter and around the rim. He's actually the team's leading scorer on the '19-20 season with 18.7 points per game. Brogdon is a reliable floor general who is 10th in the NBA with an assist average of 7.1 per performance. Turner is an All-Star-level talent who, like Sabonis, is capable of scoring from the inside and the outside. He is also an extremely athletic defender who led the league in blocks per game (2.7) last season.
Indiana's reserve role players are formidable as well. Jeremy Lamb is out indefinitely with a torn ACL, but he's a capable two-way player when available. T.J. McConnell brings energy off of the bench, and plays the role of a prototypical "glue guy" well. Doug McDermott is a career 41 percent 3-point shooter that defenses can't afford to sag off of. In turn, he opens things up for the team's other offensive options. Aaron Holiday is developing into a nice piece, and rookie big man Goga Bitadze has a chance to do the same.
How high the Pacers' ceiling is as currently constructed remains to be seen. It's also unclear if either Oladipo or Sabonis is good enough to be the top option on a title team. Yet there's reason for optimism. They exceeded exceptions this season, they have two young All-Stars that are still improving, an experienced coach and a lot of talent under contract moving forward.
Indiana has lost in the first round of the playoffs four years in a row. In fact, it hasn't made it out of the first round since falling to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals in 2014. If play is ultimately resumed this season, the Pacers will have a real opportunity to snap that streak. If the season isn't resumed, however, don't expect the Pacers to fade out of the picture, as they appear to be positioned to continue their climb back toward legitimate contention in the East.
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