Despite their first-round exit, the future is bright for the Indiana Pacers.
Though a first round exit was probably not what the Indiana Pacers had in mind, the 2017-18 season should be considered a rousing success. In a year that was widely viewed around the league as the first in a rebuild toward the post-Paul George era, the Pacers tallied a 48-34 record and took LeBron James’ Cavaliers to seven hard-fought games. The upstart Indiana club held their own against James and his assorted veterans, actually posting a +40 point differential despite the series loss. The youthful team, coached by Nate McMillan, has completely flipped the script on their future, and most NBA pundits were left to ask…how?
Perhaps the easiest place to start when evaluating the Pacers’ success is the odds-on favorite for the league’s Most Improved Player Award, Victor Oladipo. The 25-year old certainly knows how to make a first impression with his new team; this season, Oladipo secured his first All-Star appearance, started a career-high 75 games, and set career highs in nearly every statistical category, capped off by a near 10-point jump in PPG from 15.9 to 23.1. Oladipo has meant everything for this team. His on-off differential is +14.2, and the Pacers lost each of the seven games he missed this season. After stints in Orlando and Oklahoma City, it certainly looks as though Oladipo has found his niche in Indiana.
Worth mentioning briefly in light of Oladipo’s incredible success is the player he was traded for: Paul George. George performed well this season, but had some understandable regressions as he was now sharing the court with ball-dominant players like Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. Unlike George’s deliberate offensive pace, Oladipo (doing his best Russell Westbrook impression) unlocked the Pacers’ transition offense, which led to easy buckets against Cleveland’s shaky defense in the playoffs. This season, the Pacers had 1,400 transitional scoring opportunities, up from 1,216 in the last year of George’s tenure.
Part of this deferential can be attributed to the personal drives of Oladipo and George. This season, Vic has averaged 10.7 drives per game, compared to George’s 7.5 drives last season with Indiana. Beyond just drives, George tended to bog down the Indiana attack a bit with his reliance on isolation plays, on which he scored about 45% of the time. In comparison, Oladipo only isolated 10.3% of offensive plays (compared to PG-13’s 17.5%), on which he scored about 50% of the time. Not to denigrate George’s offensive prowess, but it seems that Oladipo’s focus on attacking and moving the ball has benefited the Pacers.
Paul George in the playoffs last year:— Josh Eberley 🇨🇦 (@JoshEberley) April 30, 2018
43 MPG, 28-9-7, 21 PER, .553 TS%.
Victor Oladipo in the playoffs this year:
37.3 MPG, 23-8-6, 22 PER, .548 TS%
Surprisingly, while Oladipo has brought a new dimension to Indiana’s offense, he’s also filled in admirably on the defensive end. George has long carried with him the reputation for being one of the most effective two-way players in the league, and Oladipo has provided a smooth transition for the Pacers’ defense. While George allowed opponents to shoot 49.3% against him, Oladipo held his matchups to 45% from the field. His defense also helped anchor the squad; again turning to the on-off splits, Indiana’s opponents had an offensive rating of 114.5 when Vic was off the floor, compared to 105.3 when he was on.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the Pacers’ surprising and competitive campaign was that they were able to develop their youth without sacrificing a year to the draft lottery. Due in part to the Paul George trade, the Pacers were infused with a number of young pieces so that their “rebuild” has quickly become a “reload.” It bears mentioning the other piece Indiana acquired that has proven valuable this season: center Domantas Sabonis.
Drafted in the mid-first round in 2016 (and packaged with Oladipo in both his trades, incidentally), many viewed Sabonis as a project, and that assessment proved valid in his first season with OKC. Though he started 66 games as a rookie, Sabonis also took a major leap when he came east in the Paul George trade. This year, the Lithuanian center has provided scoring punch off the bench, anchoring the second unit and providing valuable minutes in the Cavs series. Per 36 minutes, Sabonis would have averaged a double-double with 11.4 rebounds and 17.1 points per. Along with third-year player Miles Turner, the Pacers could very well have one of the best young big tandems in the league.
Though a number of “what-ifs” and “maybes” will likely be keeping the Pacers awake for the next few weeks following their playoff ousting, it doesn’t change the fact that Indiana appears ahead of schedule for their rebuild. Indiana got to enjoy one season as the plucky, ragtag group of up-and-comers, but next season they will have expectations. Thanks to pleasant returns from the trade with Oklahoma City, the youth movement is on for the Pacers, and the road to contention seems a lot shorter than it appeared at the end of 2016-17. With some offseason work and the continued development of their young core, the Pacers could very well be an even tougher out in next season’s playoffs.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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