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The Pacers’ Legitimacy As Eastern Conference Contenders

Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers have defied expectations so far in 2018. Can they carry this early success into the postseason?

Last year, the Indiana Pacers franchise had a rejuvenation of sorts, as the team finished with their most wins in the previous four seasons. However, this inspiring run ended in quick fashion, as they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. With the team showing similar, if not improved, signs of life this year, how do their chances look to truly compete for Eastern Conference supremacy?

Currently sitting at 23-12, the Pacers hold the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. Indiana has established their early success through a stifling defense, which currently holds the league’s best defensive rating at 102 and averages the second-most steals per game. They have also established efficiency on the other end of the floor, as their offense holds the third-best field goal percentage (48%) and the fifth-highest three-point percentage (37%) in the NBA.

Along with their efficient offense, the Pacers have displayed a high level of unselfishness for a team with a clear-cut best player. Indiana has five players who average more than 12 points per game this year and nine who score more than seven, proving their ability to attack defenses from a variety of outlets. Also, the team is capitalizing on this sense of unselfishness, as they have the fifth-highest assist ratio in the league.

Primary Contributors

Like last year, the key to the Pacers’ dominance on both ends of the floor has been guard Victor Oladipo. Now in his second season with the team, Oladipo is scoring less than last year, but that has come with fewer turnovers and career-highs in assists and rebounds per game. Oladipo and Collison have a combined 10 assists per game on the season, and both are a huge part to the team’s success in sharing the ball. While Oladipo clearly established himself as a franchise-altering talent last season, his ability to expand his role within the offense to include his teammates more often has, and could continue to, propel Indiana to new heights.

While Oladipo has contributed to the team’s impressive unselfishness, Indiana’s second and third-leading scorers, Bojan Bogdanovic and Domantas Sabonis have played a huge part in creating their hyper-efficient identity. The former is averaging a career-high 16 points per game with a 60% effective field goal percentage, which is good for 14th in the NBA. This outstanding mark is mainly a result of his 46% three-point field goal percentage (his best mark ever for a season by over 6%), and only five players in the league shoot a higher percentage from there.

Similarly, the Pacers’ backup power forward in Sabonis has made the most of his opportunities this season, posting a ridiculous 63% overall field goal percentage. Along with this, the Sixth Man of the Year candidate is averaging 9.6 rebounds per game (18th in the NBA) and almost three assists per game as a power forward, showcasing his impressive versatility within the offense. All of these tools have contributed to Sabonis’ elite status in terms of on-court production this season, as he currently holds a 23.7 player efficiency rating, which is good for 17th in the league.

On the other end, the team’s defense is anchored by fourth-year center Myles Turner. The former Texas product is currently leading the NBA in blocks per game with an astounding 2.8, fully proving his once sought-after defensive wingspan. In addition to rejecting opponent’s shots at the highest rate in the league, Turner also has the fourth-highest defensive real plus-minus in the NBA, creating a convincing argument for his candidacy for the Defensive Player of the Year award.   

To state the obvious, Indiana has plenty of guys that can contribute to winning basketball - and that’s without discussing Thaddeus Young, Tyreke Evans, or Collison, who are all having solid seasons of their own. However, the East now boasts four borderline super teams in the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, the latter two of which haven’t even fully come into their own yet.

 It seems unlikely, up to this point, that the Pacers could unseat Toronto or Milwaukee for the top two seeds, given their consistency, overall team depth, and superstar presence. Also, the Celtics are quietly the NBA’s hottest team right now after a slow start, and have an unheralded amount of depth and wing talent to rise up the Eastern Conference ranks. If Philadelphia’s big three continues to have chemistry issues, though, Indiana could maintain home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, and even if they don’t it seems unlikely they’ll drop below the five or six seed. 

The Pacers have the talent and identity to make a lengthy playoff run, but could have trouble succeeding against some worthy opponents along the way. However, given their ability to rely on other contributors outside of Oladipo, their general unselfishness and efficient play up to this point, and their suffocating defense, none of their competitors should feel safe in a best-of-seven against them.

Edited by Peyten Maki.

Before Victor Oladipo in 2017-18, who was the last Pacers player to average more than 23 points per game for an entire season?
Created 12/31/18
  1. Danny Granger
  2. Reggie Miller
  3. Paul George
  4. Jermaine O'Neal

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