2016-17 record: 42-40. 7th in the Eastern Conference. Eliminated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a first round sweep.
Transactions: The Pacers had a really rough summer.
They came-from-behind to snag a playoff spot last season with a five game winning streak to end the season but were then quickly dispatched by the Cleveland Cavaliers in four straight in a painful sweep that included them allowing the Cavs to wage a historic comeback from a 25 point half-time deficit in game three.
After being wiped out of the play-offs, the organization was dealt a big blow when the Legend himself, Larry Bird, stepped down a president of basketball operations and handed the reins over to general manager Kevin Pritchard.
“The Hick from French Lick” isn’t just one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He’s a favourite son of the state of Indiana and his post-playing career has been defined by his time with the Pacers. He coached the team from 1998-2000 where he became the first NBA MVP to win Coach of the Year in 1998 and brought the team to the NBA Finals in his final year in this position. He then became team president in 2003 and held the title until stepping down due to health reasons after winning Executive of the Year in 2012, but returning a year later to the role.
Bird will remain on as an advisor and scout, but his leaving has to be a major psychological blow to the team. For most people Larry Legend embodies basketball in Indiana and he was a reassuring presence even when things weren’t going so well with the Pacers. It seemed like they’d always find a way to right the ship and faith in Bird was key to the team’s identity through some rough years in from 2006-2010 when the team failed to make the play-offs but added the pieces that would eventually push the LeBron James-era Miami Heat to the brink of elimination in 2013.
After trying for the past two seasons to reinvent the Pacers from a methodical, defense first approach to a more modern, smaller line-up built on spacing resulted in a couple of first round exits, the team is at a crossroads and now they’re going to have to forge ahead without one of the greatest minds in the history of the game.
They were dealt an even tougher blow when their superstar forward, Paul George, informed the organization that he had no intention of re-signing in Indiana and after a season that saw him continually vent his frustrations about the team’s performance and direction, let it be known that he was done with the Pacers.
Such a public split was an especially bitter pill for the team to swallow. They were faced with the prospects of losing a star who was only 27 years old and was coming off the two best seasons of his career which was unthinkable to many after a gruesome leg injury in a US Olympic exhibition seemed like it could have ended his career in the summer of 2014.
Still the organization stuck by him and were rewarded in two years of excellent play that culminated in him averaging a career high 23.7 points on a career best 46.1% shooting including 39.3% from three point range and adding 6.6 dimes, 3.3 boards and 1.6 steals per game on the way to his 4th all-star selection.
Now he’s gone. Losing a player with not only that level of offensive ability, but who also had first team all-defense abilities on the back-end was a potentially crippling blow to the Pacers. With George’s contract coming off the books next year, he’d really forced their hand as if they wanted to get a return for him, they’d have to deal him – ideally before the season started – or risk him walking for nothing.
Backed into a corner, Kevin Pritchard sent the Pacers superstar to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
This return is pretty low for a player of George’s calibre, but it’s hard to be overly critical of Pritchard here because unlike the Jimmy Butler situation in Chicago where Butler had two years left on his deal and didn’t want to leave, Paul George made no secret of his intention to bolt from Indiana in free agency and was so closely linked to the Lakers that Magic Johnson had to pay a $500,000 tampering fine.
The Pacers had no leverage with potential trade partners so the return really has to be seen in that context so in that sense, they could have done a lot worse in a return and it’s much better to get two roster players than to lose him for nothing in free agency.
Although taking on Oladipo’s contract is a somewhat curious decision as the 25 year old shooting guard is actually due to make $21 million this season – which is $2 million more than PG13 is going to – on a deal that pays him until the 2021 off-season. However, the organization – especially Pritchard – has been eyeing Oladipo for quite sometime and feel he’s worth the investment.
At only 25 years old, Oladipo still has a great deal of potential and has exhibited exceptional athleticism on both sides of the floor. Offensively, he’s capable of driving to the basket really well and making spectacular plays in the open court. He also offers very good rebounding and passing from the two spot and although he entered the league as an average shooter, he has shown steady improvement in that area and shot 44.2% including 36.1% from three point range which were both career highs.
His work ethic and dedication to improvement will ensure that he is going to continue to improve as a Pacer and there is no doubt that he will make the most of his increased offensive role. Coach Nate McMillan will undoubtedly turn to Oladipo as a top scoring option and he’s going to get a ton of opportunities as a slasher and also in the pick-and-roll.
On the back end, Dipo is one of the best defensive guards in the NBA. He defends very aggressively and is tough on opposing players on the perimeter and as a one-on-one defender. Indiana had very little defensive presence out of the back-court last season so Oladipo will be a huge add for the Pacers in terms of bolstering their D.
He also brings a lot of other great things to the team in terms of his community activism. He’s constantly receiving recognition from NBA Cares for his work with charitable organizations and goes above and beyond in terms of giving back. Recently he sent a truck load of water to Houston to help out victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Not to mention that Oladipo also has the best singing voice in the NBA. Seriously it’s angelic.
The Pacers have got a player who is under contract, committed to the team and is going to be a huge asset to the community. He’s going to be an instant fan favourite as you can’t help but root for the guy. And again that voice. It brings tears to my eyes.
It’s less clear what the Pacers have in Sabonis. It’s undeniable that his development was hurt in his rookie year playing on the Thunder with such a ball dominant star like Russell Westbrook, however his ceiling is also somewhat limited by his relative lack of athleticism.
It’s really hard to properly evaluate his offensive game as he didn’t really factor into the Thunder offense with a significant amount of touches, so shot pretty below average (39.9%) in his rookie year, however there is a lot to like in terms of the second generation (his father is Arvydas Sabonis) Lithuanian’s rebounding ability and skills in the post.
At 6’11” with a strong 240 pound frame and a fundamentally strong game, there is still a lot to be optimistic about with Sabonis. Given a greater role in the rotation and more touches and opportunities on offense, it’s likely that he’ll be able to make a lot of progress in his second year.
Indiana was never going to get equal value for Paul George given the circumstances under which he was traded, but they did get two players who they believe can play a big role in their future and that has to be considered a win in comparison for losing PG13 for nothing later on down the line.
The Pacers replaced departing point guard Jeff Teague with a familiar face in the returning Darren Collison who previously played for the team from 2010-2012 as a 23 and 24 year old in his second and third years in the NBA.
Now he returns to the Pacers as a 30 year old veteran on an incredibly team friendly 2 year, $20 million deal where only $2 million is guaranteed for next season which allows the Pacers to move on if things don’t work out. It’s a nice low risk move as Collison can at the very least add veteran leadership and stability to the mix.
On the floor, he’s a much improved three point shooter as he hit 41.7% from downtown last season and will provide Indiana with a legitimate shooting threat. Although primarily a scoring guard, Collison is a steady play-maker who runs a very methodical offense. The Pacers will have to hide him on the back-end as his undersized 6’0”, 175 pound frame makes him a liability defensively, but that will be mitigated by the stability he will provide the team at the point and the financial flexibility his contract offers going forward.
Indiana made another value add in inking Bojan Bogdanovic, who sparked the Wizards second unit scoring after the trade deadline last season, to a two year, $21 million deal with only $1.5 million guaranteed next season which again gives the Pacers a ton of flexibility moving forward.
The 28 year old Croatian will give the Pacers the ability to stretch the floor with his shooting from the wing. Although only a career 37% three point shooter, he can go through a hot stretch at any time which greatly influences his reputation as a deep threat. Inside the arc he’s capable of driving to the basket and finishing in traffic and Indiana fans should feel really good about his excellent performance at the EuroBasket tournament where he averaged 22.5 points per game. Defensively he struggles due to a lack of ability more than effort but that’s mitigated by his excellent offensive effort.
The Pacers needed to bring in Bogdanovic for replace sharpshooter C.J Miles who they opted not to re-sign and instead of losing him for nothing moved him along with foreign prospect Emir Preidzic to the Toronto Raptors for Cory Joseph in a sign-and-trade.
The 26 year old Joseph is a solid point guard with steady scoring ability inside the arc, decent passing ability, good rebounding ability for a guard and a low turnover rate. He’s coming off a season where he averaged career highs with 9.3 points, 3.3 assists and 2.9 boards per game off the bench for the Raptors and could make an even bigger jump with an increased role in Indiana.
The Pacers parted ways with centre Kevin Seraphin as well as the man, the myth, the legend Monta Ellis who really may not have a place in the NBA anymore due to an increased emphasis on efficiency.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 18th pick the Indiana Pacers selected T.J Leaf out of UCLA. The 20 year old Israeli-American averaged 16.3 points on 61.7% shooting including 46.6% from three point range and added 8.2 boards and 2.4 assists and finished his freshman year as the Bruins leading scorer.
Leaf has an incredibly diverse offensive skill-set and can score inside or out. He’s also a very good ball handler and can grab and go off the defensive glass and start fast breaks by himself. In the modern game, his three point shooting is invaluable as he can stretch the floor and help the Pacers create space. Leaf is also a very good facilitator and makes great decisions with his passes and has displayed an excellent ability to read opposing defenses.
On the back end though, Leaf lacks the wingspan or lateral speed needed to be an effective one-on-one defender. He’s also a very lanky 6’10”, 225 which often allows opposing players to push him around on the defensive end and also prevents him from excelling in traffic on the offensive end. The Pacers are going to need to bulk him up in order for him to thrive in the pro game.
Leaf’s offensive skills, however, will ensure that he works into the Pacers rotation. He can be an effective stretch-4 and will provide a much needed spark and different look to the Indiana offense with his shooting and athletic ability.
At the 47th pick, the Pacers took Leaf’s teammate and UCLA enforcer Ike Anigbogu. The 6’10”, 250 pound one and done freshman was one of the youngest players in all of college basketball last year and is still only 18 years old.
Anigbogu has an impressive 7’6” wingspan and a standing reach of just over 9’2” which gives him incredible rebounding ability. He’s particularly impressive on the offensive glass where he averaged 4.1 offensive boards per 40 minutes. He’s got the athletic ability to convert those second chances into points as well. The former Bruin is incredibly quick on his feet, fast off the ground and has an impressive second jump which allows him to turn those rebounds into points.
He’s also a powerful presence on the floor with great strength, particularly lower body power which allows him to muscle opponents out of the way down low. That explosiveness also gives him an edge in transition where he can beat opponents down the floor with his first few steps and stay ahead at full speed with his long strides. His mobility and size will make him a defensive force as well with his nonstop energy level and aggressiveness on the back-end. Ike is also able to defend the pick-and-roll very well which bodes very well for his NBA future.
Offensively, Anigbogu is a very raw talent. He needs to develop a softer touch and work on his shot. His jumper mechanics are pretty rough and he’s also only a 53% free throw shooter so there’s a lot of work that he needs to put on the offensive side of the court before he’s ready to excel at the pro level.
Still Indiana really hit a home run with this selection as Anigbogu was a consensus first round talent who fell in the draft due to a nagging knee injury. If he develops well, it’s a huge steal and if not there’s minimal risk on a later second round pick.
The Pacers sent cash considerations to the New Orleans Pelicans for the 52nd pick in the draft, combo guard Edmond Sumner who they signed to a two-way deal and will likely see a lot of time in the G-League before catching on with the big club.
Sumner’s collegiate career at St. John’s was marred by injuries. The 21 year old’s freshman year was cut short with knee tendinitis and his sophomore year ended with an ACL tear. His long-term health, above all else, will determine his NBA future.
When Sumner was healthy, he displayed elite-level physical tools. At 6’5.5” with a 6’9” wingspan, his size, length, quickness and explosiveness make him an exciting back-court presence. He is an excellent slasher and loves to finish plays above the rim. He is a solid passer from the point but does need some work on his decision-making skills in terms of turn-overs. On the back end, Sumner is also a solid one-on-one defender.
His major weakness is his shooting. He’s not a particularly good shooter anywhere on the floor and will need to work on his touch and refine his jumper which only hit the mark 25% of the time for him with the Red Storm.
Sumner is not a prospect that will have an immediate impact, but the Pacers are undergoing a major overhaul and have time to wait. Even with his limitations as a shooter, his athleticism and explosiveness make him an intriguing prospect and a nice value late in the second round.
Overall this draft could turn out very well for Indiana with two potential late second round steals and a first round pick who could fill an immediate need in the rotation.
Outlook: The Pacers are stuck in one of the most difficult spots to be in for an NBA team. They aren’t good enough to be a contender and aren’t bad enough to truly bottom out the way that they need to.
They have a good core of veterans in Collison, Big Al Jefferson and Thad Young who can mentor the younger players while also still being able to play meaningful roles on the rotation themselves. Young averaged a solid 11 points, 6.1 boards as a starter for the Pacers last year while Jefferson was still a presence off the bench. They will continue to play big roles in the rotation going forward.
A key storyline in the Pacers season will be how centre Myles Turner progresses in his third season. The 21 year old is expected by most to succeed Paul George as the focal point of the franchise and after making a huge jump in his sophomore year where he averaged 14.5 points on 51.5% shooting and added 7.7 boards and lead the team with a +3,2 net rating, there really is a lot of excitement about where his game will take him this season.
Turner has an exceptional shooting stroke and excellent length that will continue to serve his offensive game. He does need to continue to improve in the post and work on his range – especially from beyond the arc – if he hopes to ascend the ranks of modern NBA big men but in a situation where developing the young talent will be a priority, he’ll get plenty of opportunity to learn and grow.
23 year old Glenn Robinson III will also look to earn an expanded role with the Pacers this season. His 39.2% three point shooting last season will make him effective at spreading the floor and earning minutes at the wing in small line-ups. If he can improve his passing ability and learn to read the floor better, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him earn a starting role as the season progresses.
The keys to the team will be seeing what they have in Joseph, Oladipo, Sabonis, Robinson and Turner as well as rookies Leaf and Anigbogu and planning for the future based on where the Pacers younger talent can take them. It’s going to be a long and somewhat painful process, but Indiana fans can solace in the fact that this team will not be completely tearing it down in the way the Bulls are committed to. It will mean a lesser chance of getting a top draft choice (at least until the lottery rules are changed) but make for a much more enjoyable viewing experience.
For me, the biggest element to enjoying the Pacers this season will largely be in watching “Born Ready” Lance Stephenson. There are rumours that Indiana is considering trying out Lance at the point in some sets this season and there is no chance that I am going to miss that experiment if it goes down.
In limited appearances running the point last season, the Stephenson-lead Pacers offense outscored opponents by 25.5 points per 100 possessions. I will set League Pass alerts to make sure that I’m informed of when Stephenson is play point and will plan my life accordingly.
I really enjoy everything about “Born Ready” from his ability to get under his opposing player’s skin with his antics to his intensity on the court, he’s really going to be the heart and soul of this franchise going forward and it is incredibly fitting that one of Larry Bird’s last decisions was to bring him back into the fold after two and half seasons bouncing around the league.
The Pacers were rewarded with a 16 point, 5.3 rebound per game performance in the playoffs that said Lance is back home.
At only 26, he can be a key part of the Pacers retooling going forward and gives them the grit and intensity they need to hang with. I love a feel good story and Stephenson’s return to Indiana and corresponding resurgence is one of the best ones in the NBA and a reason to tune into what will be a rather unremarkable Pacers season.
You have to take your enjoyment where you can get it because it’s going to be a very frustrating season in Indiana. The Pacers aren’t good enough to make the playoffs but aren’t bad enough to truly bottom out in a really poor field at the bottom of the East. Being stuck in that no man’s land, they’re going to have to hope they’ve hit on talent who can be building blocks for the future and see if any of their vets are worth keeping around beyond this season.
Prediction: 32-50. 11th in the Eastern Conference.