Let’s try a thought experiment that I bet you haven’t tried before. Let’s close our eyes and put ourselves in Indiana. That’s an experiment that a whole lot of people in and around the NBA will be putting themselves through this offseason. This year the Pacers were making a splash in the bubble with TJ Warren making the shortlist of standout stars. Victor Oladipo was continuing to work his way back into shape and Domantas Sabonis wasn’t even playing for them in Orlando. Things were looking up for a Pacers team hoping to make some noise in the Playoffs.
Unfortunately, the Pacers were thoroughly doused by a scorching hot Miami team. The clean 4–0 sweep marked the fifth straight first-round Playoff exit for Indy. Because of this recent history, Indiana finds itself in basketball purgatory. This purgatory is for teams who are too good to tank for a Draft but aren’t good enough to take deep steps in the postseason.
Now that they have decided to part ways with head coach Nate McMillan, Indiana has the ability to make a profound change to how the Pacers play basketball. The recent news that Rocket’s head coach Mike D’Antoni opted to part ways with Houston small-ball has made the offensive savant a front-runner for Indiana. For the team that shot in the bottom 15% in the League from three, D’Antoni could supercharge Indy’s new identity.
This would present some pretty clear hurdles. Most notably, the fact that Indiana’s biggest stars: Sabonis and Oladipo - are not deep-range threats. A move to bring in a new coach like D’Antoni at this time would almost certainly mark a dramatic shake-up to the current roster, which could pivot with a few different seismic shifts. The most jarring moves start with Sabonis and Dipo, who were brought to Indiana as a package. They were traded for the man who previously lifted the Pacers above their current five-year plateau, Paul George. With management deciding to sell high on George in 2017, they now are in the position to do so again with two different players.
Victor Oladipo has remade himself in Indiana. Before this, he was banished by the Thunder after failing to bring the same magic he’d given Orlando before. Once in Indy, Oladipo became the Most Improved Player and was a First Team All-Defensive guard. But now, he is coming off the worst season since his rookie year. It’s easy to point towards his injuries as a reason for this, but Oladipo has looked good, not great as he’s worked himself back. That being said, new scenery was the previous launchpad that made Victor what he’s been for Indy. Because of this, the Pacers could try to sell high on damaged goods if they are hoping to move on from the $21 million Oladipo is owed next year, which is perfect for a team like Denver or Dallas, looking to add a bonafide scorer who can really push them to the next level of the Playoffs.
Sabonis was a first-time All-Star this season, putting up salivating scoring and assist numbers. With his per-game assists almost doubling since last year, on top of his consistent double-double numbers, Domantas Sabonis is starting to become a premier Forward in the NBA. Presenting a plurality of post-moves coupled with an endless motor, Sabonis is exactly the type of player many teams are missing in the Playoffs when tensely critical moments consistently stifle teams in big games.
Moving from either of these players would bring in useful pieces, or a possibly a younger star looking for their own team to lead. This would leave a carved out roster still holding on to the pricy, but multi-talented Myles Turner, reliable floor-general Malcolm Brogdon, a still-simmering TJ Warren, and a nice pocket of young, homegrown talent. There are plenty of coaches on the market who have been reinventing stylistically-antique teams like Kenny Atkinson, Dave Joerger, or even Jacque Vaughn. Almost any new hire would look towards adding shooting to a team that didn’t have a single player in the top fifty for three-point makes in this season.
Indiana hasn’t made it to the NBA Finals in twenty years and their current roster, even when healthy, may not have been enough to push them to the Conference Semifinals. Major changes could and should be on the way for a team that is built well, but needs an injection of life. Although they have been stagnant for some time, Indiana does have a lot of chess moves they can make. Out of the six teams currently spending the least amount of money in the NBA, the Pacers are the only ones who reached the Playoffs.
Although they went away silently into the Orlando night, Indy could come back next year looking and playing quite different while still maintaining their deserved underdog mentality. The lightly stuffed Eastern Conference gives the Pacers the ability to rebuild on the fly, make a few key moves, or truly blow it up and restart (certainly the least likely option). Any way it goes, the state historically known for exporting basketball will be importing much higher standards for themselves moving into next season.