At 26-15, it seems fair to say the Pacers have passed their midterm exam.
Sure, there were the inevitable errors along the way, the days when they failed to meet their potential, but every team does that. On the whole, they managed a better mark than most reasonable people would have predicted in the preseason, especially if they had known all the absences that were coming.
Victor Oladipo, the only player on the roster to have played in an All-Star Game, is two weeks from making his scheduled debut. Malcolm Brogdon, the obvious leader and best closer in crunch time, has missed 12 games. Myles Turner, still adjusting to a new role in the offense, has missed eight. Double-double device Domantas Sabonis, their likeliest All-Star this season, has missed three.
So, they deserve to be graded on the curve. But far bigger tests lie ahead, the ones that ultimately will mark their season. The team that either will or will not advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014 will need to navigate a new round of growing pains upon Oladipo’s return, which will tweak the role of nearly everyone on the roster.
Time will tell. But before all that, let’s give credit where it’s due for a team that:
Learned quickly: With all the offseason roster changes, this was a “new” team that deserved the benefit of a generous break-in period. Its challenge was greater than a team faces with a coaching change because so many players were not only learning a new system but learning to play with one another.
Their recovery from that 0-3 start (which was followed by victories in seven of the next eight games with the only loss a controversial defeat in overtime at Charlotte) resembles the Quick Change halftime show in the grand scheme of things. Keep in mind that Larry Brown’s first team started 1-6 and Larry Bird’s first team started 2-5 before the gears began to mesh — and both of those teams went on to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Has outstanding balance and depth: The run of injuries has required constantly shifting starting lineups and playing rotations, which always threatens chemistry and attitudes. Twelve players have started at least one game and that group doesn’t include rotation staple Doug McDermott. Other players have seen their job descriptions change with striking abruptness. Edmond Sumner, JaKarr Sampson, and rookie Goga Bitadze all have started for the Pacers, but also have started for the G League Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Former first-round draft pick T.J. Leaf has been left on the bench for 20 games but had 13 points and 15 rebounds the only game in which he played more than 20 minutes and is the team’s second-leading rebounder on a per-minute basis.
The balance has been further emphasized by the fact each of the usual starters — Sabonis, Brogdon, Turner, T.J. Warren, and Jeremy Lamb — has scored at least 25 points in at least two games. Few if any other teams in the league can make that claim.
Bottom line: the Pacers are a difficult team to prepare for, and should only become more difficult when Oladipo returns.
Also worth noting: this team is 13-4 when all of the intended non-Oladipo starters have been available.
Is fundamentally sound: Only one NBA team has committed fewer turnovers, although the Pacers rank fifth in that category when pace of play is factored. They rank ninth defensively despite a recent drop-off. They rank 12th in overall offense despite ranking 26th in pace of play because they move the ball well and don’t turn it over. Only five teams have more assists and only one has fewer turnovers.
Has a stable, pleasant locker room: This group has gotten along well with one another to this point and should continue to do so. Although some players obviously would like to play more, nobody gives hints of rebellion. Some might want to move on after the season to a team that offers more opportunity, but everyone at least gives the appearance of accepting his role this season, given their demeanor on the practice court and in the locker room.
Photo Credit: Matt Kryger
Still, plenty of challenges lie ahead.
The Pacers were fifth in the Eastern Conference following Wednesday’s victory at Minnesota, not good enough for homecourt advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. They were just a half-game back of Toronto and 2 1/2 games back of second-place Miami, but their schedule (27th in degree of difficulty) will be more difficult the rest of the way, starting with the five-game Western Conference road trip that begins on Sunday. Improvement will be mandatory.
Particularly in the areas of:
Rebounding: The Pacers have outrebounded just 15 of their 41 opponents and just three of their previous 20. That puts a huge burden on their shooting and defense, which often have been good enough to overcome their major flaw. But that will rarely be the case against the better teams.
Energy: They tend to be laid-back. Slow starts in games are commonplace, particularly after a good win. Comfortable leads usually lead to complacency. While Brogdon is a mature leader, an outstanding coach on the floor, they don’t appear to have the rare quality that the better teams have: demanding more from one another. Perhaps that will come with more familiarity.
3-point scoring: Ranking last in 3-point attempts and 29th in 3-point makes is not a good thing, particularly when you rank fifth in 3-point percentage. The Pacers have been outscored by 108 points behind the 3-point arc this season, which is a lot to make up. One potential source of improvement is simply better shooting. Doug McDermott and Justin and Aaron Holiday are hitting better than 40 percent of their 3-pointers, but Brogdon, Warren, Turner, and Lamb all are shooting worse than in recent seasons. If their water finds its level, the team will benefit greatly.
Free throw scoring: It’s especially difficult to make up for the lack of 3-point scoring when you’re not getting to the foul line. The Pacers rank last in the free throw attempts and 28th in makes despite having the seventh-best percentage. They are largely a mid-range shooting team and have been able to get away with that so far, but likely will need to make some adjustments.
The good news for the Pacers is they, probably more than any team in the NBA, have the potential for improvement in the second half of the season. Their chemistry as a “new” team is growing, particularly that between Sabonis and Turner. Better yet, Oladipo’s return potentially enhances all of their weaknesses and even some of their strengths.
He was first-team all-defense two seasons ago, so he should improve the perimeter defense, which is a primary concern of coach Nate McMillan. He hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers two seasons ago, although he dropped off last season in his limited action. He gets to the foul line (4.9 free throws per game two seasons ago) and rebounds his position well (5.2). Assuming he hasn’t lost his speed, he will pick up the pace of play. He also will inject optimism and energy by the force of his personality, and he joins Brogdon as a proven go-to option at the end of games. He’ll even improve the bench strength by turning Lamb into a backup guard.
The challenge of Oladipo’s return will be folding him into what already is a good starting lineup. He averaged 17.9 field goal attempts two seasons ago and 16.3 last season. None of the current starters are averaging more than 14 shots, and it would not improve the offense if any of them have to take a drastically lesser role in it.
A proven formula awaits them, however. Two seasons ago the Pacers were 21-3 when Oladipo took 15 shots or fewer, and they were on a similar track season when he played. If he tries to blend into the offense rather than dominate it, if he achieves stardom by making his teammates even better, the Pacers could do something special when final exams roll around.
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Mark Montieth’s book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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