By: Willie Lutz
Considering a tumultuous offseason in which they traded one of their franchise’s greatest players ever, the 2017-2018 season went remarkably well for the Indiana Pacers. If you’d asked Coach of the Year-candidate Nate McMillan if he’d take his team’s 46-32 record with four games remaining in the season, he would’ve been delighted.
However, come Wednesday, April 11th, they’ll likely be the 5-seed in a narrow Eastern Conference Playoff tree. In my view, they’re more than capable of coming out of the East to play for the NBA Championship. That’s not to say that they’re true title contender; I believe that anyone in the East is effectively incapable of beating the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in a seven-game series.
Despite the villainous threat in the West, the Eastern Conference crown is an attainable block for Indiana, who went 31-18 against conference opponents, giving them a three-way tie for the best winning percentage against their conference opposition.
Plus, they do a great job controlling the basketball. While Indiana ranks second in the NBA in steals per game (8.8), they commit just 13.3 turnovers per game, putting them at sixth in the league and fourth-best among playoff teams (second among Eastern Conference playoff teams, behind Toronto).
Indiana doesn’t have the superstar power of Cleveland or Boston, but that’s got a lot more to do with their geographical condition in the heart of Indiana. I’m hopeful that basketball fans can look past this notion, as the Pacers own two of the best, young core pieces at the NBA level.
They have the benefit of the NBA’s most improved player, Victor Oladipo, who’s posted a career year since being traded to Indiana in a deal that sent Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Oladipo was named an All-Star, corresponding with 23.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game this season. His defense has additionally been impressive, with a league-leading 2.3 steals per game with a solid 104 defensive rating. Plus, he’s only on year one of an affordable, 4-year, $85 million contract.
Granted, Oladipo was an added gun to the Indiana formula. When George was traded, the franchise centered itself around big man Myles Turner, a 6-foot-11, all-around talent. While he spent portions of the season injured, starting just 58, Turner still averaged 13.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, and shooting 49.1-percent from the floor. He’s got three-point shooting ability as well, making 37.8-percent from beyond the arc, a number that’s increased in each of his 3 seasons.
Plus, owning a premier bench weapon in Domantas Sabonis gives them the ability to give Turner enough rest without a significant drop off. Sabonis, in his sophomore NBA season, proved his legitimacy since coming to Indiana with Oladipo from Oklahoma City this offseason. He’s played in 70 games this season, 19 as a starter, for 24.4 minutes per contest. Sabonis, at the age of 21, is averaging 11.4 points and 7.7 rebounds, shooting a daunting 51.9-percent from the field and 36.4-percent from three. So, as far as bench weapons go, he’s about as good as you can ask for without being named Andre Iguodala or Carmelo Anthony.
Even if this postseason isn’t a perfect run for the Pacers, they’ll have the capital to make a run again next season, perhaps even for the next couple of years. One underrated component of Indiana is their sustainability factor, with the eighth-youngest roster in basketball and the third-most cap space in the NBA. Playing alongside two of the league’s impressive young talents, Oladipo (25) and Turner (22) is going to be attractive to free agents.
So, if Indiana doesn’t get it done this season, the East should be put on notice. This Pacers squad is young and has the money to make a splash. Don’t be surprised if we’re talking about Indiana in contention for the top seed in the East next season. This team is young, talented, and ready to make bigger moves than ever.