On Sunday, the Indiana Pacers became the first domino to fall in the 2018-19 postseason, blowing their first-round series to the Boston Celtics in a sweep after a disappointing 110-106 Game 4 loss. At this moment, before fans and front office alike dive deep into the overall direction and impending future of the Pacers franchise, I’d like to say farewell. Goodbye to one of the weirder Pacers playoff teams this decade, a perfect mix of spunk and grunge. Adieu to the hopeless post–Victor Oladipo backcourt combinations we shall never speak of again; adieu to Wesley Matthews, who joined the team midseason after getting bought out and did exactly one thing each night: bomb 3s for a team that rarely shot from deep, ever; adieu to playing heroball without a hero.
Long live, meanwhile, all the silver linings that followed Oladipo’s season-ending injury in January. Long live Bojan Bogdanovic and Domantas Sabonis as mainstream contributors. Long live Myles Turner, who transformed himself into one of the elite rim protectors in the game. This Pacers team scrambled and tweaked and realigned out of desperation. Some elements it bred will be left in the 2018-19 season. Others will be part of the foundation going forward.
For two years in a row, Indiana outperformed its expectations, building something promising despite being left for dead following Paul George’s departure in 2017-18 and Oladipo’s injury in 2019. How much longer can it fly under the radar? Here are three questions for the Pacers this offseason to determine whether they can make that next step: overachieving when you aren’t an underdog.
Outside of Oladipo’s return, how much can the Pacers realistically change next season?
How an organization moves during free agency says a lot about how it views itself. The Knicks have always been a big swinger with few cap-related reservations, even when they’ve failed to sign big fish many times before. Oftentimes, that’s left them with nothing but last-ditch desperation signings and gross overpayments. Indiana, I believe, can see itself a bit more clearly. Though it’s a holy land for the sport, it’s never been a free-agent destination. In this era of players teaming up, Dipo’s ruptured quad-tendon injury completely derails that in their immediate future.
That isn’t to say Kevin Pritchard and the rest of the Indiana front office don’t have the resources for a dramatic addition this summer. The Pacers can clear up to $44 million by renouncing cap holds across the board. But that isn’t as clean cut as it sounds: All but two of their eight free agents averaged at least 20 minutes on a team built around balance and continuity. You could make a six-deep rotation out of their free agents—Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, and Matthews—and it’d beat the Suns best of seven. Parting with even half of those guys rips the roots of their rotations.
Because Indiana’s been kept competitive by its role players, the price to retain those role players will increase. Bogdanovic, for example, is a sharpshooting Croatian treasure who earned himself a major raise with the way he handled the second half of the season and will likely be the first player the Pacers reach out to this summer. Young, who established himself as a reliable, versatile two-way player on the team, could also be eyeing a long-term deal. Sabonis, who is not a free agent but is up for an extension this year, is a slightly different case. He’s a solid scorer and rebounder coming off a career year, but could be stuck in limbo: Indiana re-signed Turner, its starting center, to a four-year, $80 million deal last offseason, and Nate McMillan rarely plays the duo together in the frontcourt. If Sabonis is expecting a deal similar to Turner’s (he should—despite coming off the bench, Sabonis averages more points, rebounds, assists, and free throws than Turner does in fewer minutes), that’s $160 million dedicated to two men McMillan won’t play side by side in crunch time.
There’s the small-market rule of thumb to never let go of what wandered in. Pritchard traded for Sabonis, and keeping him would be easier than convincing another Sabonis-caliber player to come in free agency. Still, spending it all to run it back turns the short term into the long term, and the Pacers are simply not talented enough to be wedded to that version of themselves.
What’s their ceiling if they’re fully healthy?
There’s no official timetable for when the team will return to “fully healthy,” and the updates Oladipo or the team provide are vague. Oladipo was on the bench for Game 4 against the Celtics, his first visit back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse since the incident. (After they introduced him and the crowd gave its ovation, Indiana went on a 13-0 run.) I even watched this sponsored video Oladipo posted on Instagram of him dancing to Harry Connick Jr. six times trying to find any hesitation in his movements. (No hesitation; he’s a great dancer; I just bought the teeth whitening thing he was advertising; $59.99 before shipping.)
When Oladipo is cleared—and I will not pretend to know when that will be—it’ll be a long way back to the All-NBA–caliber player he was. Reacclimating to game speed, new schemes, new teammates, new limitations on what his body can do—it all takes time. Dipo’s game is built on burst, but neither he nor the team can count on it returning immediately. Indiana’s ceiling is directly tied to Oladipo, which means it will take a while until the team knows where it stands and where it can grow.
How can Indiana stay competitive with the top tier of the East?
The Pacers didn’t have to make the playoffs to consider this season productive. Their best player was lost, ergo (we assumed) their offense was as well. Eastern Conference counterparts like Boston and Philadelphia, meanwhile, are still searching for a point in the postseason that will feel like validation, like the “job well done!” either has yet to receive this season. It feels all but certain that Brett Brown is coaching for his job; it feels like the beginning of Brad Stevens coaching for his flawless reputation.
Indiana didn’t have that degree of pressure, but because of its relative success, it is picking 18th in the 2019 draft instead of in the lottery. It’s an interesting time to be floating just above the middle, where Indiana is. A number of teams stuck in the tanking spin cycle—the Kings, the Magic, the Nets—emerged like new this year. That long, often unsuccessful process is one the Pacers didn’t have to engage in after George left, but leaves them another year (?) without the shepherd that would supposed to guide them back toward the top. Without a healthy Oladipo, Indiana won’t have enough to break into the East’s elite, but this season has offered a blueprint. There’s value in having players with defined roles and a team-oriented spirit. The formula might not be as easy to replicate next season, but they just need to hold on until we know just how Oladipo looks upon his return. Until then, barring another shocking trade, it would be a success for Indiana to just hold on.
An earlier version of this piece referred to Bogdanovic as Bosnian; he is Croatian.