Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 10
Last Season: 48-34
Notable Additions: Tyreke Evans (free agency), Doug McDermott (free agency), Kyle O’Quinn (free agency), Aaron Holiday (draft)
Notable Subtractions: Lance Stephenson?
Vegas Over/Under: 47.5
Team MVP: Victor Oladipo
Best-Case Scenario: Oladipo makes another leap, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner do too, and the Pacers finish as a top-three seed in the East and with at least one playoff series win.
The Pacers were one of last season’s fun surprises. They lost their best player in Paul George and were projected to fall from the high middle tier in the East to the playoff fringes. Instead, Indy rallied around the centerpiece of the return from the much-maligned George trade. Oladipo had the best season of his career with the Pacers, averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 steals a game—all career highs. Oladipo became the player we all thought he wasn’t: an All-Star who could not only score but create for himself and his teammates. And as a result, Indiana became a team with a suddenly promising present and future. But while Oladipo’s leap keyed everything for the Pacers last season, what comes next is what will determine how high they can actually go. In many ways, that hinges on not just Oladipo rising to another level himself, but also the development of Indiana’s frontcourt.
But for Indiana to take the next step forward, it’ll need others to join him. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner have loads of potential, but have yet to fully tap into it. Part of it is their youth: Sabonis is 22 and going into his third season; Turner is also 22, going into his fourth. Both were the 11th overall pick in their respective drafts. Turner has the most upside, and experience, but his progress stagnated last season (though he did improve his 3-point frequency and percentage!). However, his social media will have you believe he has been putting in the work this summer to change that:
Sabonis, meanwhile, just needed to get out of OKC. He basically doubled his points, assists, and rebounds per game in his first season with the Pacers and emerged as a crafty pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll option alongside Oladipo. He will likely start the season behind veteran Thaddeus Young at the 4, but there’s a reason he averaged nearly 25 minutes a game last season. That number should go up from here, as should the time he and Turner share the floor.
The natural progression of their young core alone should aid the Pacers’ upward trajectory. They haven’t lost basically anyone from last season, and have instead added intriguing pieces like Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott. Both should help with their bottom-five ranking in 3-point attempts. The Pacers were top-10 in the league in 3-point percentage (36.9 percent); shooting that well again but more often could make the difference between fifth place and home-court advantage in Round 1.
Worst-Case Scenario: Oladipo regresses, the lack of another star player sets the team back, and the Pacers lose in the first round of the playoffs again.
Any worst-scenario for the Pacers likely ends in the playoffs. The East is that shallow. But there’s a chance that they merely overachieved last season, and are due to fall back to earth some. Indiana won a whopping 48 games last season and finished 12th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They played hard and maybe surprised some teams. They won’t sneak up on anyone this season
Teams will likely sell out to stop Oladipo and force anyone else on the Pacers to beat them. That’s where Turner and Sabonis (who quietly turned the ball over the second most on this team last season) and the rest of the Pacers’ role players come into play. Darren Collison, now 31, shot a ridiculous 46.8 percent from 3 on three attempts a game last season, and that just won’t hold up. Evans is a nice addition offensively, but his perimeter defense isn’t exactly a strength. The same could be said of McDermott, who also still hasn’t become the offensive threat he was projected to be after a successful college career. (And yet, the Pacers gave him $22 million over three years.)
The Pacers have added depth this offseason, but they don’t have another wing player who can help Oladipo should the young big men fail to step up. Rumors circulated this summer that they were interested in Aaron Gordon, but the restricted free agent ultimately opted to return to Orlando. As a result, there’s little to no failsafe for Indiana. Even if they’re better as a team, that doesn’t necessarily mean their ceiling will be higher.
TL;DR: The East is bad, but the Pacers will be good, even if they don’t keep up last season’s pace.