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Victor Oladipo’s Return Could Turn the Pacers Into a Threat

Indiana is exceeding all expectations after making big changes this summer, but the team’s trajectory could skyrocket even higher once its most familiar face returns to the floor

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Victor Oladipo will barely recognize the Pacers when he returns from injury. The star guard was expected to miss a calendar year after rupturing his right quad tendon last January, and is currently practicing with the team’s G League squad with no exact timetable for his return. A lot has changed in Indiana since he went down.

The only rotation players left from the Pacers’ sole playoff appearance with Oladipo, a first-round loss to the Cavs in 2018, are Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. The Pacers made wholesale changes in the offseason and brought in three new perimeter starters—Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, and T.J. Warren—and moved Sabonis into the starting lineup. Every one of the changes made by president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and coach Nate McMillan looks great so far.

The new-look Pacers are off to a 15-9 start and sit sixth in the East with a net rating of plus-4.7. While they have benefited from an easy schedule, they have also been ravaged by injuries. Warren is their only starter to play in every game. The other four have combined to miss 23 games. And despite having so little time alongside each other, the Pacers have already created an identity based on their size. They have one of the biggest starting fives in the league:

These Pacers Go to 6-Foot-11

Starters Height Weight Wingspan
Starters Height Weight Wingspan
Malcolm Brogdon 6′5″ 230 6′11″
Jeremy Lamb 6′5″ 185 6′11″
T.J. Warren 6′8″ 215 6′9″
Domantas Sabonis 6′11″ 230 6′11″
Myles Turner 6′11″ 250 7′4″

Few teams combine as much size and outside shooting. Sabonis is Indiana’s only starter who doesn’t shoot 3s. The Pacers are so big that they almost always have a mismatch somewhere on the floor, and they can spread out the defense, attack its weakest point, and then move the ball to find an open shot. Indiana runs an equal-opportunity offense, and Brogdon, Sabonis, Lamb, and Warren were all averaging at least 16 points per game before Monday’s loss to the Clippers. The group is better than the sum of its parts. The first three are averaging career highs in points and assists.

The best way to see how effective those four players have been is 2-point percentage. All four are among the 36 NBA players this season taking at least eight 2-point attempts per game while shooting higher than 52 percent on them. No other team has more than two of these players.

The Pacers don’t give those points back on defense, either. They are built around an elite perimeter stopper (Brogdon) and rim protector (Turner), while everyone else is big enough to hold their own.

Their starters have been destroying teams when healthy, with a net rating of plus-16.7 in 152 minutes, which is tied for second most among all lineups this season that have played at least 150 minutes. All five are in the sweet spot of their careers (ranging from 23 to 27 years old)—they have been around long enough to be experienced, but not long enough to lose their athleticism.

The other benefit of having players in that age range is that Sabonis is the only one still on his rookie deal, and his new extension kicks in next season. The other players have all signed at least one long-term deal, which means they don’t have to worry about whether sacrificing their individual numbers will impact their financial security. The Pacers have players who can literally afford to focus more on winning than on themselves.

Everything starts with Brogdon, who has been one of the best guards in the league this year. After spending his first few seasons in Milwaukee playing off Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, he’s showing that he can run an offense on his own. He leads Indiana in points (19.1 per game) and assists (7.5) without making the types of mistakes that typically come with a player transitioning into a primary option. Brogdon has an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly three-to-one and scores efficiently from everywhere on the floor. The concern about moving him into a larger role was that he lacks the first step to beat defenders off the dribble. But he’s so much bigger than most opposing point guards that it hasn’t mattered. He can overpower them on his way to the rim and then shoot over them once he gets there.

The typical defensive adjustment to a bigger point guard is to switch a wing on them. The problem against Indiana is there’s nowhere to hide a smaller guard. Move players off Brogdon and they have to guard either Lamb or Warren.

Warren has always been an elite scorer. He’s averaging more than 18 points per game on higher than 48 percent shooting for the third consecutive season. He’s a forward who moves without the ball like a guard and scores at the rim like a center, and coming into Monday, he was shooting 74.1 percent this season. Warren gets his points within the flow of the offense. He doesn’t need many plays run for him and rarely touches the ball (41.8 touches per game, about half as often as either Brogdon or Sabonis).

The key is his mastery of the dark art of the runner. A player needs incredible touch and body control to consistently make one-handed shots from different release points while moving at near full speed. Warren is one of three players this season, along with Luka Doncic and Trae Young, to attempt more than 50 runners and average more than one point per possession on them. The only thing a defense can do against these shots is hope they don’t go in:

Lamb is Indiana’s least dangerous perimeter starter, and he’s averaging 15.7 points on 47.2 percent shooting, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. He’s known mostly for being part of the package that Oklahoma City received for James Harden, but he quietly turned into a well-rounded shooting guard in Charlotte. There are no holes in his game: He can shoot 3s, create his own shot, move the ball, crash the glass, and defend multiple positions. Lamb has a massive advantage against guys like Trae Young, Collin Sexton, and Luke Kennard, who have all guarded him (poorly) this season, since Indiana forces everyone to guard someone.

The Pacers have an even bigger size advantage up front, where they have finally figured out how to play Sabonis and Turner together. It has been a steady progression for the two big men. Look at how their combined net rating has improved in the past few seasons:

Turner and Sabonis Playing Together

Season Minutes Net Rating
Season Minutes Net Rating
2019-20 318 plus-5.1
2018-19 429 plus-2.8
2017-18 269 minus-8.7

The big change is that Turner has embraced his role as a stretch 5. He’s shooting 35.9 percent from 3 on a career-high four attempts per game while averaging the fewest number of touches (39) and field goal attempts (9.4) since his rookie season. By taking a step back on offense, he has created room for Sabonis to flourish.

Sabonis has gone from sixth man to one of the best big men in the NBA, averaging 18.4 points on 51.1 percent shooting, 13.5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. He has quickly developed great chemistry on the pick-and-roll with Brogdon: He can punish switches, slice between two defenders and score in traffic, and find the open man when the defense collapses.

Sabonis and Turner also have a natural division of responsibilities: Turner is a 5 on defense and a 4 on offense, while Sabonis is a 5 on offense and a 4 on defense. Sabonis is taking advantage of the space Turner creates on offense, and then he extends out on the perimeter on defense, shuttling ball handlers into his frontcourt partner, who is fourth in the league in blocks (2.4 per game).

Oladipo’s return will make everyone in Indiana even better. The All-Star fits perfectly with his new teammates. He’s another big guard (6-foot-4, 213 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) in his prime (27 years old), and he can slide between multiple positions on defense and play on and off the ball on offense. When healthy, Oladipo can get to the rim and create more open 3s for everyone else, while taking the defensive assignment against smaller and faster guards.

The biggest thing that his return will do is boost the Pacers’ depth. Indiana isn’t nearly as good when it goes to its bench. The bottom two net ratings on the team belong to two reserve guards—T.J. McConnell (plus-1.3 in 383 minutes) and Aaron Holiday (minus-0.6 in 462 minutes)—whose playing time will shrink when Oladipo returns. If McMillan moves Lamb to the bench, and Lamb moves those two out of the rotation entirely, the net impact will be replacing two average players with an All-Star.

It’s easy to forget how good Oladipo was in his first playoff appearance in Indiana. He averaged 22.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6 assists per game against Cleveland, which had no answer for him until it started blitzing with multiple defenders to take the ball out of his hands. That won’t work now that he’s playing with another All-Star in Brogdon, as well as a deep group of secondary scorers in Sabonis, Lamb, and Warren.

We have seen this story play out positively in Indiana. The Pacers could be a more talented version of the group that pushed LeBron James and the Heat to the limit earlier this decade. They were only a few bounces away from reaching the NBA Finals. Strength in numbers is a real thing. A team with multiple All-Stars and a prime two-way player at every position has a chance against anyone.