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Should the Pacers Trade Their Franchise Star Again?

The Pacers hired Nate Bjorkgren as their new head coach on Tuesday. But figuring out their offseason’s biggest dilemma won’t be as simple.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Victor Oladipo is a Pacer. We know this because he’s right there on the team’s website, wearing not a Thingamajig costume, but rather an Indiana jersey. We know this because he’s still listed as the highest-paid player on the Pacers’ roster entering the offseason. We know this because, dammit, he told Fat Joe so. Thrice!

“I’m a Pacer, man. I’m a Pacer, dog. I’m a Pacer,” Oladipo told the rapper during a recent Instagram Live chat. “I can’t control the rumors, man. I’m just focused on my knee. ... Man, all the [rumors] on the internet, I don’t know where they come from. I’m just in the background, working out, working on my knee, and trying to get right for next year.”

“The rumors” that Don Cartagena felt compelled to ask about are the constant rumblings that Oladipo isn’t long for Indianapolis—that, after playing out the final season of his four-year, $85 million deal, he plans to pull up stakes and seek a new franchise. Now that the Pacers have hired former Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as their head coach to replace the ousted Nate McMillan, a move aimed at both improving on four straight first-round eliminations and ensuring first-name-specific continuity, how to handle Oladipo’s status stands as the biggest remaining question facing Indiana this offseason.

Some reports suggest that Oladipo wants to be in a bigger market—one where his “brand has a better chance of growing,” as Bob Kravitz of The Athletic put it. Others suggest that winning might be his main motivator. Indiana was swept by Miami in the first round this year and Oladipo has yet to advance past the postseason’s opening round in his seven seasons. Here’s something else Oladipo told burgeoning NBA reporter Fat Joe: “At the end of the day, I want to be able to show my kids, when I have them, how great of a player I was. And in order to do that, you got to show them some hardware. So, that’s what I’m locked in on doing, man. I want some hardware, and I want a lot of hardware.”

If Oladipo’s unconvinced he can take a real run at a ring with a franchise that’s nearly always good but never quite great—a cold calculation, perhaps, but one grounded in logic given the NBA’s landscape—then it makes sense that he’d consider his options. That’s especially true if he’s not going to be making top dollar in Indiana: Talks on a contract extension before last season reportedly never went anywhere, which might be because the deal the Pacers reportedly presented wasn’t a raise, and the maximum extension they can offer him now comes in $77 million below what they could put on the table next offseason, and $28 million below what another suitor could pay him.

If Oladipo’s unmoved by the idea of a long-term below-max re-up, then—as was the case when Paul George made his plans clear three years ago—it’d behoove Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard to explore the trade market for his All-NBA guard. That will likely depend, though, on whether the rest of the NBA still sees an All-NBA guard when they look at Vic. And at the moment—nearly 30 months since Oladipo was at the peak of his powers, dueling LeBron James in the playoffs, and more than 20 months since he ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his right knee—the leaguewide view might not be so sunny.

After a year on the shelf rehabbing his wounded wheel, Oladipo scarcely resembled his all-world two-way self in either his brief return before the league’s March 11 shutdown or during Indiana’s brief stay in the bubble. In 23 total games, Oladipo averaged 15 points in 28.3 minutes, shooting under 40 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range, with almost as many turnovers (61) as assists (66).

He showed some signs of being able to crank it up, but by and large, he lacked the oomph to dust opposing defenders and get all the way to the cup, averaging 8.8 drives per game in his limited action this season, two fewer than during his 2017-18 heyday; he shot just 39.7 percent on those forays into the paint, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. By comparison, Oladipo attempted 7.1 3-pointers per 36 minutes of regular-season floor time after his return, a career high, and nearly 10 triples per 36 against Miami in the first round.

It’s tempting to toss all of that out—to give Oladipo the benefit of the doubt post-injury and mid-pandemic, and bet that there’s no way he’ll look quite as compromised when he takes the court next season. Even if you do that, though, you still have to wrangle with Oladipo’s production in 2018-19 before his right leg buckled, which had also dipped.

Victor Oladipo’s Pre-injury Struggles

2017-18 34.0 23.1 5.2 4.3 2.4 0.537 23.1 0.155 5.8 5.0
2018-19 31.9 18.8 5.6 5.2 1.7 0.486 17.6 0.097 2.9 1.4

During that half-season, Oladipo’s shooting percentages declined across the board. His free throw rate dropped while his 3-point rate rose. He seemed to lack both the lift on his jumper and the quickness to slalom around obstacles. He was still good, still productive, but more along the lines of a fringe All-Star than a bona fide All-NBA game changer—a difference that, when it comes to franchise-shaking trade proposals and free-agency offers, is all the difference in the world.

It’d be fair to take those numbers with a grain of salt, too, considering Oladipo battled a bone bruise in his right knee early in the 2018-19 season. But all that context doesn’t make it any easier to answer the central question: How do you value someone who was one of the 15 best players in the league three seasons ago, but who has rarely approached that peak level since? What kind of offer can you feel comfortable making? What kind of offer could either side feel comfortable accepting?

If Oladipo gets back to his old self, he could be a swing piece that elevates a contender—a legitimate three-level scorer, a capable pick-and-roll ball facilitator, and a hard-nosed perimeter defender who can lock down top options and wreck game plans. That guy’s worth mortgaging future pieces to elevate your existing core. But if he’s not that guy to the degree he was during that one magical season—and, it’s worth noting, only during that one season—then how can a would-be contender feel confident bundling its best assets for him? Given what we have (and haven’t) seen over the past two years, why would the Nets give up Caris LeVert, who might just straight up be a better player right now, for Oladipo? Why would the Heat give up Tyler Herro, nearly eight years Oladipo’s junior, for a player who might not meaningfully change their ceiling?

If you feel like there’s any chance of landing a backcourt upgrade that’s shown more on the court in the recent past—say, Bradley Beal, or Jrue Holiday—then you have to keep your powder dry in hopes you can make that bigger explosion. And if you’re Pritchard and the Pacers, you can’t just accept whatever grab bag of bruised apples a would-be titlist throws your way; you need to extract as large a return as you can for your outgoing star, to try to put the most competitive team you can around Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon.

There’s a lot of uncertainty on all sides of this equation … which is why, despite some of us thinking Vic might be the biggest name on the move this summer, the most likely course of action might be no action at all.

“I think it’s unlikely Oladipo gets traded because of how weird his past year has been,” ESPN’s Tim Bontemps said during Monday’s episode of the Brian Windhorst and the Hoop Collective podcast. “Both coming back from the injury, and frankly, not being very good after coming back from the injury. From talking to people around the league, I don’t think his value is nearly as high as his name brand would suggest at the moment. And I think it’s more likely that the Pacers go into the season and either hope he plays really well and they do great and he decides to stay, or that he plays better and they maybe trade him later, when his value goes up some.”

Maybe, with the benefit of an extended offseason to work on that balky knee, Oladipo will prove next season that he’s all the way back to his All-NBA form. Maybe such a strong start would convince a top-flight club to consider Oladipo as something of a high-end rental—an instant jolt to the rotation who doesn’t occupy any cap space beyond this season, preserving the opportunity to make a big splash in the 2021 offseason, when Giannis Antetokounmpo could head a star-studded cast on the unrestricted market.

In a Monday chat with our own Bill Simmons, ESPN’s Zach Lowe said he’s “keeping an eye on” Milwaukee as a potential Oladipo suitor as the Bucks look to improve their roster to convince Giannis to stick around. The Heat, long connected to Oladipo, also loom, though Windhorst said on his most recent podcast that he’s “not sure the interest from Miami is as strong as the interest from Oladipo.” Other clubs will sniff around, too, if they find reason to believe that Oladipo looks more like the version that torched the league three seasons ago than the one that’s lacked spark over the past two. As long as that remains unclear, though, so will Indiana’s preferred path forward.

“It’s easy to jump the gun and say you have to do something,” Pritchard told reporters in August. “We don’t feel any rush to make any quick decision on Victor. We have him for another year. It will be up to him.

That makes Oladipo one of the most intriguing wild cards to watch as the NBA offseason kicks off in earnest. Right now, though, all that’s certain is that he remains a Pacer. If and when that changes, we’re sure Fat Joe will let us know.