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Victor Oladipo’s Absence Puts the Pacers’ Future on Hold

Without its star guard in Orlando, Indiana must wait to see if it has built a true contender, and whether its centerpiece is worth ponying up for with an extension

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Pacers will stay in a holding pattern a while longer. Victor Oladipo’s decision to skip the NBA restart in Orlando likely ends their chance of being a dark horse contender in the East, and clouds their decision-making process as their star enters the last season of his contract.

Oladipo just returned in late January from a year-long absence from a ruptured quad tendon, appearing in 13 games before the NBA shut down on March 11. There were inevitable growing pains. Not only was he rusty, but he was playing with a mostly new supporting cast. Indiana went 7-6 with Oladipo, who averaged 13.8 points on 39.1 percent shooting, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game while playing on a minutes restriction and sitting out back-to-backs.

But there were glimpses of the All-Star play we were accustomed to before his injury. He had 27 points on 16 shots with seven rebounds and four assists in Indiana’s last game before the shutdown, a 114-111 loss to Boston:

It was the kind of performance that could have made the Pacers a dangerous playoff team. They had a 32-20 record without Oladipo despite injuries to almost all other key players. The one thing they were missing was a dynamic perimeter scorer who could close games.

A healthy Oladipo can do that and more. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he’s an elite athlete with few holes in his game. He can run the offense, spot up off the ball, rebound, and defend both backcourt positions at a high level. He had a breakout performance in his only postseason appearance with Indiana in 2018, averaging 22.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 2.4 steals per game in a seven-game loss to LeBron James and Cleveland. The Cavs had no choice but to start blitzing and trapping Oladipo every time he ran a pick-and-roll.

But Oladipo has a short track record of playing at that level. He was up and down in his first four seasons in Orlando and Oklahoma City, and will have barely seen the court in two years when the 2020-21 season starts. The Pacers won’t have much information to analyze when deciding on an extension offer this offseason.

Oladipo’s game is built on athleticism. He’s a good but not great shooter (a career 35.0 percent shooter from 3 and 79.3 percent from the free throw line) without the size of the league’s best wings. The seventh-year guard will have to reinvent himself if he can’t finish through contact like he could before his injury. That was the biggest thing missing in his brief stint this season. He shot 40.5 percent within 3 feet of the rim and averaged 3.2 free throw attempts per game, below his averages in those categories (60.2 and 3.9) in 2018-19. Durability is also a concern given his size and style of play. Slashing guards usually don’t age well.

It’s no surprise that Oladipo didn’t want to risk reinjuring himself in Orlando. The 28-year-old’s next contract will take him through the rest of his prime. The CBA limits Indiana to offering him a 20 percent raise ($25 million per year) on his current salary in an extension, less than what he could receive on the open market with a clean bill of health. They have to wait until the summer of 2021, when he will be an unrestricted free agent, before they can sign him to a max contract. There are a number of intriguing suitors who could pursue him. He has already been linked to Miami, who reportedly plans to chase him and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Pacers could face a repeat of the Paul George situation, choosing whether to run it back with their franchise player with no guarantee he will stay beyond next season or press the reset button. They turned George into Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, but that type of return might not be possible given Oladipo’s recent injury history and limited track record. It’s a tough choice. That’s life in the NBA for even the most well-run small-market franchises.

Indiana has also built a core of players in their prime around Oladipo, making a long-term reset even less appealing. Malcolm Brogdon is an ideal backcourt partner, Sabonis is an All-Star roll man, Myles Turner has turned himself into an elite 3-and-D center, and T.J. Warren and Justin Holiday have been (surprisingly) solid two-way wings. All of them are ready to win now.

The good news for the Pacers’ time in Orlando is that they already know how to play without Oladipo. The key will be Brogdon’s recovery after a recent positive COVID-19 test, assuming he plays at all. He has thrived in his first season as a primary option after leaving Milwaukee, averaging 16.3 points on 43.9 percent shooting, 7.1 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game. He’s not as explosive as Oladipo, but he makes up for it with more size and a better jumper. The loss of Jeremy Lamb looms large; he was playing well in place of Oladipo before tearing both his ACL and meniscus in mid-January.

The most likely beneficiaries of Indiana’s backcourt injuries are Aaron Holiday, as the new starting guard next to Brogdon, and T.J. McConnell, who will run the second-unit offense. The wild card is third-year guard Edmond Sumner, an inconsistent shooter better suited to playing with the ball. Holiday is a promising second-year prospect averaging 9.4 points and 3.0 assists per game this season. He has a higher ceiling but lower floor than McConnell, who is a more reliable floor general but lacks the size, speed, and shooting ability to take over games. Holiday has had some impressive performances this season, most notably games of 24 points and 13 assists against the Nets and 19 points and 10 assists against the Raptors:

This version of Indiana is unlikely to make a playoff run even in a best-case scenario. The Pacers are currently tied with Philadelphia for the no. 5 seed, two games behind Miami at no. 4, and could slip to no. 6 without Oladipo, putting the team in a first-round matchup against either Toronto or Boston. It may be last season all over again, when the Pacers were swept by the Celtics because of their lack of firepower, despite being competitive in every game.

Indy has done well to stay afloat over the last 18 months without its best player. But it needs Oladipo at 100 percent to go any further, and now has to wait six more months to see how far he can take them. The Pacers’ current holding pattern will clear eventually. There’s just no way to know where they will be when it does.