The NBA is back and the Indiana Pacers return tonight in their season opener.
The Eastern Conference is more wide open than it has been in maybe a decade now that you-know-who has taken his talents to the West, but most of the pundits seem to point to the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors as the favorites to get to the NBA Finals.
While most expect the Pacers to finish at about the same spot in the playoffs as last season, they enter the year with an upgraded bench and a returning starting lineup that had so much chemistry in their first year together. Can they surprise the basketball world a second straight season and make some noise in the playoffs? We’re about to find out.
Here’s some of the questions for the team this season with some predictions sprinkled in as well.
Can Victor Oladipo become an MVP candidate?
In the team’s offseason “mini-camp” in Miami, players came back reporting that Victor Oladipo looked like he was going to be even better than the year before. He was the player that guys pointed out as looking highly improved over the summer.
That’s saying something for the winner of the Most Improved Player award.
“I’m still hungry,” Oladipo said this past July. “I think I’m hungrier now than I was when I first got here. I want to be great. I’ve been saying that since I walked into his facility and started being a Pacer. I want to be one of the greatest to ever play this game. Whatever I got to do to do that, I’m going to try my best to try and achieve that and in the process of winning. That’s the goal.”
Oladipo is hungry for greatness and is out to prove last year wasn’t some kind of fluke. While it’s clear he’ll still be an All-Star, All-NBA caliber player, can he take it to another level and be in the conversation as an MVP?
There’s a clear way that could happen. First, Oladipo has to start the season off with a crazy hot streak, averaging in the high 20s in points per game. Second, the team success has to once again surprise. If the Pacers look poised to challenge for a top spot in the East, that could push Victor into the conversation.
If he starts slow, it’s hard to erase that first impression of his season on voters’ minds. While a hot start can remain fresh through a slump in the middle of the year.
You could make an argument that Oladipo deserved at least some consideration last year with how bad the Pacers were without him. But while it’s not likely that he’ll finish with any votes for MVP, it’s certainly possible if he ups his game even a little and the Pacers increase their team success as well.
My prediction: Oladipo averages 26 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists but the Pacers don’t finish in the top of the conference standings and Oladipo, while deserving of being in the conversation, doesn’t get any MVP votes once again.
Is the Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis pairing going to see minutes?
All offseason long it appeared that the Pacers were ready to try out their young center duo on the court together a lot more often this year with Nate McMillan saying how he believes teams would play bigger with LeBron James out West.
Then, the preseason happened with Turner and Sabonis playing less than two minutes together and McMillan backtracked on the summer discussions.
“There has been a lot of talk about Myles and Domas (playing together), but they play the same position,” McMillan said after a recent practice. “They’re both fives. I think we can play that line-up some when teams have bigger personnel out there. We’re able to match up with those teams, but that hasn’t been a strong combination when those two have been out on the floor. You’ve got two centers, and one of them is trying to play the 4 spot. Depending on the line-up your opponent has, that can be challenging.”
With Indiana giving the $72 million extension to Turner, it would seem prudent to figure out if they can function together this season before Sabonis is eligible for an extension at this time next year. Thad Young’s pending free agency another reason to see if Sabonis can start at the power forward potentially down the line.
Sabonis was a double-double machine in the preseason grabbing nearly every rebound in sight. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that he’ll average a double double as his minutes go up in the regular season. The Pacers emphasis on rebounds in training camp should be beneficial to both big men numbers on the glass.
For Turner, instead of looking to earn a big contract this season, he now has to prove to the doubters that he’s worth the one he’s got. It doesn’t seem like his offensive role is in line to change much but defensively is where the team wants him to make a leap. If he can nab a higher percentage of rebounds while he’s on the court and is more consistent with his defensive positioning, that’ll be a steady improvement.
For the duo together, it may be limited to games against teams like the Detroit Pistons that play two bigs in more of a traditional look. Last season, they played about six minutes together in the first half on most night. It doesn’t appear that it’ll be more than that this year. The challenge is finding enough minutes for both of them.
My prediction: Barring any injury to Thad Young, the Pacers play Sabonis and Turner together sparingly. The minutes go better than the previous season and give the team more confidence to try it out in future years. Turner’s defense takes a leap and he grabs more rebounds but his offensive role remains stagnant so his improvement is more subtle. Sabonis comes just short of averaging a double double in his second season with Indiana.
How much depth do the Pacers have this year?
This looks like the deepest team the Pacers have had in a long time. The upgrades in the offseason all gave a boost to the second unit with Tyreke Evans the most important of the bunch.
Evans should give Indiana a much-needed secondary playmaker and help the Pacers lineups while Oladipo is resting immensely. It’s always important to watch his health but if it ends up being a good fit for Evans, he could push the Pacers to the top tier of the East.
His chemistry with Sabonis is already evident on the pick and roll and they should both reap the benefits of it.
Doug McDermott provides more shooting off the bench which is what Kevin Pritchard’s number one priority in the summer was after keeping the top-7 players around. Kyle O’Quinn is a big upgrade for the Al Jefferson role and could play some with Sabonis at times as well.
The development of their own players could make their depth go over the top though. Edmond Sumner looks like he needs to be in the rotation with his athleticism fully restored from his ACL injury and T.J. Leaf doesn’t look as lost as he did as a rookie.
Aaron Holiday is a clear upgrade for Joe Young as the third point guard. Alize Johnson would have a defined role immediately if he ever received minutes.
The Pacers should be able to survive a couple of small injuries with more success than the last few seasons that have seen so many former Pacers players end up out of the league after they became free agents (Jefferson, Young, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Lavoy Allen, Trevor Booker, just to name a few).
My prediction: Evans misses a few weeks but Sumner is able to fill in well enough for the Pacers to be confident enough in giving him a rotation spot next season. Leaf’s defensive struggles still make him a negative player overall but not nearly to the rate of last season. Both Holiday and Johnson don’t play much in their rookie seasons. Evans and Sabonis split any of their potential sixth-man-of-the-year votes preventing either player from wining it.
Season prediction: The Indiana Pacers win 50 games on the season and lose a close battle in the second round in at least six games to the Raptors or Celtics.