Where do the Pacers go from here?

The Indiana Pacers lost Victor Oladipo to a season-ending knee injury in the second quarter of Wednesday’s game. He suffered a ruptured quad tendon that could put him out anywhere from six to twelve months.

There are no adequate words to describe the numbness that comes in the moments and hours directly after witnessing an injury that devastating. Shock, disbelief, clinging to some tiny hope that it isn’t as bad as it seems.

There was no joy in watching the Pacers continue to play after Oladipo was taken out on a stretcher. No anxiety as the game was close in the final minute. None of that mattered much. The Pacers had already lost more than this one game could possibly make up for.

To their credit, the team somehow managed to keep fighting despite the circumstances. Showing their faithful fans once again how incredibly resilient they are by holding on to beat a Toronto Raptors team that was 11-2 prior to last night when they play without Kawhi Leonard.

Thad Young showed what an incredible leader he is while putting up 23 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals. Even those impressive numbers don’t do his performance justice though, it was a truly inspiring effort from the team captain.

Now, the Pacers have to move on somehow and finish this season without the player that infected the team’s culture with positivity and resilience. They’ll need both qualities now more than ever.

So what do the Indiana Pacers do now? Where do they go from here?

One thing is certain. They aren’t going to tank. Don’t waste your time dreaming of the Pacers winning the lottery.

Even if Kevin Pritchard hadn’t confirmed that on Twitter last night, it’s simply not possible for the team to tank at 32-15. They’ve likely won more games already this season than 5-8 teams in the league will win all year.

They could stumble into an Eastern Conference playoff spot even while giving up on this season as a whole. For that reason, it would be surprising if the Pacers became sellers at the trade deadline. Indiana has numerous veterans on 1-year deals including Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, Kyle O’Quinn.

I don’t see the Pacers doing anything but trying to win as many games as possible with the guys that they already have.

In theory it would make some sense for the Pacers to look to unload some players they think won’t be part of the team after this season, but don’t expect them to be shipped off for a prospect that isn’t ready to play or draft picks–which are both typically hard to acquire these days for a rental.

Maybe I’m being pessimistic about the value of the Pacers veterans at the deadline, but it’s just becoming less and less common for teams to give up first-round picks at the deadline and at all. Especially for only a half season of a player. And most playoff teams won’t be able to just absorb those contracts into cap space so the Pacers would have to take someone back in return.

It’s hard to see the Pacers making any deals that include solid assets for the future without them also taking on a contract that will affect their salary cap next year and beyond.

Outside of O’Quinn and maybe Evans, it’s hard to see the Pacers sending anyone away without an upgrade to the roster coming back. The Pacers are more likely to consider trading guys like Collison and Bogdanovic now than they were a couple days ago but both still feel very unlikely with how important they are to the current team. The Pacers chemistry is still a strong suit and we saw last year how Pritchard opted to keep the group together rather than mess with the chemistry.

It’d be one thing if this injury happened in December, but with only two weeks until the trade deadline and the team at 32-15? Hard to see the Pacers both want to pull the plug and find deals that are suitable.

So, this–other than perhaps a buyout market addition or two or a small trade–is most likely the Pacers roster for the rest of the season. No one can fill the void that is Oladipo but the team did go 7-4 without him earlier this year.

They can collectively do enough to still be a good team. Their ceiling is certainly lower but this isn’t last year’s group that was winless without their star player. They have enough reason to hope they can sneak their way into the second round of the playoffs.

Next Men Up

The sports cliché of the next man up is here for the Pacers. Tyreke Evans steps into the starting lineup and the Pacers now have consistent minutes available for their promising rookie in Aaron Holiday.

Holiday has a huge opportunity to show that he belongs in the rotation now and next season. If he can prove that he’s ready for a regular rotation role or perhaps even as a starter, the Pacers will be more comfortable letting Collison and/or Joseph leave in the off-season and money could potentially be used on players to upgrade another position.

The Pacers may not be as attractive of a destination with their star player possibly rehabbing into next season but if Holiday is ready that’s a rotation spot on a very cheap rookie deal.

Holiday has a lot to prove. He’s mostly been an off-ball guard in his rookie season so more needs to be known before he gets full ball-handling duties in a rotation spot next year. He’s made some impressive passes in his limited opportunities so far, however, and looks poised to be a very good player for a long time.

Holiday has surprisingly not shot the ball very well to start his career (27% from 3-point range) so it would be good to see his percentages improve over the rest of the season but he’s been a better finisher at the rim than expected. This has helped his overall field-goal percentage of 41.5%, which isn’t bad considering his struggles with the deep ball.

Edmond Sumner could see some time as well. McMillan said after Thursday’s practice that Sumner will be with the NBA team for the rest of the season to help with wing depth. Sumner continues to look too good for the G-League but without another injury, it’s still likely that he doesn’t see a whole lot of playing time.

Like Holiday, Sumner could take a advantage of an opportunity if he gets one to show that he deserves a spot on the roster or rotation next season which could encourage the Pacers to try and spend a lot of money in one place rather than a bunch of smaller deals if they feel their young guys are ready for larger roles and can fill spots in the rotation.

While you may like to see more chances for other young players like Alize Johnson and/or T.J. Leaf, it’s unlikely that either of their roles change without another injury this season. Leaf will likely get 5-10 minutes per game like he’s been getting fairly frequently of late and Johnson will continue to torture G-League frontcourts with his relentless motor. Unless Leaf starts to struggle in his limited minutes, Johnson likely won’t get a real rotation chance this season. Even if Leaf struggles, the Pacers are more likely to shorten the rotation back to just nine players than find time for Johnson.

McMillan is going to continue to play the guys that give him the best chance to win right now. The team has been too good to completely change their focus to the future this far into the season and it would be an extremely hard sell to the veterans that have bought into the culture of the franchise that got them off to such a great start for the team to do anything but continue with the course.

Who else steps up in Oladipo’s absence?

Injuries suck but one of the few positives that come from them is the void of opportunity that can be filled by the other players on the team. A recent Pacers example is Paul George taking advantage of his increased opportunity with Danny Granger’s injury in 2012-13 and earning his first All-Star selection.

For the Pacers to continue being successful this season, it’ll take everyone to fill that void. Everyone will have to do more. But everyone has more opportunity now as well. The Pacers were an impressively balanced attack when Oladipo went out earlier in the season. They have a tougher schedule the rest of the way than that initial stretch but it’ll take a similarly balanced approach.

“We have got to play with each other now. We can’t rely on one person,” Turner said after practice Thursday. “We have to play team basketball.”

Expect Myles Turner to be more consistently involved in the offense like he was in December. Turner’s been an incredible presence on the defensive end as he’s become a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Masked Myles, the Last Samurai, has upped his 3-point percentage to 40% on the season. After struggling to start the year (22.5% in October and November), he’s made 50% of his attempts from distance since then 27 for 54.

Young picked up the slack for the team last night and they’ll need more nights like those from him for the remainder of 2019, but it’ll likely be different guys on different nights. None of the Pacers players are good enough to be the night in, night out star but any of them could be on a given night. The Pacers will have to have a committee approach to replacing Oladipo’s production.

The Pacers will need Evans to be more consistent now that he’s the full-time starter. He’s looked better since getting those PRP injections into his knee. Collison’s been much better since his putrid start to the season. He’ll have even more playmaking duties for the rest of the year. Joseph will finish games more often when the team needs his defensive capabilities down the stretch.

“Each individual has to take it upon themselves to play even harder and nastier,” Collison told Mark Montieth of Pacers.com after practice. “We have to play with a nasty mindset and know that every game, if we don’t play hard and we don’t play scrappy, we’re not going to come out on top. We have to be the most scrappy team, the most nasty team and the hardest-working team that day, and we’ll be fine. A lot of teams don’t play hard. We play hard most every night. We have to play even harder.”

Bojan Bogdanovic will probably lead the team in scoring for the rest of the season. The Pacers can build a good portion of their offense around his ability to run around screens. His shooting percentages have come back to Earth after a blistering start but the Croatian Jordan as Oladipo called him will be needed consistently.

The Pacers will need those Domas Sabonis dominating second-unit games on most nights. And to his credit, he’s been very consistent this year with gobbling up rebounds and making almost everything near the rim. Staying out of foul trouble so he can potentially play more minutes when needed will be important.

If the team can learn more about the Domas and Myles pairing of this stretch, that would be ideal. While they likely won’t play much more than the 5-10 minutes together they do now with Thad being just as important to the current squad’s success, that pairing could decide a lot of things about the Pacers future with Sabonis eligible for an extension this summer and Young a free agent. The Pacers have started to figure things out when both are playing. The defense hasn’t suffered with one of the bigs defending the perimeter and the offense has started to perk up a little with Turner being used almost 100% of the time as a floor spacer whenever Sabonis sets a screen on a pick and roll. Less and less often are they getting in each other’s way by trying to occupy the same space.

The duo has a net rating of 7.3 while they share the court for about six minutes every game. A big improvement over last season when they had a net rating of -9.9 in five minutes per game.

When ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote about his All-Star selections for the Eastern Conference, he included Myles Turner, Domas Sabonis and Bojan Bogdanovic as possibilities for the final two spots in the East. While he included none of them in his final selections, that doesn’t change the fact that the team has three fringe, near All Stars and it could be argued that Thad Young deserves some of the same consideration as well. Four guys on the roster have had very good starts to the season, while none of them are likely to get that All-Star appearance, it speaks to the talent that remains on the roster.

The Pacers aren’t likely to give up yet and neither should you.

“We lose one of our most talented players, but it’s not like our season is over,” Turner said according to the Indy Star. “We’re still a top team in the East. We’re still a contender in the East. We have to approach every game with that mindset, so we’re optimistic on where we’re at.”

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