Reflecting on a year of monumental change for the Indiana Pacers

2022 brought about a lot of change for the Indiana Pacers. That probably undersells the transformation of an overall organizational culture not just in terms of its on-court product but in trying to build its roster in ways that the team had largely avoided for over three decades.

Liz Lemon knows what I’m talking about.

Just compare how you may have been feeling after DeMar DeRozan hit a one-leg 3-pointer to beat the Pacers at the buzzer on New Year’s Eve 2021 as the team lost yet another close game in clutch time to how that one felt with Haliburton and the Pacers besting a 45-point night from George and winning in thrilling fashion. These Pacers have already won two more clutch games this season (13) than what I’ll refer to as the Injury List Era team won all of last year (11).

With all due respect to Ben Gibbard, so this is the new year, the Pacers feel very different. We’ve gone from feeling like Lieutenant Dan on NYE to feeling like Lieutenant Dan with new legs in one short trip around the Sun.

As far as the roster goes, Myles Turner is the only remaining starter from the Injury List Era. In types of trades that the Pacers have rarely done in their history, they sent out veterans primarily for draft capital. Caris LeVert was the first to be dealt which eventually netted the Pacers Andrew Nembhard as the first pick in the second round last summer and a likely first-round pick in the upcoming draft. Malcolm Brogdon was dealt in the off-season to the Boston Celtics for a first-round pick and Aaron Nesmith.

T.J. Warren and his troublesome foot that haunted him for over 2 years after his unbelievable NBA Bubble run exited to Brooklyn as a free agent. And of course, 2-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis was dealt near the trade deadline for Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield. While Sabonis is doing his hub-of-the-wheel thing to perfection surrounded by a terrific cast of shooters and a speedy point guard for the Kings, Tyrese Haliburton has become the face of the franchise and its leader in every way.

There’s no moment that tops that seismic trade for best of 2022 for the Indiana Pacers. As hard as it might be to let go of a 2-time All Star in Sabonis, Haliburton was the ideal candidate if they were going to move him and he instantly–from his first moments wearing a Pacers jersey as they blitzed the Cavaliers with 40 first-quarter points–showed how he was something they haven’t ever had: a guy both capable of leading the league in assists and with enough scoring and shooting skills to be a primary option as well. Suddenly with Haliburton, the Pacers were fast, fun, and there was hope of more to come in the future.

Where the previous iteration of the Pacers had become stale and a painful watch with little to look forward to in its future, these new-look Pacers are somehow both younger and better with far more room to grow. While not many expected that hope that was felt after the trade deadline last year to turn into wins so soon, the Pacers are 20-17 and sit at sixth seed in the Eastern Conference standings as 2023 begins. And Haliburton not only looks like an All Star but a potential All-Star starter and perhaps an All-NBA level player in his third season as he’s figuring out how to close games before our eyes in the 5-1 stretch with wins against the Celtics, Heat, Hawks, Cavaliers, and Clippers.

His latest closing masterpiece against former Pacers star Paul George and the Clippers was the exclamation point to a stunning set of 4th-quarter performances of late. Coming into the final 12 minutes with only six points, Haliburton scored 18 points including 13 of the team’s final 15 points, answering every score by George with his own including drives through contact to the basket to earn trips to the free-throw line, nifty hesitation dribble to blow by the switching big man, and a pull-up 3-pointer that followed a George turnover in transition that may have been the play of the game.

“In that fourth, I knew what time it was,” Haliburton said after the game. Carlisle called him a “basketball savant” that has an ability to feel what the team needs in big moments and Haliburton echoed that point, “It’s a feel thing. It’s just feeling what a team needs in that moment. Today we needed some energy. We needed a boost from me.”

The veterans that remained on the roster despite never ceasing rumors of deals for picks far off in the future: Myles Turner and Buddy Hield have been instrumental in the team’s success. You can talk all you want about Hield’s shooting and spacing that he adds to the team but perhaps his best quality given the state of the previous roster is the fact that this guy never misses games. 

“We’re just trying to build a culture here with guys who want to play every night,” Haliburton said after a game in December, “who want to compete, just love the game of basketball.”

Shots fired at the Injury List Era squad

As for Turner, he’s played the best basketball of his career and is relishing being back at his comfortable center position full-time while also playing with the best playmaking guard that he’s ever had as a teammate. He’s played so well that talks of a re-negotiation and extension have begun between him and the front office that could allow the team to give Turner a hefty raise this season while signing him to a reasonable extension over future years. While there’s no guarantee that an agreement will be reached, it’s a much different story than before the year when Kevin Pritchard said matter of factly that Turner would be a free agent after the season despite those extension options being available if both sides were interested.

While the defense isn’t amazing, it’s better this year despite the roster still being short of bigger wings and playing four guards almost all the time because of the presence of Turner, who missed the second half of last season, and the additions of capable defenders in Nesmith and Nembhard in the starting lineup.

Nembhard is the best perimeter defender on the team, makes savvy, veteran-level plays without thinking while taking on assignments like guarding Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. He’s hit a buzzer beater in Los Angeles to beat the Lakers and defeated the defending champion Warriors in their arena while doing basically everything for the Pacers offense who were without all of their other point guards. That 31-point, 13-assist performance might be the best game a Pacers rookie has ever had. 

Nesmith, who could never manage to get consistent playing time in Boston, has found his footing with the Pacers over the last month. His detonation at the rim against Jarrett Allen and the Cavaliers seemed to further his confidence and in December he had shooting splits of 50.8/39.7/100 while averaging 11.6 points in 23.9 minutes per game. If he can consistently make his 3-pointers at an above average rate while playing his energetic, do-the-dirty-work style on the other end, the Pacers might have found something in the 2020 lottery pick.

While attacking on closeouts and driving to the basket had been dicey early in the season for Nesmith, especially with his left hand, he’s had a series of nice attacks, including that vicious dunk, to the rim lately while being under control and finishing. He started the year off slow with his shot but also had been dealing with a foot injury. You wonder if that was affecting his play on offense with how well he’s come along of late.

Oh and the Pacers had their first draft pick (besides the Jonathan Bender pick they acquired in the Antonio Davis trade) in the top-9 since they took George McCloud 7th in 1989. It’s truly incredible that a sports franchise can go through three entire decades without ever being bad enough to pick in the single digits in their next draft. With that rare opportunity, Kevin Pritchard and the front office had to nail that pick and by all accounts through this nearly half a season, they did just that in selecting Bennedict Mathurin at sixth overall. 

While he’s only started two games, he’s been an absolutely electric scorer and driver off the bench for the Pacers. He already might be the team’s best player at drawing fouls ever … as a rookie. As a player with an unwavering confidence, Mathurin has gone through countless scoring outbursts that keep the Pacers in games to start the second and fourth quarters as he becomes the go-to option in bench lineups. His ability to both get to the rim and force contact and whistles often stems the tide of opposing runs and swings momentum in the opposite direction. He leads the league in bench scoring at 17.2 points per game and is a legitimate contender for sixth man of the year.

While his efficiency has dipped in the last month, you can see how much potential there is for him to grow as he gains a strong handle and a better feel for when he should look to pass to an open teammate. The fact that he’s succeeding this much already even with those clear areas of improvement for him to work on are really encouraging to his future outlook.

In December of 2021, I wrote this on the many problems of the Pacers:

And that brings us to the core issue for this team: they don’t have a star that can put the team on their back and get a basket whenever one is necessary. Not one of their best players is a consistent scoring threat that can be counted on each and every night in the clutch. A basketball team without a star is a football team without a quarterback. It’s a television show without its show-runner. It’s the fourth season of Community.

No one wants to watch that gas leak season and that’s what the Pacers solved in getting Haliburton and him quickly figuring out just how good he can be. With Mathurin, they may eventually have two guys that they can count on in these crucial situations and if that’s the case, watch out in 2023 and beyond. I don’t know what the future holds for the Pacers or even whether they can keep up this level of play this season, but I’m sure excited to find out and that definitely was not the case one year ago.

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