Why the Indiana Pacers should look back before moving forward

I recently wrote about how important it is for the Pacers to maintain balance, but not just on one side of the ball or with the makeup of their roster. It’s also important to maintain balance with their approach to the trade deadline (and eventually offseason) with a team that’s overachieving, but still trying to maintain the idea of thinking in three- to four-year increments that the front office was adamant about before the 2022-23 season started.

That was easier to do before the Pacers were on pace to win 20 (!!!) more games than expected, a mark only five teams have matched since 2000-01. That’s too small of a sample to make any conclusions, especially when combined with the drastic shift in how teams now have to navigate player empowerment, but it does point to how unlikely this season has been.

Thanks to Basketball Reference, widening the scope found more than 40 teams in the last 20 years that won 12 or more games than their preseason over/under. Since that list included teams like the 2008-09 Boston Celtics and 2014-15 Golden State Warriors on their way to winning titles, looking at the teams expected to be under .500 is more relevant:

  • 2022-23 Pacers, Jazz
  • 2021-22 Cavs, Raptors, Grizzlies
  • 2020-21 Knicks, Suns
  • 2018-19 Kings
  • 2017-18 Pacers, 76ers
  • 2015-16 Hornets, Blazers
  • 2014-15 Celtics, Bucks
  • 2013-14 Hornets, Suns, Blazers, Raptors
  • 2012-13 Rockets

19 teams on the list, but one thing almost all of this group has in common is young players stepping up much sooner than expected. Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin. Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The list goes on.

If it isn’t young players being better than expected, it’s players on their second contracts that exploded after being given the keys to an expanded role: Lauri Markkanen, Pascal Siakam, Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, James Harden and last but certainly not least…Victor Oladipo.

The overachievers in the last couple years are the ones that encapsulate the same sort of situation the 2022-23 Pacers find themselves in. They’ve got multiple young players producing at a level hardly anyone saw coming for each of them, certainly not all of them at the same time, on top of veterans stepping up into bigger roles and playing better than ever.

We’re all familiar with the idea of crawl, walk, run. It’s to drive home the importance of taking the right steps in the right order to avoid falling flat on your face, whether figuratively or literally. But the saying is especially relevant when considering how the Pacers might operate compared to how some of these past teams approached building their team after their unexpected success.

Editor’s Gif Note: So there’s a *PACE* they need to take in advancing through these stages

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ path to overachieving actually started the year before anyone was really paying attention, with a trade the Pacers were involved in. Just like the Pacers inserted themselves into the James Harden trade in 2020-21 to acquire Caris LeVert, the Cavs joined in by poaching 22 year old Jarrett Allen from Houston with just a late first prior to his restricted free agency. Despite being under .500 on the season, the Cavs targeted an undervalued asset prior to the summer where they would have significant cap space.

Crawl.

The Cavs finished the 2019-20 season with the fifth-best lottery odds, jumping up to third to draft 20yo Mobley. Days later, they traded for 24yo Markkanen and his new four-year, $67 million contract and signed veteran point guard Ricky Rubio for a year to play with 22yo rising star Darius Garland. Then in the midst of surprising the league by floating between third and fifth in the Eastern Conference, they moved their own protected first plus a good second round pick for Caris LeVert, a deal Pacers fans are familiar with. Getting LeVert did bring some questions about his exact fit with Garland, but it was also yet another data point on the value of having multiple ball handlers on the floor with their young core.

Walk.

After compounding injuries and eventually losing in the play-in, the Cavs entered the 2021 offseason as a fun up-and-comer that had holes around their core but an idea of what they might need after some test runs. Then they shocked most of the world, and definitely the entire state of New York, by pushing darn near all of their chips to the center of the table to acquire Donovan Mitchell with three years plus a player option left on his max deal.

Run.

The Mitchell trade was analyzed for weeks, but this wasn’t an all-in move for just one year by a team desperate to be relevant again (don’t worry, we’ll get to those). This was adding a 26 year old All-Star to a legitimate core of players who are 20, 22 and 23 that are cost-controlled for at least four more seasons.

How about the Memphis Grizzlies? They’ve continually improved the last few years, but then made trades that appeared to make them worse in the short term in favor of getting extra assets and betting on internal development. That process has led to Memphis being one of the best teams in the Western Conference and having two legitimate Most Improved Player candidates in the same year while maintaining a war chest that will make them competitive for the next available star player.

The 2020-21 Suns are a story similar to the Cavs, getting incrementally better in consecutive years with small tweaks to the roster, then making a massive trade to get Chris Paul. Someone decently smart wrote after last year’s trade deadline about how that blueprint might actually be something for the Pacers to consider because of how massive the benefit of multiple rotation players on rookie contracts is. Phoenix has historically been an organization not worth mirroring for a whole list of reasons, but there’s a decent argument in favor of this specific team-building pathway.

Almost more important than the exact transactions that each team made is the invaluable knowledge of testing what might work with your core. The Cavs knew they needed another high-level guy who could create shots for themselves and others. The Grizzlies have one of the deepest teams in the entire league, constantly able to compensate for injury or mix and match for different looks. The Suns saw how well Devin Booker played with Ricky Rubio, and made a relatively low-cost bet on the Point God that resulted in the best record in the NBA and a trip to the Finals.

Just like the three teams above, everyone will have a different path to their version of contending, and that’s the beauty of the NBA. Unfortunately there’s also quite a few examples of teams who tried to skip steps, of organizations that thought they were ready to sprint with the top of the league but quickly fell on their face once the season started.

Sometimes NBA teams forget to pull their pants up before they ramp up the timeline.

The 2020-21 Knicks drastically overperformed on their way to a playoff appearance thanks to Julius Randle and others having career seasons. But then they spent $66million per year in long term money to retain a group of players that are either not on the team or not in the rotation just 18 months later. Not only that, but New York then had to use some of the draft capital they stockpiled for a star to shed that bad salary, all while not prioritizing about two years of young player development.

The 2018-19 Kings won 13 more games than expected and their most since 2005-06. Trading for 27yo Harrison Barnes at the deadline prior to his free agency, then signing him to a descending contract with your extra cap space? Sure! Spending another 35% of the cap on 28yo Corey Joseph, 30yo Dewayne Dedmon and 34 Trevor Ariza to multi-year deals? Not good, especially when the last two didn’t finish the first year of that contract on the team.

The 2021-22 Wolves didn’t make the list above, but they definitely belong in this section. They were so excited to have made the playoffs for the second time in the last 20 years, they gave up everything to acquire Rudy Gobert. Was it really time to do *that*? Spend every available draft pick to bring in a 30yo 7-footer on a $200million contract to match the timeline and cover up the flaws of your other 7-footer on a massive extension? Absolutely not. Minnesota bet that 21yo Anthony Edwards was so talented that he could overcome the weird fit of double bigs (long live Turbonis), and it’s unlikely things could have gone worse thus far.

The Wolves have years to figure out this core if they choose to (even if they might not have the assets), and the Kings and Knicks are on an upward trajectory after some smart moves. But these are just a few examples of the hole teams can find themselves in when they try to run after crawling faster than they expected. There’s a difference between a team being opportunistic with acquiring talent, and a team spending too much, too fast in a desperate attempt to cling to the feeling that came with surpassing low expectations.

There’s a team on the list above that hasn’t been brought up, but one Pacers fans are re all familiar with. The 2017-18 Pacers had basically an entire rotation of guys playing better than anyone thought, led by the shocking All-NBA play from Oladipo. But Kevin Pritchard and the Pacers’ front office stood pat at the deadline despite being 15 games over .500, tinkered in the following offseason with Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, and were on pace to win 55 games when disaster struck with Oladipo’s knee injury. 

We don’t know for sure how that season would have played out, but we have seen Pritchard be patient, yet aggressive. He took a chance to bring in versatile starters in Malcolm Brogdon and TJ Warren, which was smart business even if injuries constantly plagued that core. When it was clearly time to pivot for both on and off court reasons, KP capitalized on a trade going on James Harden requesting a trade. Then a year later, they seized a chance to completely overhaul the roster in just a couple weeks, and that’s led to what’s currently one of the most fun Pacers rosters in the last decade.

As with any trade discussion for me, everything comes down to what the offers are, which almost no one knows for certain until the Woj or Shams notification comes through. There will be thousands of words written about players and deals that might fit whatever phase of the re-tool the team might be in. But ultimately there’s no doubt that the Pacers brass has earned trust that they can transition this team from crawl to walk to run, and it will be fascinating to possibly gain some insight into where they think they are as the trade deadline approaches.

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