Now that Tyrese Haliburton has fully recovered and is back on the court, is it possible that his minor injury could have been one of the best things to happen to the Pacers this year?
It’s a dangerous choice to open with finding a positive in a star player’s injury, so might as well double down and bring in some fractions too. The 2022-23 Pacers season breaks up nicely into thirds: 28 games through mid-December, then 28 games until the trade deadline, and finally 26 games until the end of the regular season.
In the first third of the season the Pacers went 14-14, only 10 wins shy of their Vegas win prediction for the entire season. Excitement around Gainbridge Fieldhouse was as high as it’s been in the last five years, and some fans were even talking about upgrading the roster on the way to a playoff push in 2023.
The Pacers followed that up by going just 11-16 in the second third of the season, with one game to go before the trade deadline. Their 25-30 record puts them in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, with the seventh-best lottery odds if the season ended today.
Which is right where they should be…if not further down.
The 22-23 Pacers are:
> 13-7 (65%) against teams currently below .500 (13th in the NBA)
> 12-23 (34%) against teams currently above .500 (24th in the NBA)
> 6-7 (46%) in games decided by 3 or less (17th in the NBA)
> 7-15 (32%) in games decided by 10+ points (26th in the NBA)
— Rhett Bauer (@rhett_bauer) February 7, 2023
Missing your All-Star point guard for what might end up as the toughest stretch of their entire season is a big deal, but the talent deficit compared to the top of the NBA was still extremely noticeable. Losing 10 of 11 games without Haliburton by an average of 12 points per game tells the story pretty well, as does a 12-23 record against teams above .500 this year.
Comparing the first year of a rebuild to teams that are on their way to contending isn’t fair, and the absence of the offensive engine that is Tyrese Haliburton is impossible to ignore. The Pacers also have one of the youngest rosters in the league with plenty of room for improvement, not to mention the extra draft picks at their disposal.
Even still, some combination of above .500 teams will be what stands in the way of a title when the Pacers decide that it’s time to contend. It’s that benchmark where the Pacers fall short, and it’s that benchmark that screams for them to keep the long-term plan in mind. That can still mean acquiring the right kind of talent at this deadline, but it can also mean improving the future with some tough choices in the present.
Instead of saying the Pacers should sell, say that they should PITCH = Prioritize Indiana’s Timeline for Championship Hopes
Instead of saying they should buy, say that they should CATCH = Carefully Acquire Talent Cheap or High-quality
Not simple, but neither is their situation! https://t.co/7D5hAp7N7n
— Rhett Bauer (@rhett_bauer) February 7, 2023
The final third of the Pacers season is going to be the most fascinating stretch of games yet, and not just due to potential personnel changes in a couple days. The 26 games after the deadline are against teams that have an average winning percentage of 48.6%, which means the Pacers could end up playing around .500 basketball after the deadline if they wanted to.
Unfortunately, that might also end up squandering the chance at picking one of the many talented forwards at the top of this draft class. Forwards that have every combination of insane athleticism, stifling defense, exceptional sharpshooting and legitimate shot creation that a team could ask for. A 2023 pick with top-7 lottery odds could be the third-most valuable asset on the Pacers behind only Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin, so maintaining or improving the value of that pick should be a priority.
That’s absolutely no disrespect to Myles Turner and the career year he’s having. It’s far more about how good this draft class seems to be. There are going to be talented guys available from 11 to 15 if the Pacers push for the play-in, but the chances of getting someone capable of being The GuyTM at those spots goes down significantly. Haliburton made his first of many All-Star games, and Mathurin stepped into the league as a certified bucket, but it sure would be nice to add one more elite option to the mix.
IJax has played the 26th-most minutes in his draft class
The Grizzlies, Pelicans, Warriors, Nets, Nuggets, Raptors, Cavs, Bulls, Wizards, Kings and Knicks have at least one guy ahead of him despite also winning more than the Pacers
Gotta see more IJax to close out this season https://t.co/BHQ0vYLSgw
— Rhett Bauer (@rhett_bauer) February 3, 2023
Lastly, how much value is there in going after playoff experience for a group of players that might not be locks to be a part of the next great Pacers team? Obviously it could be great for player development, and it would give the front office a glimpse of how the players handle themselves when the lights get bright. But wouldn’t it be more valuable to improve the future of the team while getting more data points on the players already in the building?
Isaiah Jackson has gone from being hyped up as a player who can switch 1 through 5 to gathering more DNP-CD’s than minutes per game in just his second year. Chris Duarte rightfully made an All-Rookie Team last season, but has struggled to find a rhythm after being plagued with injuries. Jalen Smith was announced as the starting power forward before the season, but now isn’t guaranteed to play even a backup role every night.
Thankfully, there are plenty of factors in play as the trade deadline comes and goes. Rotation priorities get shuffled as potential deals are discussed, while fans speculate about whether a player being out with soreness might lead to a highly-anticipated Twitter notification. All judgement should be withheld until the Pacers host the Suns on February 10th, the first game to hint at what could be in store for the last third of the season.
Pacers fans have had years of pain come from missing star players due to injury, and it’s rarely had any silver linings. This time though, Haliburton’s absence shed some light on the rest of the roster and could serve as another warning against accelerating the rebuild. If the Pacers really do want to get off the dreaded “treadmill of mediocrity”, they might want to consider sticking with a slightly-altered Dr. Seuss verse:
One-third, Two-third. Win-third, Lose-third.
Three-third, Lose-third. Four-third, (maybe) PICK THIRD.