The Indiana Pacers are 9-16. The 7th-worst record in the NBA. They are on their third head coach in three seasons and out of excuses.
“We can’t be an organization or a team that accepts mediocrity,” Myles Turner said after the latest embarrassing loss for the Pacers who fell to the Miami Heat without both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. “That’s what we’ve been playing like. We got to up the ante, somehow someway … we have to find a way to fucking win.”
So what’s the problem with these Pacers?
The roster that Kevin Pritchard, Pacers president of basketball operations, put together three off-seasons ago has struggled to finish games. They have a positive point-differential this season while sitting four games outside of the last play-in spot in the Eastern Conference. The only teams behind them in the East are the rebuilding Magic and Pistons who on average get beat by nearly 10 points each game.
Somehow a team built with the hope of being greater than the sum of its parts has been less. Injuries can’t be used as an excuse for this group anymore. It’s a pipe dream for this entire roster to be healthy at the same time after the last three years. And they’ve treaded water much better than this through injuries before.
Is it the overly discussed and debated Turbonis duo? Domantas Sabonis and Turner have somehow played better together this year than ever before with a 8.8 net rating while playing over 400 minutes with each other. Pacers lineups with only one of the centers have both been outscored by opponents to this point. There are bigger issues here than the imperfect fit for the team’s two most important players.
But the fact that two centers are the most important players on the Pacers is an issue in itself. Centers may be the least valuable position in the league if you aren’t at the level of Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic. Many teams prefer to spend their cap space elsewhere and find cheaper options at the position. Trading one may help solve some of the other Pacers issues but there just aren’t many teams in the league that are desperately looking for a center and willing to part with much to get one.
That the Pacers have used two of their last three first-round selections on centers in Goga Bitadze and Isaiah Jackson–with no consistent rotation minutes available for either of them–only exacerbates this problem. The Pacers have used a lot of cap space and a lot of draft capital on centers.
You have to think that if there was another team willing to give up something decent, the Pacers would have made a deal by now. But Sabonis is their best player and a 2-time All-Star and Turner has been the entirety of the Pacers defense since their defensive guru Dan Burke left so it’s understandable why the team hasn’t been in a rush to just hand one away without getting value in return.
If you look at the Pacers roster, there are plenty of good players. But if you really think about the positions that they best fit at, there’s a problem there as well. I would say that the Pacers currently start two centers and three shooting guards. In a league where switchable positionless wings are highly valuable, the Pacers have none that are above replacement level.
Malcolm Brogdon has flourished offensively as a point guard with the Pacers in terms of his counting stats but his best role on a winning team is probably in more of an off-the-ball role where he doesn’t need to defend at the point-of-attack on defense. His slow release also prevents him from being able to consistently take advantage of defenders that go under on all of his screens. He’s far too casual with his passes at times in late-game situations to be relied on as a lead ball handler.
Caris LeVert and Chris Duarte both also fit better as secondary or tertiary playmakers and can’t really run an offense. LeVert’s defense is not great and he’s been frustratingly bad at times offensively since returning from his back injury. Passing can seem like a last resort to him and he never seems to find a teammate when they would be in rhythm. Duarte may be the Pacers’ best on-ball perimeter defender among usual starters but he’s completely lost as a team defender. He’s the Pacers first good pick since Turner but he’s almost the same age as Turner already and it’s unclear how close he already is to his ceiling. When Justin Holiday starts, he’s a serviceable small forward but he’s also so slender that bigger wings eat him alive.
Sabonis is the team’s best player but smarter people than me have noticed his role has been de-emphasized in the offense compared to previous years. It also feels like when good teams key on taking him away by packing the paint, daring him and his teammates to make outside shots, they can’t make them pay.
Turner has been better with both rebounding and outside shooting than ever before in his career but he can’t create his own looks and he disappears on nights when the ball doesn’t move well. His poor hands and questionable feel rob him of having a more consistent impact on the offensive end as much as his role.
Clearly, there are some chemistry issues. Caris LeVert and Sabonis got into a bit of a heated argument towards the end of the Heat loss after a defensive miscommunication.
LeVert downplayed it as two super competitive guys that are frustrated with losing and they “hugged it out” right after that, but we know the locker room wasn’t great last season and it doesn’t seem like that has improved.
T.J. Warren is missed. Truly. Madly. Deeply. But hoping he comes back, is immediately the guy from the bubble and magically fixes all the team’s issues by himself is an illogical plot that would only make the cut in the final season of Game of Thrones.
Rick Carlisle certainly isn’t blameless in all of this. He has the same roster as the last two coaches but with the worst results. Say what you want about Nate Bjorkgren but it wasn’t this bad especially this early. Under Nate McMillan, you never questioned the team’s effort.
The Pacers have been unlucky this season and unofficially lead the league in Last 2-minute Report Ws. Duarte’s had two potential game-winning free throws taken away with no calls that were deemed fouls after the fact in recent games. The Pacers lead the league by a long shot in close losses. Eight times this season they have lost by four points or less. No other team has more than four such losses. You don’t outscore your opponents over 25 games and only win 9 of them without some bad luck. But as Caitlin Cooper explains here, it’s not all luck either.
It also probably doesn’t happen if you have a true star to rely on to avoid needing some of those last-minute foul calls to go their way. The Pacers haven’t been seven games below .500 since the 2014-15 season when Paul George broke his leg.
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. The Pacers delayed the inevitable for a long time but George leaving the franchise has finally caught up to the team.
This is the season that many expected to happen when George was sent to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Sabonis. Let’s be honest, Pritchard and the Pacers got incredibly lucky with this trade. Everyone made fun of that trade for a reason. Both of these players’ values were at all-time lows at the time, Oladipo had been solid but unspectacular for four seasons in the league and Sabonis had been dreadful in an ill-advised role as a stretch big in his rookie season shooting under 40% overall. There was very little reason to think that the Pacers would get four All-Star level seasons out of these two players at the time of the trade.
But they did and Victor Oladipo was a top-15 NBA player in that first season in Indiana and it looked like the Pacers by some miracle would be better off without George in the long run. I even made those 4+11>13 shirts at the time. But then Oladipo got hurt and also wanted to leave and here they are: 9-16 with the 7th-worst record in the league. A franchise searching for answers with a fanbase that’s losing interest at a rapid speed.
The Pacers are dead last in the league in attendance. It’s not like you can blame the fans. This is Indiana. We grow basketball here so why would anyone pay for this version of it?
If there was ever a time to blow it up, trade everyone you can for prospects and picks, it would be now. No one is coming to the games anyway. Attendance can’t get any worse. Herb Simon could save some money potentially depending on what money comes back in any deals. The only player that can’t be traded this season is Brogdon because of his extension.
The Pacers likely aren’t as bad as their record seems. But even if they manage to turn it around, what’s the ceiling here with the hole they’ve put themselves in? Losing in the play-in tournament again? Is that really something anyone is going to be excited to see?
As Myles Turner said, they can’t be an organization or a team that accepts mediocrity. They have to get rid of that “tough out” mentality. If that’s all you’re striving for, what’s the fucking point? It doesn’t have to be championship or bust. Everyone has great memories watching Pacers teams of yesteryear but I don’t think Reggie Miller’s goal was ever to almost win in the playoffs. He didn’t come into the locker room after losing game seven in the conference finals to the Bulls shouting, “Mission accomplished! We really made Michael Jordan work for that one, gentlemen!”
Frankly, they’ve been worse than mediocre so far this season and they’ve been stuck in mediocrity since the conference finals battles against the Heat. So what are they going to do about it?