The Indiana Pacers miss Tyrese Haliburton desperately. They’ve now lost seven straight games since his injury and have gone from being 23-18 and feeling pretty good at 6th in the conference standings to 23-25 and just a half game ahead of the 10th seed.
With the trade deadline less than three weeks away, that puts the Pacers at three wins behind the Miami Heat for 6th in the conference and three wins ahead of both the Wizards and Raptors who sit outside the play-in and in the lottery. Thus, Kevin Pritchard and the front office find themselves at a decision point in this choose-your-own-adventure season that’s only going to become more critical if the losing streak continues:
- Option 1: Stay the course with the team as is. Hope that Haliburton’s return gets the team back on track and in position to make the playoffs and gain valuable experience for a young team.
- Option 2: Look to upgrade the roster in some way at the deadline to gain players that fit the long-term vision of the team and help push for the playoffs now, utilizing the three 2023 first-rounders and players on the roster stuck in the logjam of smaller wings and centers that could do better with a change of scenery.
- Option 3: Take this losing streak without Haliburton as a sign that the veterans on this team aren’t part of the long-term future to becoming a contender if they can’t even beat the Suns backups without him. Trade away some of those veterans on the roster for future draft capital and/or young prospects and give even more minutes to the youth currently on the team.
Perhaps the most concerning part of these losses that are piling up like the dishes in my sink is many of these teams they have faced during this streak have been short-handed. The Bucks played without Giannis; the Nuggets played without Jokic; the Suns were without Booker, Paul, and Ayton. The statistics don’t put any positive spin on the losses. In the last six games, the Pacers are 30th in the league in net rating (-13.9), true-shooting percentage (52.7%), and turnovers per game (18). The struggle is real and most of these games have been hard to get through.
Buddy Hield has struggled to find consistent looks with increased defensive attention. Andrew Nembhard has hit the rookie wall hard. Chris Duarte is just starting to break out of the slump of his life. Myles Turner missed the start of this losing streak but has clearly missed Haliburton’s ability to consistently get him the ball in the paint after switches. Everyone on the team besides TJ McConnell is finding life much harder without the Pacers star. Haliburton did provide an update on his injured knee and elbow recently that he’s aiming to be back at the start of February, so he’ll still be out for at least the next four games against the Bulls, Magic, Bucks, and Grizzlies.
With all of these possible paths to take, I’m aware that it isn’t quite that simple. The front office is surely always open to option two if the right deal comes along whether or not it helps their playoff push for this season. The flaw in the logic of option three could be that while the veterans on the roster can’t lead the team to wins right now, it doesn’t mean that a younger player on the roster like Bennedict Mathurin couldn’t evolve in a year or two to be the secondary closer, change the hierarchy of the roster, and allow those veterans to not need to step up as much as they need to currently when Haliburton is out. They could also do the trade a ton of picks for a second star thing that so many teams have done in recent years this summer which could have the same effect as a Mathurin leap.
Options one and three are murky when it comes to Myles Turner, whose future with the team comes down to his extension talks with the organization. If the front office wants to keep the team together, it doesn’t matter if they can’t come to terms with their center to avoid losing him for nothing in free agency. They’ll likely have to move him. And if they can agree to terms, that doesn’t necessarily take the third option off the table as Turner is young enough to fit the timeline of the rest of the roster while they could still look to move players like Hield and McConnell.
Yes, there’s a fourth option I didn’t include. They could do the short-term buy a veteran for a single year playoff push but I think we can all agree that’s a terrible idea, right?
If they do decide to make dramatic changes to the team, it’s imperative that Tyrese is at least aware and hopefully on board with the direction. You don’t want to start your relationship with the star of your team by getting rid of players he likes and wants to play with, but you also have to do what you feel is best for the franchise long term. Taking away a chance to make the playoffs for the first time may be hard to swallow for Haliburton initially. While that may raise the pressure for the Pacers, they do have a lot of time to build a winning team around their budding star and culture setter still on his rookie contract.
You could make an argument that this team could make the playoffs as-is with how they looked just a few weeks ago, and that playoff experience would be just as valuable as another high lottery pick. It’s also clear that it wouldn’t take much to continue to slide down the standings, and that this draft is packed with the exact types of forwards the team has long been lacking. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to fall all the way to 6th to 8th worst in the league with decent lottery odds.
But where they stand currently at 9th or 10th in the play-in tournament is probably the worst place the Pacers could finish this season in terms of the long-term prospects of the team. Whatever path Kevin Pritchard and company decide to take, I’ll be hoping they move dramatically in one direction or the other in the standings.