The return of Victor Oladipo from a year’s injury layoff was supposed to be an All-Star acquisition for the Indiana Pacers around the NBA trade deadline, all without giving up a single player or draft pick.
Instead, the Pacers will be without their leader in Orlando as he continues to rehab from injury. Trade revoked.
Oladipo’s decision not to play for the Pacers in the NBA’s 2019-20 season restart dealt a blow to his team’s plans down in Disney. Based on his talents when healthy (or even 90%), the itch his skill set scratches for Indiana and the team’s position as a solid second-tier contender in the Eastern Conference, Oladipo arguably will be the most significant absentee from the bubble in terms of on-court impact up or down.
Washington’s Bradley Beal is a more potent scorer, but his team is an afterthought. The Lakers’ Avery Bradley is a valuable role player, especially on defense for a title aspirant. But Oladipo was Indiana’s face and heart, the leading man for a team with ambitions, rebuilt on the fly to target a higher seed.
The Pacers traveled Thursday to the Walt Disney World campus and their assigned hotel for quarantine in advance of practices. Their first of three scrimmages is July 23, and they face East rival Philadelphia – with whom they’re currently tied for fifth (39-26) – in their seeding-game debut Aug. 1.
Oladipo will be down there too, but only for emotional support, brand maintenance, individual work and assorted exertions as he and his physical therapist, Luke Miller, see fit.
His decision didn’t blindside coach Nate McMillan or team management – they have been bystanders to most of Oladipo’s decision-making since he ruptured the quad tendon in his right knee late in January 2019. But it left them reacting somewhat awkwardly to bad news that, let’s face it, scuttled Plan A.
"His decision to make that call last week was his call," McMillan said Wednesday, talking to reporters on a conference call. “I guess he just didn't feel he would be ready to go.”
McMillan said what, naturally, you would expect: the team supports Oladipo’s decision.
“Absolutely,” the coach said. “We've always taken that role. The player has to be mentally, physically ready to go. That's the same approach we took with Victor when he was returning the first time and that's the approach we'll take now. When he feels he's ready to go and we both agree to that ... then we'll put him on the floor. But he feels he's not ready to play right now.”
Oladipo, 28, a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2017-18, sounded almost as if he was ready, even as he announced he wasn’t.
“I really want to play, and as a competitor and teammate this is tearing me apart,” he told The Athletic. “I feel like I’m at a great place in my rehab and getting closer and closer to 100 percent.”
Yes, so …?
“With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft-tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set-up of the bubble, I just can’t get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing. I have to be smart.”
Oladipo, certainly, is entitled to say yea or nay to the bubble. Others have, for reasons as varied as injuries, family issues, virus concerns or consideration of future earnings.
But it’s hard to reconcile what we’re hearing now with where Oladipo and the Pacers stood back in January, when he made his return after a year – a full 82 games – away. That’s what makes this seem like such a lost opportunity all around.
When Oladipo played on Jan. 29 against Chicago, showing more rust than a junkyard Pinto, he still managed to propel the Pacers to an overtime victory with a dramatic 3-pointer at the end of regulation. The team and its medical staff had in place at that time a measured program to re-introduce him into the lineup: 24 minutes a game for the eight games leading into All-Star Weekend (skipping back-to-backs).
Oladipo averaged 11.1 points, 2.9 assists and 25 minutes in seven appearances, while shooting 32.9% (24.4 from the arc). Indiana, 30-17 prior to his return, went 2-5 in those seven.
Out of the break, Oladipo played six out of 12 before the shutdown. In his final appearance, March 10 against Boston, he scored 27 points with seven rebounds and four assists, hitting 9 of 16 shots in 29 minutes.
His stats in the last four: 19.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists while shooting 45.7%. Very much pre-injury VO numbers. Better still, the Pacers went 5-1 when he played after All-Star.
Now four months later – soon to be six since he stepped on the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse vs. the Bulls – Oladipo feels less capable of playing rather than more.
It’s confusing, considering how one of McMillan’s main concerns previously was getting a not-in-game-shape Oladipo up to speed with teammates humming along at top speed. After this shutdown, everybody is out of rhythm and flow. They’d all be tuning up together. A team such as Indiana – secure in a playoff berth – could use the seeding games as part of the revival, facing little urgency.
So eight games, hmm, maybe 24 minutes for Oladipo again? Sounds familiar. But it won’t be his program this time.
There obviously are other factors involved, none of them helpful to what the Pacers imagine for this summer. Oladipo will be playing in 2020-21 in the final year of a four-year, $84 million extension signed with Oklahoma City in 2016. He’ll be a free agent after that, and already the subject of rumors about future whereabouts.
Indiana wants to do right by its player without hurting its own plans. Already some fans are flinching from a possible replay of 2017, when previous franchise face Paul George leveraged his way out of Indianapolis. Team president Kevin Pritchard and the staff did well to get Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis from the Thunder in that forced transaction, but it would be folly to expect that level of save again.
Then again, losing Oladipo for nothing in return would put the Pacers right back in the hamster wheel, legs pumping, going nowhere.
Could Pritchard and ownership take a serious run at signing him to an extension before next season? OK. Except the player is telling the team loud and clear that he is not healthy, and that even 18 months would not have been a long enough rehab.
No matter how superstar-starved Indiana might feel as an unglamorous franchise, at some point you have to listen to him and see his 2020-21 self. With a roster that again might be significantly changed.
Meanwhile, the Pacers’ chances of getting out of the first round for the first time since 2014 aren’t looking good. Scoring wing Jeremy Lamb (ACL surgery) also is out. Malcolm Brogdon might return slowly from his positive coronavirus test. Aaron Holiday will be pressed into heavier minutes, and it dings the backcourt depth overall.
The Pacers got to Orlando Thursday. But the cavalry they counted on won’t be bugling their way.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.