First half summary: Just over a month ago, the Pacers were 12-9, weathering their injury storm pretty well. Then they dropped 10 of their final 14 games in the season’s first half, with losing streaks of four and five games that shook them in the East standings and challenged some psyches in the locker room. Having to play without two starters — T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert — for as long as Indiana has would rattle all but the deepest teams. Those two have logged a total of 117 minutes — all Warren’s before he underwent left foot surgery four games into the season. LeVert, acquired from Brooklyn in the James Harden/Victor Oladipo blockbuster trade in January, needed surgery to remove a cancerous mass on his left kidney found during his physical. There’s no timetable for his return.
The above didn’t turn Indiana’s first half into a washout. Domantas Sabonis made it to his second consecutive All-Star berth as a focal point of the Pacers’ attack. Center Myles Turner leads the league in blocked shots, is a Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate and is meshing up front better than ever with Sabonis. Backup T.J. McConnell’s surprise triple-double before the break was a reminder that he and Malcolm Brogdon make a nifty point guard tandem. And new coach Nate Bjorkgren appears to have impressed both his players and his bosses with his calm demeanor and his willingness to innovate, a Nick Nurse-like trait from his Toronto background.
Biggest questions going into the second half: When and how will Warren and LeVert be playing again, and will that fix the Pacers’ scoring woes? That seems to be several questions to unpack but they’re all connected.
Indiana ranks 18th in offensive rating overall (110.9) but is 22nd (110.2) with since Jan. 13, when it shipped out Oladipo and took in LeVert, who has yet to play for them. That little fraction of a point can get you beat if it’s part of a minus-2.2 difference in net rating, taking the Pacers from slightly in the black to clearly in the red.
If Indiana can wait for Warren — especially the Orlando bubble Warren who was one of the restart’s breakout performers — and LeVert and get them into any sort of rhythm before the postseason, it becomes an interesting and dangerous team in the East bracket. If rehab and rust linger, then not so much.
Playoffs or lottery?: Playoffs. But without any sense of what that means until the questions above are answered. No one is questioning Bjorkgren or the players who have been available, but a team bumping along at or near .500 feels a little too Pacersesque.
Think about it: Nate McMillan, their former coach, already is back in charge of an NBA team as Lloyd Pierce’s interim replacement in Atlanta. A first-round appearance and exit — the very things (five years in a row) that got McMillan fired after last season — appears to be the likely outcome of 2020-21 for the Pacers. It’s one of the league’s uncomfortable middle seats, too good to dive for help into the lottery, not good enough to seriously contend. But there’s always next season, right?
— Steve Aschburner