Season Preview: Pacers Have the Pieces, But Will They Fit?

Last season was practically a joyride, what happens when a team exceeds expectations by a wider margin than any in franchise history. When most people are expecting 32 or so wins and a team delivers 48, it feels like success.

It gets more difficult for the Pacers this time around. A mere winning season won't cut it in the minds of most fans and neither will a fourth straight first-round playoff exit. The general expectations are for 50-plus victories and a longer run through the postseason, and anything short of that will feel like a disappointment.

On the eve of the regular season opener against Memphis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the latest version of a Pacers team offers few reasons for pessimism. They have their top seven players back from last season. No player on the roster is significantly past his prime, and most are in ascendant stages of their careers. They are tight. Not in a nervous tight, but close-knit tight. They appear motivated, and the bench is improved, too.

On the surface, there's little not to like.

A team can have a surprisingly poor season just as easily as it can have a surprisingly good one, though. Four years ago, the Pacers were coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, where they took eventual NBA champion Miami to seven games. They returned with their starting lineup intact and appeared to have an improved bench. They started 16-1 and attracted the attention of the national media, but the distractions and obstacles of fame got in the way and they lost momentum as the season progressed – regressed, really. They barely avoided the exit ramps in the first and second playoff rounds before losing to Miami, again, in six games in the conference finals.

This is a different group of players, though, more mature than that team and theoretically more talented than last season's team. Despite some national skepticism, it has a realistic chance of finishing among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference and earning homecourt advantage to start the playoffs.

Here's why:

Bench strength

Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Kyle O'Quinn and rookie Aaron Holiday have replaced Lance Stephenson, Glenn Robinson III, Al Jefferson and Joe Young. That seems a distinct upgrade, although Robinson is difficult to categorize because he missed most of last season with an injury.

Evans might lack Stephenson's adrenaline and flair, but he's a better shooter and ballhandler. McDermott should be a 40 percent 3-point shooter, minimum. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle provided a template of how to get the most out of the former lottery pick late last season by keeping him on the move away from the ball. O'Quinn lacks Jefferson's expansive tool kit of low post moves, but his youth and superior athleticism will enable him to rebound better, block more shots and defend better on the perimeter than Jefferson. Holiday is an outstanding shooter and solid defender, and appears to have the maturity to handle meaningful minutes if called upon.

Tenth man TJ Leaf, the 2017 first-round draft pick, showed flashes of promise last season, then raised doubts in Summer League play, then aroused optimism again after three solid preseason starts. He should be a capable contributor when given the opportunity.

"The second unit is significantly better," Thaddeus Young says. "We added some key pieces. And some of the guys who didn't get a chance to play a lot last year have picked up their game."

Kyle O'Quinn joins the Pacers after averaging career highs of 7.1 points and 6.1 rebounds with the Knicks (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

3-point shooting

The Pacers' 3-point shooting equations the past two seasons didn't add up.

Two years ago they ranked fifth in accuracy but 27th in attempts and were outscored by 420 points from behind the line. Last season they ranked ninth in accuracy but 26th in attempts and were outscored by 387 points.

That should change this time around. Kevin Pritchard has loaded the roster with at least seven and as many as 10 legitimate 3-point threats. Darren Collison led the NBA last season (.468) and Bojan Bodganovic, McDermott, Evans and Leaf shot 40 percent or better. Rookie Aaron Holiday was over 40 percent last season at UCLA and hit 54 percent of his attempts in the preseason. Victor Oladipo has improved steadily throughout his career and is on track to continue that trend. He shot 37 percent last season and 48 percent in the preseason.

Three others also are capable shooters: Thad Young hit 38 percent of his attempts two years ago but slipped to 32 percent last season. Myles Turner was at 36 percent last season and Domantas Sabonis at 35 percent. That might not sound like much in today's NBA, but keep in mind noted Pacers ABA marksman Billy Keller was a career 34 percent 3-point shooter and Naismith Hall of Famer Roger Brown shot 32 percent.

Part of the burden to score in bunches of threes rather than twos falls on coach Nate McMillan and his staff. He's emphasizing running to the 3-point line in transition, particularly in the corner where the line is closer to the basket. The Pacers will need to keep a shooter behind the 3-point line in the halfcourt offense as well, and the ballhandlers will have to find them.

"It's a different game," McMillan says. "Now your bigs are practicing 3-pointers. We try to take advantage of that."


The Pacers played the "respect card" throughout last season, and are determined to continue doing so.

That's fine, if it keeps them motivated. They also appear to have a genuine desire to succeed, and some of them have the added prod of being in a contract season. That should bring out their best, because none of them are planning to retire. The possibility of someone believing he needs to score more to make a favorable impression and therefore disrupting the offense is possible, but it would be surprising if many (or any) of these guys are that naïve about the analytical talents of NBA management teams.

With Myles Turner having signed his contract extension, the key players facing impending free agency are Collison, Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Evans, Cory Joseph and O'Quinn.

If that helps motivate them to play at their peak level, that's good for the team. But let's be honest, there's no excuse for this team to be complacent about anything. Losing in the first round of the playoffs only qualifies as a short-term accomplishment along the way to greater heights.

Victor Oladipo

One of the greatest assets any team can have is that its best player also happens to be its hardest worker.

The Pacers have that in Oladipo, and he throws in the added bonus of being a legitimate mood-lifter because of his day-to-day enthusiasm. He's the guy who walks into the locker room before practice chatting up teammates, the guy who sings in the shower after games, the guy who shouts out a greeting to media members when entering the room for a press conference, the guy who invites the entire team to Miami to work out together in August and then pays for dinner afterward.

Still, the best thing about Oladipo is how he plays. He won the NBA's Most Improved Player award last season after averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals. The improvement was largely due to an increased role in the offense. His usage rate – which measures a player's involvement with a formula that includes field goal attempts, assists and turnovers and factors in pace of play - jumped from 21.4 in Oklahoma City the previous season to 30.1 percent with the Pacers.

The most impressive things about his season, though, was that his Player Efficiency Rating also jumped dramatically, from 13.6 to 23.1. That one reflects a player's statistical production on a per-minute basis, with the league average being 15.

Oladipo was named to the 2017-18 All-Defensive First Team after leading the league in steals (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

Amid all that, it's easy to forget that Oladipo was a first-team all-defense selection as well.

Oladipo is 26 years old, with his prime still ahead of him. He put in a hard summer of work to improve, is routinely the last player off the practice court and talks as if he's as motivated as ever.

He's got practically everything a team could possibly want from its best player - especially if he keeps nudging up that shooting percentage.

"I don't want to leave any stone unturned," he says. "I don't want to look back on this year and think to myself, man, I could have done this better. I had that feeling last year. I don't plan on having that feeling this year."

Every season brings obstacles, of course. The Pacers might be in an ascending mode, but they've hardly arrived anywhere special. They aren't anyone's pick to win a championship this season, and one respected data-driven analysis group, FiveThirtyEight, projects them to finish 43-39 and wind up the 14th best team in the NBA.

What could go wrong? Here are a few possibilities:

Lack of elite talent

Oladipo was an All-Star last season and should come back even better, but who else on this team is of that caliber? One All-Star generally isn't enough to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

The Pacers' combination of balance, depth and chemistry counts for a lot, but going deep in the playoffs requires players who can take over a game with individual greatness. Scan the list of past NBA champions and you won't find many with just one All-Star caliber player. If you do, that one player is a future Hall of Famer.

The Pacers have faith Turner can ascend to that level, and proved it by signing him to a four-year contract extension on Monday. He presents the ideal scenario for the franchise if he can become an elite-level big man to pair with Oladipo and negate the need to land one in free agency. He put in a dedicated summer to improve his body, and now has the peace of mind a contract extension brings. He'll likely be the season's X factor.

Sabonis was a more productive player than Turner on a per-minute basis last season and in the preseason, so he offers another potential star. He was said by some observers to have been the best player in training camp.

McMillan did not experiment by playing them together in the preseason, as was expected, other than for a brief glimpse in the second quarter of the game in Cleveland. He downplays the possibility of doing so for any more than the five or six minutes per game they played together last season. If that's the case, neither of them will play much more than half a game, making it that much more difficult to shine star-like.

The nice dilemma of what to do with two young, talented centers, particularly when the backup has been outplaying the starter who just received a generous contract extension, will be one of the most intriguing and substantive storylines of the season.

Too much camaraderie?

Last season's team was perhaps more enjoyable for media members to cover than any in franchise history. The players got along great and remained upbeat and cooperative throughout the season, both with one another and outsiders. Fans felt the vibe as well.

Sometimes, though, a team can have too much of that sort of thing. The best teams usually have at least one player who can talk bluntly with teammates - tell a slacker to pick it up, tell a malcontent the coaches are right, tell a nuisance to stop annoying people.

Last season's tight-knit group surpassed expectations, winning 48 games (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

The Pacers don't appear to have any difficult players on this roster, but over the course of the season nearly everyone can benefit from a little tough love in the locker room. Turner became noticeably more physical toward the end of last season, and gave credit to a teammate who had told him he was playing "soft." It had an impact. That teammate apparently was a seldom-used bench player. It would have been all the better if it had come from a fellow starter.

Every coach wants a self-governed locker room. It remains to be seen if this team has enough "bad cops" to bring out the best in one another. It's great for teammates to get along well, but a little friction now and then helps light a fire.

Mental lapses

Last season's team had a tendency to check out emotionally now and then. Every team does over the course of an 82-game season, but the team's general state of contentment seemed to spill into its play at times.

It became nearly routine for it to get off to a bad start, fall into a double-figure deficit, and then come storming back in the second half. It made for exciting theater, but isn't often a characteristic of contending teams. Sometimes the light switch doesn't work. Consistency counts. And, Stephenson won't be around to lead those second-half surges that got the crowd jazzed up. Check that. Lance Stephenson won't be around to jazz up the crowd and lead those second-half surges.

Far better in the long run to prevent the need for them in the first place.

The Pacers' disappointing finish to the preseason revived concerns about their mental toughness for the less meaningful games. McMillan had targeted that game in Chicago as the final tuneup for the regular season, and emphasized it more than the previous three. But his players responded with their worst performance of the preseason, excluding the second game when the starters were held out.

It was only a preseason game and the last one of a week-long road trip, so it's not that difficult to excuse. Still, it picked at a scab.


McMillan's goal this season is for the Pacers to be a top ten rebounding team. That would represent a major jump upward and be a major contributor to an improved record if they can pull it off.

Last season, the Pacers were outrebounded by 186 over the course of the season, and gave up far more offensive rebounds than they got. That can be a little misleading, as they shot a better percentage than most opponents, but the need remains the same. Measured by the percentage of missed shots rebounded, the Pacers ranked 24th in the league in offensive rebounding and 25th in defensive rebounding.

The starting lineup remains the same, and the changes in the second unit don't appear to have addressed the concern, so change will come from within the hearts and minds of the players. Every player. With so many 3-point shots bouncing long off rims these days, the guards have to go get them, too.

McMillan put heightened emphasis on rebounding in training camp and hopes it carries over. For what it's worth, the Pacers outrebounded all four opponents in the preseason.

But, that was the preseason.

The real season is worthy of optimism, but the road upward has grown steeper.

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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