Judging by the moves they’ve made, the Indiana Pacers must have thought LeBron James still was plying his trade in The Land. Indiana kept its lineup and key reserves intact, then surgically added a few pieces to bolster the operation. That makes the Pacers a favorite in the Central Division and as a top seed in the East. The biggest challenge now is winning without being able to sneak up on anyone as they did last season.
Tapping into the NBA’s Holiday family -- drafting Aaron, based on the strong reviews of brothers Jrue and Justin -- was an early offseason move … Then came the Pacers’ signings of three veterans, each meant to fill a niche. Tyreke Evans from Memphis is a proven scorer, a Kia Sixth Man candidate brought in to take some of the offensive load off Victor Oladipo. Doug McDermott is a shooter who has yet to find his NBA home after stints with four other teams in his first four seasons. And Kyle O’Quinn is a strongman built for banging, stepping into the Trevor Booker role to provide physical play … Less noticed as a summer transaction was the contract extension signed by coach Nate McMillan, who earned it just like he earned a few Coach of the Year votes last season.
1. Myles Turner used 2017-18 as his gather step. The Pacers’ young big man is most effective as a stretch-five, though its his mid-range game that draws defenders out rather than something arc-based. Defensively, he’s an avid rim protector, though sometimes beat by his men in other ways. Mostly, through injuries and otherwise, the eager 6-foot-11 center failed to take a stride forward. That’s what Indiana needs from a guy who, admittedly, won’t turn 23 until the season is five months old.
2. Tyreke Evans can be “the good Lance.” As in Lance Stephenson. Evans has a more proven track record as a reliable offensive threat than the always-entertaining “Born Ready” Indianapolis favorite, without the erratic, emotional downside. That’s the idea, with Evans penciled in both as an Oladipo backup and sometimes sidekick.
3. Roster flexibility is good -- up to a point. Seven of the Pacers’ nine top salaried players are in the final year of their contracts, as reported by the Indianapolis Star. That makes for many options in what shapes up as a frenzied free-agent market next summer. But it also suggests some Indiana players might stray from the team’s all-for-one approach. McMillan vows it won’t happen, monitored by him and policed by teammates.
MAN ON THE SPOT
OK, so it hardly seems fair to have Oladipo “on the spot” again, after that’s where most critics had him as 2017-18 began. Instead of having to show he could ease the loss of Paul George -- which he did in spades, making that reluctant trade with OKC (with Domantas Sabonis in tow) look like a Pacers’ W -- Oladipo will be asked to demonstrate that last season was not a fluke. The next logical step for the Kia Most Improved Player award winners is to show that their stardom has staying power. His production at both ends of the court argues Oladipo’s case (he led the league in steals per game, 2.4, on top of his scoring and clutch moments), as does his work ethic and ever-hungry demeanor.
Darren Collison | 12.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 5.3 apg
Low-profile playmaker led the league in 3-point accuracy (46.8 percent).
Victor Oladipo | 23.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.3 apg
An All-Star was born, along with fan fave, stepping into PG-13 void.
Myles Turner | 12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.3 apg
Obvious, untapped potential for soon-to-be restricted free agent.
Bojan Bogdonovic | 14.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 apg
His 3-point shooting was swell, his defense on LeBron was a bonus.
Thad Young | 11.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.9 apg
Ideal frontcourt player for these position-less times.
Domantas Sabonis | 11.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.0 apg
Lively, savvy backup big who favors C over PF spot.
Tyreke Evans | 19.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.2 apg
Averaged 22.6 points per 36 with 21.1 PER in ninth season.
Cory Joseph | 7.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.2 apg
Backup PG valued as pesky defender and glue guy.
From all appearances, the Pacers’ locker room is one of the NBA’s most cohesive and upbeat. That stems from the calm demeanor and reasonable expectations of McMillan as coach and from Oladipo’s driven but not grim professionalism. Indianapolis insiders rave about this team’s chemistry, now rivaled by considerable roster depth. Expected W-L record: 54-28.