As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 23rd edition focuses on the Indiana Pacers.
Victor Oladipo, stunting on them haters. Few blockbuster trades have shifted in perception as dramatically as the Indiana Pacers' dealing of former franchise player Paul George to Oklahoma City, with the primary return of two-way combo guard Oladipo. The deal made a punchline out of Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, who was accused of getting virtually no value for the best Pacer of the 21st century. Oladipo was already paid like a star despite never producing higher than a slightly above-average nalevel. But the Indiana undergrad thrived upon returning to the Hoosier state, averaging 23 points, five assists, and five rebounds on an efficient 58 percent true shooting, while leading the league in steals with nearly 2.4 a game.
Oladipo was inconsistent but often brilliant in the playoffs, and outlasted the guy he was traded for, something few would have predicted before the season. In just one year's time, the backcourt dynamo turned from an expensive value bet to a legitimate star and borderline MVP candidate, leaving Pritchard looking a whole lot smarter than a lot of the people who cackled at him over the summer.
Don't forget about Domantas Sabonis. The other pickup for Indiana in the George trade was viewed as little more than sweetener in the deal, as second-year big Sabonis had underwhelmed as a rookie, averaging just six points and four rebounds on a dismal sub-40 percent shooting. Those numbers all spiked with greater opportunity in Indiana, as Sabonis posted 12 and eight with 51 percent shooting, and tied for the second-highest scoring average on the team during the postseason. He's a steal as a productive big man with two years left on his rookie deal, making the George trade even more of a win for Indiana.
Darren Collison, 3-point marksman. Not only was Collison's 3-point shooting middling during his first stint in Indiana, he barely ever shot from such range, making fewer than 50 triples in each of his first two years as a Pacer. But his volume was up in 2017-18 - he nearly made 100 threes for the first time this season - and so was his efficiency, as the point guard quietly led the entire league in 3-point percentage with his 46.8 percent conversion rate. These numbers are hardly what Pritchard and Co. thought they were getting when they signed the journeyman to a two-year deal, but his shooting added an extra dimension to what ended up being a pretty potent offense.
Nate McMillan, Coach of the Year candidate. As a coach, it's been a pretty long time since McMillan made headlines or stirred passions: His tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers started well, then quietly ground to a halt, and by the time he was hired in Indiana, it felt a little like a retread choice. But then, the Pacers overperformed in the regular season - going 48-34 in a year where most expected them to finish deep into the lottery - without a clear explanation (beyond the surprise stardom of Oladipo) why. The team wasn't top 10 in offense or defense, they didn't have that many players playing well above their heads, there was no real voodoo there. Eventually, it had to come back to good coaching: Indiana played hard, smart, and together, which is all you can really ask from a non-contending team. Evidently, McMillan was one of the top coaches in the league, despite being a long shot to take home any hardware.
Taking Cleveland to seven. The crazy thing is, this might not have even seemed that impressive while it was happening: The Cavaliers and Pacers had virtually identical records in the regular season, and though most predicted the former would be able to take care of business in the first round, if you watched the two teams all year, there wasn't much to suggest this would be a Cavs cakewalk. Indeed, Indiana pushed Cleveland all series, not only taking them to a decisive Game 7, but making them earn virtually every win - including the final game of the series, where Indiana remained competitive down to the final minute. Seeing what they're doing in the playoffs now, it's an even more respectable effort - though the Toronto Raptors are probably furious at McMillan's crew for finally waking Cleveland out of its season-long slumber.
TJ Leaf's mediocre rookie season. This isn't even that "bad," really: The 2017 first-round pick's rookie season was fairly ordinary, as he averaged minuscule numbers in limited minutes - falling out of the rotation entirely toward the end of the season and barely playing in the playoffs - but shot well and showed light promise. Leaf could still very well be a fine, productive member of the team next season, but his limited playing time shows just how much the team played to their ceiling in 2017-18.
Myles Turner's rocky season. If there was a legitimate disappointment on the Pacers' roster this season, it was probably Turner, who still put up strong numbers - 13 points and six rebounds with nearly two blocks per game on strong shooting - but didn't really take the next step to stardom, and was superseded by Oladipo on the team's short- and long-term pecking order. Injuries were a problem for him early, and he was forced to miss 17 games on the season, so maybe a full, healthy 2018-19 will get his career timeline back on track. The Pacers sort of need that to happen - Turner remains the best chance the team currently has of developing a second star to complement Oladipo.
Losing three of their last five. Would home court have made a difference in the first round for Indiana? Maybe, maybe not. The Cavs took Game 7 by such an ultimately slim margin that you have to think that playing the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse instead of Quicken Loans Arena could've conceivably tipped the scales. But the Pacers were doomed to the 5-seed by a lackluster end to the season, which included road losses to the Denver Nuggets and Raptors, and after their fate was basically sealed, a Game 82 drubbing from the woeful Charlotte Hornets.
Game 5. We're at the point in the playoffs where we can say "the LeBron buzzer-beater game" without it being totally clear what game we're referring to. But the Pacers were the first victims, getting to three seconds left in regulation with a tie score in Game 5 against Cleveland - a score that could have seen the Pacers up by two after LeBron's infamous goaltend - before No. 23 rose up from behind the arc and made history yet again.
Y'know. It happens.
0-7 without Oladipo. As proof of their star acquisition's value on the season, Oladipo missed seven games for a variety of reasons over the course of the regular season - and the Pacers lost all seven, five of them by double digits. Oladipo isn't quite considered an MVP candidate this year, but maybe he should be, since without him, it seems like Indiana might've given the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, and Atlanta Hawks a run for their money in Tankapalooza '18.
Where does Oladipo go from here? Now that the former No. 2 pick out of Indiana has made the quantum leap from overpaid rotation cog to All-Star and franchise player, the Pacers have to figure out if this was a dream season never to be repeated, or just the beginning of a Hall of Fame career worth building around. If it's the latter, Pritchard's much-maligned George deal will not only go down as a heist for the Pacers, but also one of the greatest rebuilding trades ever made in NBA history.
Will Thaddeus Young pick up his player option? Young has been one of the great NBA nomads of the last half-decade, playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Brooklyn Nets before being traded to Indiana in 2016. He appears to have found a home in Indy, starting 81 games for the Pacers this year and rating as a decisive plus on both sides of the ball. But, he has a player option for about $14 million for 2017-18, and he might want to cash in on a strong postseason performance with one final mutli-year deal. If so, will that deal come in Indiana, or is it onto the next one once again for the born-to-wander Thad?
Do the Pacers care about retaining Lance Stephenson? You wouldn't have anticipated the Pacers really needing Stephenson this season, but the returned prodigal son of Indiana was a major anchor for their second unit - in addition, of course, to being the team's ultimate on-court antagonist. But he's a free agent this summer, and it's unclear if Indiana will want to commit long term to their erratic playmaker. Really, it just feels wrong at this point for Stephenson to end up anywhere but Indy, so hopefully the two sides can work out some sort of mutually beneficial contract that keeps Born Ready's mania in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Can Indiana become a free-agent destination? Unlike most of the teams in this year's postseason, the Pacers may have some room to maneuver this summer, particularly if Young turns down his player option. It is unlikely that any of the stars on the market would elect to come to Indiana, though, there is that one two-way All-Star forward whose new team underwhelmed in the postseason. Even then, there should be players available who could represent an immediate roster upgrade for Indy, or an intriguing long-term investment. It'll be interesting to see if the Pacers have earned the clout this year to be in the offseason discussion.
What are the expectations for this team now? Jumping a level unexpectedly in the NBA can end up having dangerous consequences, jumping two or three as Indy did this season - at least from where they were perceived to be, post-George - can be particularly precarious. If the Pacers win 40-something games and lose in the first round again next season, will there start to be rumblings about Oladipo's ceiling, about McMillan's ability to get the team to the next level, about the supporting cast's inability to elevate? NBA history is littered with teams that wildly overachieved one year, came back to earth the next, and were essentially never heard from again. Is this Pacers team the start of something special, or another cautionary tale of getting too much, too soon?
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)