The Indiana Pacers have quietly been one of the most impressive front offices in the league for the past several seasons. Losing a franchise star like Paul George is often a death sentence for competitive play and involves a rebuild playing Russian roulette with draft picks while fans wait for the next young stud.
Instead, the Pacers landed Victor Oladipo who transformed into a franchise player and built a playoff-ready roster around him. Oladipo was surrounded by savvy yet aging veterans for the last two seasons as the Pacers became a fixture in the upper-middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference. The problem was that a core with Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Thaddeus Young all in the neighborhood of thirty years old had a clearly defined expiration date for a competitive window. Each of the Oladipo-lead seasons to date ended with a first-round playoff exit.
Indiana’s front office knew that they had hit their ceiling and that moves would have to be made with Oladipo’s free agency looming in the summer of 2021. Oladipo will be 29 and the deal he signs that summer will carry him through the remainder of his prime. The Pacers got to work as they cleared the locker room, letting all of their thirty-ish year-olds walk. In turn, that lowered the average age of their top-eight players from 27 to 24.5 over the course of one summer. With Oladipo expected to miss a significant part of the season rehabbing his torn quad, no one knew what to reasonably expect from this new roster during his absence.
Malcolm Brogdon was a vital secondary offensive playmaker for the Milwaukee Bucks during their campaign last season. He reached the lofty 50-40-90 club and was clearly their second best player in the playoffs after he returned from a foot injury. His play in the final year of his rookie contract demanded a significant pay raise and the Bucks let him walk out the door. Brogdon arrived in Indiana with a new four-year, $85 million dollar contract and a larger role than he has ever had in his budding professional career. The returns have been great so far.
The 26-year-old is having his best season yet averaging career-highs in points (19.5), rebounds (4.7), and assists (7.7) for the 17-9 Indiana Pacers. In addition to his playmaking responsibilities, he remains a plus on the defensive end. Brogdon has delivered at an All-Star level and should be a hand-in-glove fit with Victor Oladipo as a floor-spacing facilitator and secondary offensive option. They could easily be the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers have not only had to rely on Brogdon for their early-season success. Domantas Sabonis might be their most important player on both ends of the floor. He has been a walking double-double averaging 18 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. Sabonis is one of the most efficient big men in the NBA shooting 51% from the field and gives the Pacers a reliable inside-out catalyst with his improved playmaking (3.8 assists per game). If he is able to maintain this level of play he will also have a strong case to be in Chicago for the All-Star game.
In addition to all five starters averaging double figures, the Pacers also get 32 points per game from a bench that will get one-slot deeper when Oladipo returns. T.J. McConnell brings a different pace of play to the game along with the hot shooting ability of Doug McDermott. The Holiday brothers have had several huge games off of the bench including scoring 35 points combined in their big win against the Celtics to spoil a Kemba Walker 44-point effort. This team is getting production throughout their entire rotation which is key for hanging in games against elite teams.
Oladipo is expected to make his return sometime between January and the All-Star break. Indiana has been able to raise their profile by getting stellar play from both of their big signings and playing great defense (their 104.1 rating is good for 7th in the league). After the Milwaukee Bucks, this team has the potential to be as good as anyone in the conference at full strength. Expect the Pacers’ profile to multiply as the season heads toward the playoffs.