The Indiana Pacers are good. They’ve got a young core, led by All-Star’s Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Under their leadership they’ve made back-to-back playoff appearances and were on track for a third this season. But can they take it to the next level and challenge for a championship?
In short, no. But with some moves they can build something.
At the moment Indiana finds themselves in that awkward in-between position, where they are perennial playoff contenders, but they’re not at a conference or world champion level.
New York went through the same thing in the Carmelo Anthony era. Three playoff appearances in a row but never getting past the second round because there was no second star. First year they lose to Boston’s big three, second year to Miami’s big three and the last year funnily enough to the Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert Pacers squad.
To be fair, since Oladipo’s breakout season in 2017-18 the team has made some moves and he has missed most of it through injury. We haven’t got a big enough sample size of Oladipo with new teammates like Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and Doug McDermott. But reading the team on paper, they need another star.
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In the eastern conference, with all teams healthy, they probably sit fifth in line, sixth if you want to take Miami over them. Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia are better and similarly to the Pacers, they all have a young core that can lead them for the next 10 years.
If you want to think ahead to next season then you can include Brooklyn as well, a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving back to lead them in a championship push.
With player movement so much stronger in the modern game this may all change, who knows, but as it stands, the Pacers are stuck in that middle pack and are already paying guys a lot of money. Sabonis is locked in for $77,000,000 over 4 years, Myles Turner is in the first year of a $72,000,000 deal and Malcolm Brogdon is in his first season of an $85,000,000 deal.
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Now there is nothing wrong with paying these guys. Brogdon is almost a career 50-40-90 shooter and Sabonis has improved every season culminating in his first All-Star appearance. You can make the argument for Turner as well, his strong defence a pillar of his game and his improved three point shooting something to watch for. But paying all of these guys big money with Oladipo due for a new contract in 2021 free agency means the Pacers are putting all of their eggs in this basket.
This is fine but considering their current ranking in the eastern conference, it’s not going to result in a championship run. That issue can be fixed when the 2021 free agency period begins. Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard (player option), Paul George (player option), LeBron James (player option), Donovan Mitchell (restricted) and Jayson Tatum (restricted) headline the historically strong free agent class. No promises that any of these guys will sign, but the option needs to be there.
If they stick with this core group, they do have age on their side. Oladipo and Sabonis turn 28 and 24 respectively this month while Brogdon and Turner are 27 and 23. But do you risk sticking with this group, led by Oladipo who is returning from a ruptured quad tendon?
If the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers are anything to go by, then no. The window to win in this league is small and while you have a star like Oladipo and his right hand man in Sabonis, you need to find them that another star.
It may mean Turner is shopped around. Sabonis and Brogdon provide playmaking and scoring alongside Oladipo so you can accept paying their contracts at the moment. Turner will be valuable on the trade market and will assist in the salary cap issue.
Just look at DeMar DeRozan in Toronto. An All-Star and great team guy but to get to that next level the team needed to make a move. Indiana is in that same conundrum and moving Turner on might be the first step in the process.