Indiana Pacers and their path to mediocrity

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22: Victor Oladipo
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 22: Victor Oladipo /

The Indiana Pacers chose not to tank following the Paul George trade, a decision that is likely to come back and haunt them

It seems like ages have passed since that the Indiana Pacers played in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it wasn’t all that long ago. It was 2014, in fact, when the Pacers fell to the LeBron James led Miami Heat for the second consecutive season in the playoffs.

Fast forward to the summer of 2017 and the Pacers were in a very different place. Star Paul George told the organization that he would not be re-signing with the team in 2018, and his impending free agency suddenly became a much more foreboding situation.

The Pacers had to trade him; that much is certain. Losing a player of George’s caliber for nothing can be devastating to a team. George is one of the best two-way players in the NBA, so people expected new GM Kevin Pritchard to receive quite the haul in return for him.

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When Pritchard shipped George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a collective groan was heard throughout the NBA community. I didn’t dislike the deal as much as most experts and fans, but the price George fetched did seem a little light.

The Pacers probably should have traded George at last season’s deadline; that was likely the peak of his value. George’s honesty about leaving Indiana and the speculation that he wants to play in Los Angeles were huge hits to his trade value. OKC is probably just renting George for one year. That’s why I think it was a decent trade for Indiana.

However, I, like many others, assumed that the Pacers would head into tanking mode following the George trade. Myles Turner is the best young building block on the roster. He’s pretty much everything you’d look for in a modern NBA big man; he can get up and down the floor, shoot it and protect the rim. At just 21 years old, Turner is a blue-chipper.

Turner and Oladipo, still just 25, appeared to be a solid duo to build around without winning too many games. Tanking for a year would have enabled the Pacers to have a decent shot at drafting one of the best players in what projects as a pretty glitzy 2018 draft. In this tank-heavy era of the league, it seemed like an easy decision.

Indiana is THE basketball state, though. The people of Indiana take the game seriously, as does Pacers owner Herb Simon. The message conveyed by Pritchard was clear: The Pacers would not tank. The subsequent additions of Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic and Corey Joseph corroborated that message.

The Pacers don’t have a good team, but they also don’t have one bad enough to secure promising lottery odds. With clubs like Chicago and Atlanta blatantly tanking, the Pacers are just a bit too strong.

The middle of the pack is considered the worst place to be in the NBA. You either want to be really good or really bad, or so the now-conventional wisdom goes. The Pacers won’t be either of these, but it might not be the worst thing in the world.

Sure, everyone is lauding the Sixers for the talent that tanking has landed them. However, considering the injury potential within that young core I’m not ready to anoint them as the next great team as some have. And how quickly people forget just how painful Philadelphia has been to watch for the last few years. Indiana basketball fans might revolt if their beloved Pacers put that kind of product on the court.

There’s also the possibility that the Pacers will still score a lofty draft pick despite their best efforts to avoid taking. Milwaukee did the exactly same thing in in 2013-14, were terrible anyway and landed the second pick in the 2014 draft (Jabari Parker). Perhaps the Pacers will pull a 2008 Bulls or 1993 Magic and defy long lottery odds.

Still, the temptation to tank post-George had to be strong, even for such a proud franchise. Turner has cornerstone potential, and I believe Oladipo retains significant upside. Indiana nabbed a solid offensive player via the draft in TJ Leaf, and I like Sabonis as a long-term, hard-nosed role player in the NBA. That’s a good foundation to start the tanking process with.

Had the team traded Thaddeus Young and not acquired Collison, Bogdanovic or Joseph, they’d be primed for one of the worst records in the league and a shot at Michael Porter Jr. or another stud prospect.

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Now the team will likely miss the playoffs this year, and unless they defy the lottery odds they’re looking at a decent but unexciting draft position. If they don’t strike gold with a draft pick, they could very well find themselves fighting for the eighth seed in a weak Eastern Conference for years to come.

I admire Indiana and their decision not to tank in the same way I might admire a journalist that goes to jail instead of revealing their sources. I don’t think I could do it myself, but I respect it.