Indiana Pacers Ready to Contend in Revamped East

There’s a new arms race heating up in the Eastern Conference.

The Brooklyn Nets have added Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan. Kemba Walker is tasked with filling the void Irving left for the Boston Celtics. Al Horford is pulling a reverse Ray Allen, joining a fierce playoff rival (Philadelphia Sixers) after giving them the blues. Jimmy Butler is finally a member of the Miami Heat. I think.

We still don’t know what Kawhi Leonard is doing yet.

Floating ever-so-quietly under the radar is the Indiana Pacers. It’s easy to forget they were actually better than the Celtics and Sixers for a large chunk of last season before losing Victor Oladipo for the rest of the way. The Pacers stifled opposing offenses but struggled to score once he went down. Their first-round showing was closer than the underwhelming result, but it set up this summer.

The Pacers entered the offseason with draft capital and north of $30 million in cap space, though Tyreke Evans’ NBA dismissal and plenty of key free agents clouded the possibilities.

They haven’t made a superstar splash, but they’ve rounded out their roster with smart signings and calculated trades. They’re ready to resume their hot play from the first half of 2018, and hopefully turn that into a deep run in the wide-open East.

REVAMPING THE FRONTCOURT

Nov 14, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren (12) reacts after making a three point shot against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Pacers began their retooling process during the draft period. With forever-underrated Thaddeus Young set to hit the market, the Pacers were proactive in their quest for frontcourt depth. First, they acquired Suns forward TJ Warren and the 32nd overall pick in what was essentially a salary dump. (Young eventually signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Chicago Bulls.)

Warren is coming off the most efficient season of his young career, averaging 18.0 points with a 49/42/81 shooting split. The spike in three-point shooting is the most intriguing development of his game, as he went from not taking (or making) threes to knocking them down at an elite rate. Even if that clip slightly dips next season, Warren can provide the Pacers with a much needed three-level scoring threat.

They’ll need that wherever they can find it after shooting swingman Bojan Bogdanovic left for the Utah Jazz.

The Pacers also drafted Goga Bitdaze with the 17th overall pick. He’s a skilled offensive giant that doubles as arguably the best rim protector in this year’s class. The talent is there for him to carve out a 12-15 minute role, though juggling frontcourt minutes with him, Warren, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner could be tough.

FINDING AN OLADIPO PARTNER

May 23, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) controls the ball as Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) defends during the third quarter in game five of the Eastern conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It was widely expected that the Pacers would go after former Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio once free agency began. That essentially spelled the end of Darren Collison’s tenure in Indiana, though backup Cory Joseph was allowed to walk as well.

Surprisingly, Collison one-upped us all by retiring despite reported interest from the Chicago Bulls and others.

Then, the Pacers unexpectedly reversed course on Rubio and swung a sign-and-trade for Milwaukee Bucks restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon, sending a first rounder and two second rounders to the Bucks after he agreed to a four-year deal worth $85 million.

Brogdon projects to be a fantastic fit alongside Oladipo. His ability to space the floor at an elite level (42.6 percent from three last season) will open up driving lanes. He isn’t a traditional point guard, but he can soak up some usage as a secondary ball handler and attack bent defenses. There’s a lot of overlap with Oladipo, but in an intriguingly versatile way rather than a “cancels each other out” way.

On the other end, Brogdon is a multi-positional defender that can toggle between the 1-through-3 spots. Having Brogdon, Oladipo, and Turner on the floor together should almost guarantee a top-six defense. It also helps that both guards are big and smart enough to be endlessly switchable.

REPLACING BOJAN BOGDANOVIC

Apr 7, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb (3) takes a shot over Detroit Pistons forward Thon Maker (7) and guard Langston Galloway (9) during the second quarter at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This one hurts a little bit.

Bogdanovic is coming off a career year, posting highs in points (18.0), rebounds (4.1) and assists (2.0). He took over the scoring load once Oladipo was lost for the season, especially heating up to end the year. He averaged 21.0 points on a 50/42/80 shooting split over the last 21 games of the season. The Pacers had interest in bringing him back but were outbid by the Jazz and their 4-year $73 million offer.

Getting Oladipo back will obviously alleviate some of those scoring concerns while the addition of Jeremy Lamb on a reasonable 3-year $31 million deal should also serve as a nice buffer.

The Charlotte Hornets were mostly a mess outside of Kemba Walker last season, but Lamb was one of the rare bright spots, posting career highs in points (15.3), rebounds (5.5) and steals (1.1).

After a slow start to his career, he has quietly morphed into a versatile scorer that can run hot with pull-up shots and slithery drives. He already has experience playing off of a star-level creator and should fit right in on a Pacers team that will have shots to spare.

LOOKING AHEAD

Apr 21, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) shoots the ball as Boston Celtics forward Al Horford (42) defends during the first quarter in game four of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Oladipo likely won’t be fully healthy to begin the season. Luckily, the Pacers now have the kind of offensive firepower to tread water until he returns. A starting lineup of Brogdon-Lamb-Warren-Sabonis-Turner doesn’t pop off your computer screen, but it does give perennially underrated head coach Nate McMillan room to experiment with a 4-out alignment.

Brogdon-Turner pick-and-rolls should give defenders fits either way. Brogdon is a good enough finisher to attack creases, while Turner can abuse “Drop” coverage with his shooting ability.

The offense can also be run through Sabonis in the high post. Spreading the floor around a big that can pass and score as well as he does forces defenses into no-win situations.

Both Warren and Lamb can serve as “end of clock” scoring options if things break down, though one probably doesn’t want either in pure isolation settings if you can help it.

Once Oladipo returns, the Pacers will really have options to work with.

Jan 12, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan watches the game from the sideline in the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

They can go small and replace Sabonis in the starting lineup with a Brogdon-Oladipo-Lamb-Warren-Turner unit⁠—he’s been incredibly effective with the second unit anyway.

That starting group can push hard after misses or create mismatches in the half court while the trio of Brogdon-Oladipo-Turner is enough cover for the defensive lapses of Warren and Lamb.

They could elect to go bigger with a Brogdon-Oladipo-Warren-Sabonis-Turner group. It would be a physical five where all can attack creases offensively while gobbling up passing lanes and the rim on the other end.

The Pacers have quietly built one of the most versatile rosters in the Eastern Conference. At full force, they can stifle opponents in the half-court, score in transition and now have the spacing to create easier looks in half-court situations.

When talking about teams poised to make deep playoff runs, make sure to throw them in the ring.

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