Losses: Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Kyle O’Quinn, Wesley Matthews.
Additions: Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell, JaKarr Sampson, Goga Bitadze.
Likely Starters Guard: Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb (until Victor Oladipo is healthy) Wing: Justin Holiday (or T.J. Warren) Big: Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner
Predicted Record: 45–37 | 13th in NBA | 6th in East
It takes a minute to notice it, but this team is deeply altered from the version that won 48 games last season behind the third best defense in the league. Evans, Bogdanovic, Collison, Joseph, O’Quinn, Matthews: these guys all logged heavy minutes last season, and they are all gone.
It takes a minute to notice because the players at the team-building center of this operation are Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis. They’re all still around, though Oladipo likely will miss most of the first half of this season after missing the second half of the last one.
Oladipo, to be clear, is a superstar. At least, he was. It’s hard to say what he’ll look like when he returns from this injury. His 2017-18 season—at age 25—was a swaggering masterpiece. It was the best possible version of a player putting everything together. He became a profound and exciting force on both sides of the ball, shooting the hell out it from all over the court, leading the league in steals, and playing with the kind of sustained ferocity only the greats ever manage to figure out how to harness.
That Oladipo—and let me say here that I will be devastated if we don’t see that Oladipo again—could be the best player on a title team someday. Building around even an injured Oladipo is a better option than most teams have at any given moment in league history. I’m glad the Pacers are sticking to the plan.
This summer, that plan involved replacing a bunch of veterans who had been on expiring contracts with younger players at the start of multi-year deals. The Pacers agreed to multiple guaranteed years—at varying amounts and through various types of transactions—with T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, Edmond Sumner, and T.J. McConnell. If you match that group up with the guys they lost, you’ll find a team that got a little smaller, a little more creative offensively.
Still, this team is going to have to find a way to keep kicking ass on defense, especially until Oladipo returns, if they plan on coming anywhere near the top of the East’s playoff picture. In order to do that, they need to figure out an answer to the most important team building question facing them: can Sabonis and Turner coexist?
Sabonis and Turner shared the court for just 429 minutes last season over 64 games. Those numbers suggest Nate McMillan prefers to keep his two bigs separate. Turner last season evolved into a top-level defensive center, a shot-blocking force who is improving at reading the floor and snuffing out actions all over the place. He’s got potential as a shooter, but that side of the floor isn’t his strength. Sabonis is a fucking monster offensively. The dude just eats glass and finds buckets, and he’s a canny screener and an excellent passer. He plays hard on the other end, but he’s a step slow; defense isn’t his strength. Neither guy is suited to playing forward, ultimately. Neither should be chasing anybody around.
This season, either something in that last paragraph changes in order to make the duo tenable for more minutes, or the Pacers brass is going to have to decide to deal one of those guys. They were both 22 last season; there’s reason to believe adaptation is possible. Nevertheless, you do start to feel like a trade might be the most likely outcome.
Any good basketball team at some point has to figure out which five guys should be on the floor when shit really gets intense. Which five guys are you going to be comfortable playing together down the stretch when things aren’t going well and the game is in the balance. It’s hard to imagine the answer for this team includes both Turner and Sabonis together, but maybe that’s the mirage of the contemporary moment. Throughout basketball history, you’d have loved to have two bigs like these guys. The Pacers are at any interesting crossroads. Should they try to build themselves in the image of the league of the moment, or should they lean into the talent they have on board? Maybe the answer is to play Turner and Sabonis together a lot. Maybe they can overwhelm teams with size.
Heading into the 2019-20 NBA season, I keep finding myself wondering if we’re in the midst of a new moment. The Warriors don’t have Kevin Durant anymore. The nightmare mismatches of today are ever so slightly different than those of previous seasons. When it comes down to it, I’m hoping the Pacers go big. They’ve already got a star. They’re loaded in the backcourt. They should be iconoclasts. Rather than building in the image of the league, I hope they stomp that image. I hope they dwarf it with the shadows of very tall men.