What if there was a Comeback Team of the Year Award?
After the Pacers traded Paul George there was so much doom and gloom, they entertained the idea of suing the Lakers because their feelings were hurt. Paul George, who they had trained and mentored, was infatuated with someone else and wanted to leave the marriage. He was no longer in love, didn’t want counseling; he just wanted out. Reluctantly the Pacers agreed, weeping as he left and then preparing themselves for a rebuilding year. It was a blow. Even with George and David West and the Eastern Conference Finals, Indy has never been a Pacers town. Attendance is sporadic, a full house for the rivals and glamour markets, pretty dead when Charlotte comes to town. It appeared that another small market was taking it on the chin after a superstar, denied a supermax contract, was bailing on them. No CBA can prevent a player from leaving when he wants to leave and he has earned the right to go. And so the Pacers were in the scrum with all the other sad teams without a star. There was some legitimate college talent in the 2018 draft, franchise changers. It was all about the pivot.
Except Victor Oladipo was getting his body right and working on his jumper and was relentless in his summer workouts and ramped up his conditioning. Regardless of whether he sees himself as the Paul George replacement, the tail wags the dog- he was the Paul George replacement.
Oladipo had never had pressure on him before. In Orlando, he was part of a young bunch in a rebuilding organization, not supposed to win on most nights, development being the goal. In OKC, it was Westbrook 24-7 and hating Durant. It was a gap year for the Thunder who weren’t really sure what life was going to be like without their former MVP. Westbrook took control and everyone else pretty much got in line.
The Pacers were to be Oladipo’s first starring act. His reputation was at stake. He needed consistency and achievement and it demanded that he hone every ounce of leadership he had learned throughout his career.
Eight months later, here we stand in Indy with the Pacers having a better record than the Thunder and Victor Oladipo having a better statistical year than Paul George on the offensive side of the ball (George is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year) when you measure points and shooting percentage. Oladipo has a higher PER than George, George has a higher offensive rating. Both rebound with the same efficiency but Oladipo has more assists.
The Pacers and Thunder are both 5 seeds in their conference, but the Thunder had two All-Stars (Westbrook, George) this season and the Pacers one. So what the Pacers are doing with Victor Oladipo leading them is far greater than what the Thunder are doing with George because George is leading the Thunder in a 1A way. The Thunder will always be Russ’ team.
What’s gone right for the Pacers this year besides replacing George with a consistent shot maker and 20 point scorer?
They are a team that makes shots, five are in double figures every game. They have complimentary offensive games. Thaddeus Young can hit the three but is weak 10-16 feet, ditto Myles Turner. Oladipo is balling except 3-10 feet, same with Darren Collison. Lance Stephenson is weak at the three and 3-10 feet. Bojan Bogdanovic scores from everywhere.
They don’t have much post up game but they make the free throws they are asked to make. They don’t take a lot of threes, but they mkae those too, top ten. They have quickness in the backcourt, they are second in the league in steals. They don’t turn the ball over which means they maximize possessions and get a lot of easy baskets. They excel at three point defense.
Their weakness, besides not having a second All-Star, is the front court. They don’t rebound and rebounds gets you rings. They don’t have much size to match up against a Philly who they might play in the first round. They aren’t explosive in the front court blocking shots and protecting the rim and Collison can be overmatched by bigger guards. They play way too much iso and they play slow.
But they are top-10 in shooting percentage, steals, fast break points, turnovers, opponent points, opponent threes.
Already, the Pacers have won more games this year than they won last year. Their offense isn’t better but their defense is, even without George. If the Pacers go 5-1 in their last 6 games they will hit the 50 game mark and no one expected anything close to that. Whatever happens in the playoffs happens. The Pacers exceeded expectations, proving everybody wrong in the preseason predictions who had them finishing 11-14 in the conference.
But their success with all of its silver linings has a predictable truth. We remember what we see last. What we have seen last of the Pacers is almost 50 wins. That isn’t a fluke. Next year can’t be seen as a fluke. The Pacers have to prove they can be consistent and efficient over time with Victor Oladipo. Myles Turner has to improve and the front office has to land a second All-Star for Oladipo. If you are not getting better, as the NBA Baskeball Gods whisper, you are getting worse.
The Pacers were getting worse. And then they were better. And now they are on the cusp of 50 wins and are in the playoffs. The Paul George years are emphatically in the Pacer history books. Next chapter now.