We never saw last season’s Indiana Pacers at full strength. Victor Oladipo missed the first three months, Malcolm Brogdon missed 19 games, Domantas Sabonis missed the entire bubble and Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL. Their first-round exit was uninspiring, but it was also unsurprising. The Miami Heat swept an extremely shallow and offensively limited version of the team.
All things considered, the Pacers had another perfectly respectable season. Sabonis made his first All-Star team, and Brogdon played like an All-Star when he was healthy. They had the sixth-best defense in the league, managing to retain their identity despite substantial roster changes and endless injuries.
This was not, however, enough to save coach Nate McMillan’s job. Indiana was 19th on offense in the regular season, with an old-school shot profile. It ranked 22nd in pace. McMillan’s replacement, Nate Bjorkgren, wants to shoot more 3s, play faster and force more turnovers.
If this sounds familiar, it’s not just because new coaches often talk about playing faster. It’s because the Pacers have intermittently tried to modernize their attack since they let Roy Hibbert go and David West left to chase a ring in the summer of 2015. That was the same offseason in which then-president Larry Bird drafted Myles Turner, signed Monta Ellis and declared that Paul George would play power forward even if he didn’t want to. Bird fired coach Frank Vogel after the 2015-16 season, and Indiana’s philosophical shift never stuck under McMillan.
Last season’s Pacers were eighth in effective field goal percentage, per Cleaning the Glass, and only four teams took better care of the ball. This didn’t add up to an efficient offense, though, because they shot more long 2s and fewer 3s than almost anybody and rarely got to the free throw line. In theory, there is some low-hanging fruit here.
But that doesn’t mean Bjorkgren’s job will be easy. Despite reports that Oladipo wanted out and more rumors about splitting up Turner and Sabonis, Indiana is basically bringing back the same team. Lamb is still rehabilitating, and it’s unclear when TJ Warren, out with plantar fasciitis, will be available. There is much more to manage than the style of play.
Taking the temperature
Pacers believer: The Pacers took 44 3s in their first preseason game! Brogdon said they’re going to shoot more than that! I love that they already look so different, and I love that one thing has stayed the same: Everybody is overlooking them.
When this team “overachieves” and everybody acts shocked, take a look at the talent on this roster. Oladipo had a 30 percent usage rate in 2017-18, his last fully healthy season, but he doesn’t have the same type of playmaking burden with Brogdon in the backcourt, the All-Star version of Sabonis at the high post and Warren capable of erupting at a moment’s notice. I’m optimistic for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because Oladipo has every incentive to buy in and Bjorkgren is going to make sure Turner lets it fly from 3-point range every time he’s open.
Pacers skeptic: I hope you’re right about Oladipo because he was incredible three years ago. Until I see him show the same off-the-dribble burst he had back then, though, I am going to assume that his days of being a lead playmaker are over. And if he’s not a lead playmaker, then what is he? That was the only season in which he was an elite finisher and one of only two seasons in which he shot better than 35 percent from deep.
There’s potential for this to get extremely awkward extremely quickly, even if the coaching staff has all of the right ideas. The Warren injury is concerning, too, and frankly I don’t think the Pacers have the personnel to do all of the things Bjorkgren has talked about. Am I supposed to be pumped about Sabonis going 0 for 5 from deep in a couple of preseason games? How are they going to play an aggressive, shapeshifting, Raptors-style defense without the Raptors’ length, athleticism and defensive IQ?
Pacers believer: You’re clearly forgetting how good their defense was last season. I’m not worried about that end whatsoever. All this season is about is becoming a more dynamic offensive team, and I’m pretty confident Bjorkgren will do that. They’ll be better in transition, they’ll space the floor properly and they’ll empower everybody to create. It might take a little while, but yes, I actually do expect Sabonis to become a weapon from 3-point range. I can see Aaron Holiday breaking out, too.
Pacers skeptic: If they had all these big plans for their offense, then they should’ve done more than just re-sign Justin Holiday and JaKarr Sampson and change the coach. I’m uncomfortable with the idea the offense is going to improve in a meaningful way because it implies that either McMillan was doing everything wrong or Bjorkgren is about to do something revolutionary.
If the Pacers wanted to be a more modern team, then they should have split up Turner and Sabonis years ago. If they wanted to play faster, why did they use their most recent first-round pick on Goga Bitadze? McMillan’s system was built to maximize the roster he had. It didn’t generate a ton of 3-point shots, but it generated open shots. If they’re more efficient this season, it’ll probably be because of health, not the system.
Pacers believer: I might agree with you if we hadn’t seen the system repeatedly fail in the playoffs. Switching has been a problem for the Pacers for a while, and it threw them completely out of rhythm against the Heat. Maybe it was a cheap shot to include their 3-16 playoff record under McMillan in their press release about the firing, but that record is relevant.
It was time for a change. It was time for a less conservative approach.
Pacers skeptic: That record is misleading. It’s not McMillan’s fault that they didn’t have Sabonis against Miami or that Turner can’t punish smaller guys in the post. It’s not his fault that, in 2018-19, they had to turn Bojan Bogdanovic into their No. 1 option. Under McMillan, they were as tough and resilient as any team in the league, and it’s amazing that they finished fourth last year despite Brogdon, Oladipo, Warren, Sabonis and Turner playing together for a total of 86 minutes over six games.
I feel uneasy about the situation Bjorkgren is stepping into. I have serious questions about Turner’s offense, Sabonis’ defense and the Brogdon-Oladipo fit. I have concerns about health and depth. It’s possible that they’ll come together and exceed expectations again, but it’s more likely that they’ll move Oladipo before the deadline and be a part of the play-in tournament.
Pacers believer: It’s fine to have questions and concerns, but I have questions and concerns about most of the teams you’re assuming will finish above them. This is an inherently unpredictable season, and no one should be shocked if the Pacers earn home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Why should we assume that Oladipo is essentially done at 28 years old? Why should we assume Bjorkgren can’t modernize the offense and get everybody on the same page? I get that their offseason was boring, but I remember people finding an almost identical roster pretty interesting heading into the 2019-20 season. With the coaching change, the Pacers are more interesting now.
Eye on: Aaron Holiday
In the preseason, Holiday has been starting in Warren’s place, giving Indiana the same three-guard look it had for most of the bubble. The 24-year-old is a solid backup already, but Year 3 is the time to prove he can be more than that. Can he maintain his 39 percent 3-point shooting on a higher volume? Can he push the ball more than he did under McMillan?
Holiday is a clever playmaker and a good defender at the point of attack. He’s comfortable on or off the ball, a particularly helpful trait on this team. I’d love to see him raise his usage a bit and take advantage of the freedom he’ll have in the new system.