The Indiana Pacers have pleasantly surprised their fans and rest of the NBA with the results they have produced through the first 30 games of the 2018 season. The Pacers were originally thought to be projected at the bottom of the league by critics following the loss of their franchise player Paul George. They have since emerged as a budding playoff threat currently holding the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture with a 17-14 overall record.
The best analogy that can describe this situation in hindsight concerns the television show Family Matters (yes, the show that made Steve Urkel a household name during the 1990's). When the trade for Paul George was initially made, fans looked at the Indiana Pacers like they were Steve Urkel. A product that would be annoying to watch with major long term struggles ahead of them to attract fans. The Pacers also seemed like they would be entering full rebuilding mode trying to salvage what little assets they got in return for trading away their best player in Paul George. Turns out, this year's Pacers team is much more like Stefan Urquelle. A team that is exciting for fans to watch with their fast paced style, high scoring offense, and energetic effort game to game.
When the Pacers made the move to trade Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, everyone thought the deal was in favor of OKC, leaving the Pacers with few assets to build around for the future. When analyzing this team at the time of the Paul George trade, the first concern for Indiana was how they would compensate for the loss of offense George supplied game to game. Victor Oladpio has answered those concerns by emerging as Indiana's most productive and consistent offensive weapon. Oladipo has also improved tremendously since last season exceeding the expectations of fans and more than likely Indiana's front office. Last season with OKC, Oladipo averaged 15.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, and shot 44 percent from the field, numbers worthy of a starting spot in the NBA. Many thought that Oladipo, while an extremely gifted athlete and playmaker was not a player that shot well from three-point range.
Oladipo has since taken that criticism and improved in every major statistical category so far this year. Oladipo's scoring average and three-point field goal percentage are among the most impressive for the former Indiana University star. Oladipo has increased his scoring average to just under 25 PPG and his three-point shooting percentage has gone from 36 percent to nearly 43 percent. Oladipo's nearly 25 PPG scoring average is also better than any scoring average put up by Paul George in his time with the Pacers.
The statistical production Oladipo has generated does not put into account the tremendous physical shape he is in and the clutch plays he has made in closely contested games. Coming into this season, Paul George was 0-15 in his career on potential go-ahead shots with 20 seconds or less left in games according to ESPN Stats and Info. This was the worst among any player since the 2010-2011 season.
Victor Oladipo already has two game winning daggers this season against the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls. Now, it is difficult to define what "clutch" is and which scenarios should or should not be included in this category. However, Pacers fans have already taken notice that when the game is on the line, Oladipo wants to make a play. If this season is any indication, Oladipo has already rose to the occasion more than Paul George ever did while with Indiana.
When the stats from Oladipo and George are compared side by side, it is clear that Oladipo is having the better season so far. Part of the lack of production from George is having to share the offensive load with not just one, but two ball-dominant players in Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. But based on the numbers, Indiana's trade with OKC seems to be more balanced than originally thought of at the time of the trade.
OKC didn't lose this trade by any means with Paul George being an all-star caliber player. At this point though, Indiana is benefiting more from a player in Oladipo than OKC is from George. Indiana seems glad to have Oladipo in part because of his willingness to put in the tireless effort necessary to improve game by game. An effort that George seemed to lack at times with the Pacers.
Paul George's numbers are relatively steady from last season considering how loaded the Thunder are in their starting lineup. Yet, the Pacers have so far emerged as the better team by dealing George and dumping his sometimes erratic behavior on the Thunder. George's childish antics like complaining to referees, griping about how fans treat him, and nagging to management for better talent are now gone from Indiana's locker room. Adding a humble and thankful player like Oladipo was really what the Pacers needed through this trade. Oladipo's attitude and willingness to work hard everyday seems to be infectious and has spread a better culture throughout the organization. Key pieces from last year like Lance Stephenson, Thad Young, and Myles Turner all seem to have a renewed positive outlook about this team, a mentality that was not consistently seen with George.
The one concern with Oladipo is the price tag assigned to him for this season and the next few years. Oladipo is scheduled to make $21 million this season as well as the next three seasons with Indiana. Myles Turner who is only costing the Pacers $2.4 million this season will demand a much higher salary in the near future. For a small market team like the Pacers who are not willing to pay the luxury tax, the idea of keeping Oladipo could be a major financial challenge. Oladipo has told fans that "he is home and is here to stay," so the Pacers should be able to restructure his deal and figure out a compromise that will benefit both sides.
The Pacers are also benefiting from Domantas Sabonis, the other asset in the trade for Paul George. Sabonis who was thought to be a project at the power forward spot has proven his critics wrong so far this season. Sabonis is the Pacers leading rebounder averaging 8.3 RPG this season. Sabonis also averages double digit scoring with 12.3 PPG.
Few took the time to realize that Domantas's father, Arvydas Sabonis was a dominant player during his career particularly when playing overseas. In fact, Arvydas was so dominant internationally that in 1991 he was named one of FIBA's 50 Greatest Players. Not counting his international career, Arvydas averaged double digit scoring in two stints with the Portland Trailblazers. Because of his stellar play, Arvydas earned an induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. While Domantas has a long way to go and a lot left to prove in his career, the Pacers are hoping the apple does not fall too far from the tree with this player.
The Pacers have also benefitted from key off-season additions like Cory Joesph, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Darren Collison in his second stint with Indiana. No one expected the Pacers to be competing this quickly nor that the trade for Paul George would as balanced as it is for both teams.
There are some areas of concern though that the Pacers need to address throughout the remainder of this year if they want to make the playoffs. The Pacers should first feel fortunate to be playing in the weaker Eastern Conference. With the amount of fundamental mistakes they commit game to game, the Pacers are benefiting from an easier level of competition on most nights in the East. Level of competition aside, the biggest problem for the Pacers is matching defensive intensity with their offensive productivity. As effective as Indiana is on the offensive side of the ball, winning games and earning upward movement in the standings is dependent on consistent defense. The Pacers are currently the 2nd best in the NBA when it comes to shooting from three-point range as a team at 37.1 percent. Only the Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant shoot it better at just over 38 percent.
The Pacers while having the NBA's eighth best defense, rank in the bottom half of second chance points allowed game to game. This indicates that the Pacers play with enough intensity to get stops, but not enough to turn those stops into their own opportunities at the other end. Getting defensive stops and converting it into offense is probably the biggest factor when it comes to winning on the road and in back to back games. This is an area where Indiana needs major improvement, being only 7-7 on the road so far this year. It is fair to assume there will be games this season where the Pacers will struggle to shoot it from deep and will give up numerous offensive rebounds, leading to lop sided losses. It is one of the downfalls of implementing a fast paced style. So, the Pacers need to elevate the defensive energy and effort on the glass to sustain leads and avoid early deficits for the rest of the year. Being a young team with some development left to go in a few key pieces will take time, but with the proper amount of patience, the Pacers could be a dangerous team in the East in the coming years.
The one other major issue that could plague the Pacers down the stretch is how they play in closely contested games. So far this season, the Pacers are 5-6 in games decided by two possessions or less. The most recent heartbreaking loss came at home in Banker's Life Fieldhouse at the hands of Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics. In an offensive struggle throughout the entire game, the Pacers managed to overcome a 19 point deficit and take the lead by 5, holding the advantage 107-102 with 31.1 seconds left in regulation. With Indiana up by four and 9.3 seconds left, Kyrie Irving converted on a three-point attempt to put Boston within one possession of Indiana, 111-110. On the ensuing possession with a chance to win, Pacers forward Bojan Bogdanovich turned the ball over with a wayward lob pass to Boston's Terry Rozier. Rozier then took it the other way and scored with a game clinching dunk. A desperation heave with 1.3 seconds left from Darren Collison missed the mark giving Boston the 112-111 victory.
Boston entered this game with the NBA's top ranked defense and Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan said it came down to a lack of execution in the closing minutes during the post-game press conference. "It's a 48 minute game, you have got to execute all 48 minutes, we just lost our composure and miscues down the stretch cost us the game."
As great as this team can be moving forward, it comes down to whether Indiana has the stability, composure, and mental toughness to win close games. Winning games decided by two possessions or less is the difference between securing the 5th or
8th seed in the NBA playoff picture. Indiana's ability to win close games will be one of the biggest keys to not just making the playoffs but performing well in the post season once it gets underway in April of 2018.
When Paul George was initially traded, fans wrote this team off not giving them much hope to succeed this season or in the long term. This team has hope and continues to be a work in progress with immense upside potential. The Pacers are a team that is built for the future with mostly young players under contract that have the willingness to work hard and get better with each day. As long as they can avoid major injuries and fundamental mistakes that will cost them close games, the Pacers will be a team to watch closely over the next few years.
Jimmy Kennedy who thinks the Pacers are better off without Paul George can be reached at email@example.com