The Indiana Pacers enter the 2018-2019 season with heightened expectations following a surprisingly successful season last year. Indiana secured 48 wins last season after trading away the face of their franchise in Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Victor Oladipo, one of the pieces Indiana received in exchange for George, rose to the occasion last season, tallying personal bests in scoring, shooting percentage, rebounds, assists and steals. Oladipo needs to prove he can duplicate that kind of production to assert himself as a true star in this league.
The other asset Indiana received in exchange for Paul George, was power forward Domas Sabonis, who has become a reliable source of energy and toughness off the bench for the Pacers. With another year of development, one major question the Pacers will have to answer this year is what their long term plans are for Sabonis and his skill set. As much potential as Sabonis has as a second generation NBA talent, the Pacers are also closely monitoring the progression of Myles Turner.
Turner has proven to be a reliable rim protector, consistent shot blocker, and an offensive threat capable of spreading the floor. The Pacers have already agreed to a 4 year extension with Turner for $72 million, indicating that they believe Turner's massive upside will in fact pay dividends in the future. But where does that leave Sabonis, a slightly less athletic, but meaner version of Turner around the paint? As much as head coach Nate McMillan wants to play veteran Thad Young at power forward this season, he may be forced to play both Turner and Sabonis on the floor together. If McMillan doesn't choose this route, it could ultimately lead to Sabonis wanting out and the Pacers losing a youthful asset.
The Pacers should be expected to hover around the 48 win mark considering their starting five is back with another year of maturity, development, and chemistry together. The team is still relatively young with the only long-term concerns being point guard Darren Collison and power forward Thad Young. Collison is coming off a career year with phenomenal perimeter shooting ability. But at the age of 31, the Pacers are hopeful that Aaron Holiday will be able to eventually fulfill Collison's role. Holiday comes from the same college program as Collison, UCLA, with virtually the same build and look to his game. Holiday is also the younger brother of Jrue, who is one of the most underrated players in the league today. Jrue is known for being a disciplined defender and playmaker for the New Orleans Pelicans, helping elevate Anthony Davis to an MVP level player. If the productivity of Jrue is any indication, the Pacers have landed a point guard that could be relied upon for years to come.
Thad Young serves as one of the main veteran voices in Indiana's locker room. Young chose to opt into a player option with the Pacers that will pay him $13.7 million this season. While Thad brings tremendous versatility on the floor and much needed stability off of it, he is an aging commodity. At 30 years old, commanding that kind of cash, the Pacers may be better off after this season investing in a younger and cheaper option for the future.
Indiana's bench is a bit deeper and more reliable than a year ago with off-season additions in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott. Evans is an upgrade over the entertaining but unpredictable Lance Stephenson. Evans had a bounce back year with Memphis last season shooting nearly 40% from behind the arc and averaging 19 points off the bench. In the unfortunate event that Victor Oladipo were to miss time for Indiana this season, Evans should be able to fill that void better than Stephenson did a year ago. Evans is also playing this season for Indiana on a one year deal. The lack of a long term investment means Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard knows the injury prone Evans could miss time this year too, much like in previous years. Evans will be motivated to stay healthy to not only earn an extension with Indiana, but to show what he's still capable of with an entirely different team next season.
Doug McDermott joins the Pacers as an offensive catalyst whose main role will be to shoot from the perimeter. Similar to Kyle Korver, he provides the kind of instant offense any team would want off of their bench. The main concern with McDermott is if he will be motivated to play consistent defense on the other end of the floor. Playing for his fifth team in five seasons, McDermott has to prove he's capable of at least being moderately competent defensively for the Pacers this year.
The Pacers also added tenacious rebounder Kyle O'Quinn this off-season. O'Quinn will fulfill the role Al Jefferson did last season, being another veteran that does the little things to make any NBA squad better. Whether it's setting screens, crashing the glass, or simply supplying a veteran's perspective to help young talent improve, O'Quinn is an upgrade for the Pacers from Al Jefferson. The Pacers also bring back the steady backup point guard in Cory Joseph. While Joseph doesn't give the kind of offensive efficiency some would like, he makes up for it with his endless hustle and defensive effort.
The Pacers come into a season too where the Eastern Conference is joyful over the departure of LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pacers were able to take LeBron to the brink of elimination in Game 7 of the first round last season, but are now in search for more. Even without LeBron, the Pacers road to deep playoff contention is not without major obstacles. The Celtics were able to make the Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Heyward. The Raptors traded for a top ten player in Kawhi Leonard in addition to bringing back stars like Kyle Lowry. The 76ers will return with emerging stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid another year better. Teams like the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo will also try to make a splash in the playoffs.
While there is much room for optimism with this team, the Pacers could easily look very different a year from now with at least 6 players set to become free agents after this season. The Pacers should certainly be able to solidify themselves as a contender in the East this season. They have taken the steps necessary to build a team that is young, motivated, and determined. But as quickly as this team has been assembled, it could just as easily be heavily reconstructed in the near future. The Pacers are a team ready to take that next step. But taking that next step into deep playoff contention may be necessary to keep this present team intact in the coming years.
Jimmy Kennedy, who believes the Pacers have potential but aren't without major concerns and competition, can be reached at email@example.com