The Indiana Pacers are set to restart their season tomorrow night against the Philadelphia 76ers, after more than three months away from NBA competition. Two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo has yet to confirm if he will play the remainder of this season, saying he will make an official announcement tomorrow. Oladipo was just 13 games into his comeback from a torn quad tendon the previous season, an abrupt injury that kept him out of action for more than a full calendar year.
Following a series of impressive practices, Oladipo hinted at the idea that he could end up finishing this season with the Pacers, a move that complicated his initial choice with him still being owed $3 million for this season. $3 million for eight games is an easy paycheck to the average person. The need to compete should be a motivating factor for professional athletes too, especially when they are getting compensated at that level.
But these genetic outliers know they have a limited shelf-life and it would be naive of them to not seriously weigh the financial risks of playing when their earning power is highest. Oladipo is on the brink of earning a much more lucrative contract after next season, in excess of $100 million if he can stay healthy. Whether he will earn that money with the Indiana Pacers is still to be decided.
For all the concerns that some have about his health, Oladipo is capable of contributing heavily to a championship caliber team right now. He is a gifted athlete who can defend multiple spots and is a player who tends to be clutch in critical moments. But much like exited Pacers forward Paul George, Oladipo would likely take a lesser role on larger market teams. He has yet to prove he is a legitimate star in the NBA. Even as a two-time All-Star, spurts of last season saw the Pacers play with more fluidity without Oladipo on the floor, going 32-20 in his absence.
Oladipo's indecisiveness on whether to play or not is concerning, especially when Pacers head coach Nate McMillan wasn't made aware of this change until the story went public. The Pacers have touted themselves as a team that tries to build a "culture" where players know their roles and talent is evaluated on how they will fit together with other pieces at their disposal. Another critical part to building a culture, which McMillan has tried to implement is having a team, front office, and coaching staff on the same page.
For Indiana's best player to make this announcement without notifying anyone beforehand, indicates there is some kind of disconnect within the organization. A disconnect that may ultimately force the Pacers to unravel and start over with yet another rebuild. Oladipo's choices and lack thereof have begged the question of just how long Indiana will stay intact as currently constructed.
Indiana returned only five players from their roster last season. Oladipo's injury didn't help in developing chemistry with such roster turnover, but did help bring about the emergence of Domas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. The steady play of Sabonis and Brogdon warranted the money invested in them. Brogdon is set to earn $85 million over the next four years with Indiana while Sabonis extended his deal, paying in excess of $18 million per season starting next year. Indiana also extended Myles Turner's contract guaranteeing the 23 year old shot blocking specialist $80 million over the next four years.
The Pacers as a small market team can't leverage this much cash to such a concentrated part of their roster. One of these components will have to depart just from a financial standpoint. Oladipo will be another $100 million on top of the deals they have already inked. But without a single playoff series win to their credit so far, it doesn't make sense to keep this team together as it is for much longer.
Malcolm Brogdon has had a laundry list of injuries this season and has developed the tendency to be injury prone in his career. Domas Sabonis was a first time All-Star this season, but was forced to leave the bubble in Orlando following a significant foot injury with no timetable for his return. Myles Turner has the body and ability to be an All-Star, but has failed at this point to provide the kind of consistency that justifies his contract. Front offices bet on potential when making these decisions, hoping to eventually make the investment worth the effort. An unfortunate reality that front offices can't foresee is injuries and the level at which those players return from injury. Surgeries, treatments, training and nutrition have improved immensely in recent years. But the Pacers championship window isn't as wide open as it appeared when initially negotiating these deals. Hindsight is always 20/20, but the Pacers need to consider a timetable for just how long they want to keep this group together. From a financial and chemistry standpoint, the Pacers should trade Victor Oladipo before next year's deadline.
Malcolm Brogdon is a two-guard who serves as the floor general for this Pacers team. He is a remarkable leader on and off the floor as one of the loudest voices in the NBA advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement. He is a player that commands respect, putting those around him in a position to succeed. Victor Oladipo on the other hand seems to be a player more concerned with his own image. Whether it's his appearance on The Masked Singer or waiting until the day of his team's restart to announce his intentions to play, he seems increasingly more concerned about diverting attention to himself. These selfish behavioral tendencies also negatively effect his performance on the court.
Prior to the NBA's shutdown, the Pacers record during games when Oladipo shoots more than once every two minutes is 35-31, compared to 40-8 when he concentrates more on getting others involved. The Pacers don't need a pair of injury whittled two-guards in the back court and if given the option, should keep Brogdon. Brogdon isn't as talented as Oladipo, but is a much more steady force on and off the court. The Pacers should also move Oladipo before next year's deadline to prevent the situation of losing him for nothing, which has fans recalling suppressed memories of the Paul George debacle.
In the event the Pacers don't move Oladipo and he chooses to leave as a free agent, it would be a permanent indictment of Indianapolis too. The turnover rate of star athletes in Indianapolis has been profound starting with Peyton Manning being forced out with the Colts to draft Andrew Luck. Next came Paul George and the trade that brought Oladipo and Sabonis to town. This was followed up by the unprecedented retirement of Andrew Luck at the age of 29, a story that broke in the middle of a game at Lucas Oil Stadium. If Oladipo as an Indiana University graduate leaves the Pacers voluntarily, it's understandable why anyone else would be hesitant to sign with them.
The Pacers also have chemistry issues in the front court with Sabonis and Turner congesting the middle of the floor. Myles Turner has a golden opportunity in the absence of Sabonis to show he is worthy of the massive deal he signed. If he fails to take that leap forward, at 23 years old he's still young enough for another team to take on that money. Sabonis and his foot injury are a major concern, not knowing the extent of it at this point. But if Domas's father Arvydas Sabonis is any indication, he will bounce back and be just as effective as before. The Pacers don't need two front court players of similar skill set and if forced to choose should keep Sabonis.
The Pacers coaching staff and front office could very well be out too with very little success to show over this four year stretch with Nate McMillan as head coach. It's tough to be too critical of the Pacers in the playoffs since they've never been able to beat LeBron James whether in Miami or Cleveland. But a change in direction from a tactical standpoint, may be the kind of catalyst needed to freshen things up. There's something to be said about staying the course, but getting complacent is what needs to be avoided with the Pacers. Change is difficult but sometimes necessary for growth and the Pacers have likely met this group's potential.
Jimmy Kennedy, who believes the Pacers should trade Victor Oladipo before next year's deadline, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org