Pacers Off-Season Evaluation Compromised by COVID-19 Pandemic
As the NBA continues to work toward possibly resuming regular season play amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the Pacers have several issues that must be addressed this off-season. When it comes to on the court issues, the Pacers must first decide whether to re-sign two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo made his long-awaited return to the Pacers on January 29th this season, missing more than a year of live competition. Over 13 games, Oladipo showed flashes of his former self converting on timely baskets in the clutch. He did however sporadically disrupt offensive rhythm when he decided to become a volume shooter.
When the Pacers have limited Oladipo's shot attempts to less than once every two minutes, they win 5 out of every 6 games on average, better than 83 percent. When he shoots at a higher rate than that, the Pacers only manage to win 53 percent of the time. Oladipo's most impressive performance of the season came against the Boston Celtics on March 10th. He poured in 27 points on 5 of 7 shooting from beyond the arch, one day before the NBA ultimately suspended regular-season play due to COVID-19.
Oladipo may get an opportunity to show more of his progression if the league opens up in time for the playoffs. In the event that doesn't happen though, the Pacers will have just 13 games to analyze whether to keep Oladipo on the roster or not. Oladipo will have earned $21 million this season and has another $21 million left on his remaining contract. At more than $1 million per game this season, it's a compromised position for the Pacers to evaluate Oladipo.
The Pacers will have to decide whether they want to invest at least that much cash in a player like Oladipo at this stage in his career. Oladipo has proven himself to be valuable in winning time for the Pacers with a number of game winning shots to his credit. He has also emerged as a dependable defender at the two-guard position. But with Oladipo's recent injury, it's a major gamble to bring him back on a long-term deal knowing he may be irreversibly hampered by it.
Even in the event that Oladipo comes back healthy and capable, at the age of 28 he has yet to solidify himself as a true star in the NBA. The Pacers are a team that receives less media coverage than larger markets, which in turn constrains Oladipo's exposure to a national television audience. He's a small market star, much like his Western Conference counterpart Donovan Mitchell with the Utah Jazz.
Oladipo is beloved by Pacers fans who have an even deeper attachment to him due to his college career at Indiana University. Small market teams are loyal to their stars, but must be economically smarter than teams with deeper pockets. Oladipo has yet to win a playoff series during his tenure with the Pacers, leaving a major box unchecked when it comes to evaluating stars. If the playoffs started today, Indiana would travel to face Miami.
The Heat won five of their last eight games before the league's abrupt halt and had been considered one of the league's surprising contenders in the East. All teams will most certainly be a little rusty with a more than two month long layoff from regular season regiments. But Miami's stifling defense, deep roster, and experienced coaching make them an extremely difficult match-up without home court advantage.
If Oladipo manages to finish the season and fails to win in the playoffs again, it's a critical blow to his stock with the Pacers. While the Coronavirus pandemic serves as a worthy excuse for his shortcomings, it delays Indiana's chances of deep playoff contention by another year. Assuming Oladipo is retained next year, he very well could be without Myles Turner for the first time.
Myles Turner is in his fifth year with the Pacers as the longest tenured member on the active roster. He was taken with the 11th overall pick in 2015 as a player with major upside who would be given time to develop at the NBA level. Turner has been a tremendous shot blocker leading the NBA in that statistical category last season. He's also a player capable of stretching a defense, hitting perimeter shots at a 35 percent clip for his career. He's revamped his body, adding muscle, but has failed to play at a consistent level game to game. His lack of consistent play was more forgivable when he was earning between $2 and $3 million a season with Indiana.
Cash strapped franchises like the Pacers benefit greatly from ownership friendly contracts, getting a quality player at a bargain price. The Pacers extended Myles Turner following the 2018 season paying him $80 million over four years, with $70 million guaranteed. If Turner can't provide double-double caliber points and rebounds on a nightly basis, the Pacers are going to be far less patient to wait on him now.
While it's a valuable asset to have a post player who can convert from 3 point range, at his size, weight and depth, Indiana would expect more of a presence in the post and paint offensively. His defensive abilities can also waver too depending on the kind of player he is forced to guard off of the dribble. The emergence of Domas Sabonis as an All-Star post player this season makes keeping Turner an even bigger problem to figure out. Much like Turner, the Pacers have benefited this season from Sabonis earning a team friendly salary of roughly $3.5 million. Sabonis will start earning next year on a contract extension signed at the beginning of this season to the tune of up to $77 million.
The Pacers with current NBA offensive trends can't play two post players to allow for adequate floor spacing. But the Pacers feel the need to play both simultaneously to warrant their financial investment. Given the choice between the two, most would take Sabonis. Turner may have more upside, but hasn't shown the steady progression most would hope at this point. Teammates, coaches, and the front office have been waiting for Turner to flip the switch and that hour glass is quickly running out.
The Pacers must also contend with other issues like Malcolm Brogdon's chronic laundry list of injuries this season. While Brogdon served Indiana admirably this season as a reliable playmaker, he could never really be depended on to stay healthy game to game. The Pacers are committed to pay Brogdon $85 million guaranteed over four years, another injury prone asset with a steep price tag.
Finally, the Pacers have leaned on a resourceful front office for securing cost effective deals that keep the team competitive. With each passing season, front office positions open up, letting qualified candidates have an opportunity to confront new challenges. The Chicago Bulls are in the process of finding a new general manager, but won't be hiring Pacers GM Chad Buchanan, who turned down a chance to interview with Chicago on April 5th. While this is excellent news for the Pacers and their ability to gather new talent, it presents the threat of key front office knowledge leaving for a better opportunity somewhere else.
As much as the Pacers have to confront this off-season, all other teams have been thrown off financially and psychologically by this COVID-19 outbreak too. Indiana's ability to navigate past challenges and circulate through changes annually make them an organization others envy in the NBA. But it will be very interesting to see what deals are ultimately made and how those decisions impact the outlook for the Pacers in the coming years.
Jimmy Kennedy, who believes the Pacers roster could look very different next year can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org