The Indiana Pacers are coming off back-to-back 48-win seasons and first-round playoff exits. That won’t be good enough in 2019-20, so what will?
When the Indiana Pacers won 48 games in 2017-18, it was a revelation. A team that had just lost Paul George was expected to win around 30 games and instead ended up as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, where they outscored the Cleveland Cavaliers by 40 points in a series they lost in seven games. The four losses were by a combined 14 points.
To this day, fans insist that the Pacers would have won the series if not for a goaltending violation LeBron James committed in Game 5 that, had it been called by the referees, would’ve sent Indiana home for Game 6 up three games to two and set them up to win the series.
Expectations were much higher for 2018-19. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis had emerged as, respectively, an All-Star and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Fans and media alike predicted the Pacers to make real noise in the playoffs and possibly emerge as a contender for the Eastern Conference Finals with LeBron having finally decamped for the West.
The Pacers started on fire and stood 31-15 coming into a pivotal showdown with the Toronto Raptors that would settle who the second-best team in the conference truly was.
The Pacers won that game…but they lost Oladipo with a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his right knee.
The rest of the season was a mess. They went 16-19 from that point on including 4-9 in their last 13 games. They won the same 48 games they had the previous season and got the fifth seed again, but they were dead men walking in a sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
This year, 48 wins aren’t going to be good enough. The Pacers drafted Georgian center Goga Bitadze, picked up shooting guard Jeremy Lamb from the Charlotte Hornets to keep the seat warm for Oladipo until his return, and pried 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon away from the Milwaukee Bucks.
Coach Nate McMillan is so confident that Sabonis is ready for a starting role that the Pacers let Thaddeus Young go elsewhere in free agency, betting that Myles Turner’s emerging 3-point game (38.8 percent from long range last season) will be enough to space the floor.
Indiana also did some addition by subtraction, as Tyreke Evans, who had a disastrous lone season in the blue and gold, got suspended for two years by the league for violating their substance abuse rules.
The point of all this is that the Pacers didn’t just reload. They rearmed with bigger guns.
But the specter of injury hangs over this team like a giant Sword of Damocles. Brogdon has played just 112 games in the past two seasons. Warren has played an average of only 52 games a season in his five-year career. Nobody knows whether Oladipo will have the same athleticism after coming back from the injury that ended Charles Barkley’s career—although Oladipo is just 27 while Barkley was 35 when he hung up the shoes for good.
Pacers fans are tired of being above average. They’re tired of first-round exits and lame excuses. Coach McMillan has won only one playoff series in eight career trips in his coaching career, and that was way back in 2005 when Seattle still had an NBA team.
Another 48-win season and first-round exit aren’t going to be good enough. For this team to call this season a success, they need to do three things:
- They need to win at least 50 games.
- They need to finish in the top four in the East.
- They need to get to at least the second round of the playoffs.
Anything less and this season will be a dismal failure for a team brimming with a different level of greatness.