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The Upstart Pacers Are Grounded in Restraint

Victor Oladipo and the Pacers were one of the most surprising stories in the NBA last season. So what are the next steps in their evolution? The Crossover provides a season outlook.

The complexity of teambuilding in the NBA comes not from the need to win, but the need to win consistently. Many teams could mortgage their future for an all-out, single-season bid. There are always draft picks to trade and veterans to overpay. Owners could, in theory, spend well above the luxury tax line for the sake of fielding the best possible team. Shortcuts to winning just a few more games are everywhere, and all of them come at a cost.

For that reason, making real, continued progress demands a more artful approach. The Indiana Pacers seem to have one in mind. What was a pleasant surprise turned genuine; long after last season's early trends had faded, the Pacers maintained the poise and focus of a clear playoff contender. Indiana overachieved, strictly speaking, but only in the sense that those involved worked relentlessly to stretch a fairly limited roster as far as it could possibly go. An undesirable premise—Paul George's trade demand—ended on the most pleasant of terms.

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Everything we've seen from Indiana since reflects an honest appraisal. The Pacers needed to get deeper and did, but spent in a way that keeps the organization agile. Beyond the coming season, the only players on the roster scheduled to make a salary of more than $4 million are newly minted star Victor Oladipo, recent signee Doug McDermott, and a likely re-signed Myles Turner. There was no swerve in response to a 48-win season—even one where the Pacers took the eventual Eastern Conference champions to seven games in the first round. Modest gains are the order of the day, and those will be challenging enough.

The raw energy behind a breakout season burns hot but fast. New standing typically demands new motivation, if only because so many complicating factors tend to come with winning. Complacency is an annoyingly human side effect in situations like these, and one of particular danger to the Pacers' way of life.

When the ethic of a team draws on outplaying opponents—getting into their space, beating them to loose balls, and driving hard to the rim when other teams might settle—every taste of success risks upsetting a delicate alchemy. There are teams that are talented enough to win without playing hard. Indiana, even after its offseason upgrades, does not qualify.

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Every opponent will better understand that next season, and thus better understand the basis of what made the Pacers so effective. Indiana leaves not an inch to spare. All ground is contested ground, even if that means bringing the entire game to a halt. A team led by Oladipo has that luxury, knowing full well that his speed can liquify a stagnant possession or conjure a transition opportunity from thin air. Only so much can be done to counter that, though every team on Indiana's schedule will be armed with the full knowledge of what Oladipo has become. 

This will be Oladipo's sixth season in the league, but just his second under this level of scrutiny. His play has given opponents every reason to take him seriously, inviting even greater specificity in their night-to-night game planning. Whatever improvement he and the Pacers hope to make will cut against that grain.

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The NBA is a different league for those widely accepted as good—more glamorous and less forgiving. Oladipo was rightly named an All-NBA player last season and Indiana won damn near 50 games. Both have earned the right to be picked apart, and should feel confident in their capacity to grow.

Much has changed for the simple fact that Indiana comes to this season from an entirely different place. A team anchored by players in their early-to-mid-20s ran headfirst into real expectations. Questions around the team's ceiling no longer concern some charming run at the eighth seed, but at the class of the conference. The management of the roster, however, has served as a moderating force—one that channels form into function.

The "let's see what happens" spirit of last season is alive in the one-year deals given to Tyreke Evans and Kyle O'Quinn. Each is a vote of confidence in a growing core made without the burden of finality. We still don't know what the best version of these Pacers will look like, and that's exactly the point.