Who gets to define the phrase “under the radar?” I bet if you polled the most Twitter-active basket bloggers right now, many of them would have a positive opinion of the Pacers. Is Indiana not getting enough attention from major media outlets? Or are the Pacers in fact widely respected? (On a more sobering note—does any of that matter in even the slightest?) Indiana certainly wasn’t the darling of preseason hype. There’s a reason the NBA showcased the Celtics and Sixers on Christmas Day—that’s the Eastern Conference finals matchup everyone penciled in once the ink dried on LeBron’s Lakers contract. While the Bucks and Raptors have since entered that conversation, the Pacers are making their own case as a contender to make the Finals.
Entering Jan. 3, Indy owns the second-best net rating in the NBA, behind only Milwaukee. The Pacers’ offense is lagging behind at No. 17 in the league, but their defense is championship material, coming in at second in efficiency. That’s a good start for any team hoping to make a deep playoff run, especially now that the East should have some normalcy without LeBron defying all predictive numbers. Indy’s efficiency profile closely resembles that of (ironically) the Thunder and the Celtics, the latter of which has a slightly better offense but slightly worse defense. It’s probably fair to say both OKC and Boston are taken a little more seriously as conference stalwarts, even though neither has been wildly more successful lately. (The Pacers also took the Cavs to seven games last summer!)
After Victor Oladipo seemingly carried the team into respectability last season, Indy is a little better rounded this year. Domantas Sabonis is making a case for Most Improved Player, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists. After playing more as a catch-and-shoot option his rookie season, Sabonis has thrived as he’s committed to attacking the rim in two years in Indy. This season, Sabonis is taking over 78% of his shots within 10 feet of the hoop, by far the highest percentage of his career. The result is a 66.9% true-shooting percentage, making him an incredibly effective roll man for his guards.
The Tyreke Evans signing has also worked beautifully. The Pacers clearly needed a secondary creator after their postseason exit, and Evans has been a solid performer off the bench, also stepping up when Oladipo missed time with a knee injury. In 584 minutes entering Jan. 3 with Evans on and Oladipo off, Indy has a 6.2 net rating. The Pacers actually have a 6.8 net rating with both players on the bench, which speaks to how much the supporting cast has improved. Last season, Indy cratered whenever Oladipo was off the floor. Now, they perform just as well even when he’s sitting. Evans isn’t the scoring machine he was for the Grizzlies, and his efficiency leaves a little to be desired, but in concentrated doses, he’s been a useful addition.
The contributions really do range most of the rotation. Thad Young is having the best year of his career, adding an energy and effort spark whenever he’s on the floor. Myles Turner is shooting a career-best from three. Darren Collison and Cory Joseph have been reliable presences. So, what are the issues?
Interestingly, Oladipo has been one to an extent. He’s not as efficient as he was last year, and he’s seen an uptick in pull-ups despite not shooting well on those jumpers. The smooth-singing guard has seen his points per game and true-shooting percentage both take hits this season, though he’s compensated a bit by increasing his assist percentage. (For an even deeper dive on Oladipo, Vice’s Michael Pina spoke to him about his struggles.) There are reasons to believe Oladipo can improve. The supporting cast should make his job easier as the season continues, and he’s likely still working himself back into top shape after missing 11 games midseason with a knee injury.
A bigger concern for me is how the Pacers look when Oladipo and Evans are sharing the floor together. When the playoffs come around, Evans can ideally act as a release valve for Oladipo when teams try to trap him on pick-and-rolls, or discourage those double teams entirely. But Indy has a minus-2.1 net rating with Evans and Oladipo playing together, not finding any good offense with that pairing. That’s an area the team will need to improve in, and Nate McMillan should have enough flexibility in his lineups to find a grouping that works for both ball-handlers.
How Indy has played despite Oladipo not resembling his peak is a glass half-full/half-empty situation. Either he rounds back into form and the team becomes a tough playoff out, or he can’t quite reach the superstar tier and Indy will lack top-end talent against the East’s best come the postseason. For now, the Pacers have a 3–3 record against the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics and Sixers, and they’ve been every bit as good (and flawed) as most of the teams in that group. Indy may not receive as much attention as the other Finals hopefuls in its conference, but through nearly one half of the season, the Pacers have just as good a claim to be post-LeBron contenders as their peers.