• Indiana seemed destined for a shot at the Eastern Conference crown. Victor Oladipo's likely season-ending injury suddenly leaves the Pacers with a difficult decision process between now and the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
By Jeremy Woo
January 23, 2019

The Pacers’ aspirations were placed on hold Wednesday night as Victor Oladipo came down injured during the second quarter of Indiana’s game against Toronto, leaving the home crowd with bated breath and the shape of the Eastern Conference potentially much different. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Pacers fear their star player is done for the season, and working under that assumption, the injury presents a critical hit to the franchise’s outlook, and puts them at a difficult, unexpected juncture with the trade deadline approaching.

Without rushing into the technicalities here, it’s awful news for the NBA on whole, and there’s no consolation for the Pacers or for Oladipo here, nothing to state that won’t seem obvious. This sucks. Oladipo was averaging 19.2 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds entering the night, surprisingly turning Indiana into one of the league’s stable-looking teams, and elevating a cast of above-average role players with his ability to penetrate and generate looks off the dribble. The 26-year-old’s ascent from perceived draft bust to legitimate star was a feel-good story, and dependent on his timeframe for a return, his next task is mounting a comeback. In the meantime, Indiana will have to take a step back and rethink its decision-making process, at least for the short term.

While Indiana sat a remarkable 16 games above .500 entering Wednesday, it goes without saying that the loss of Oladipo would wreck any reasonable expectations for playoff success. While the Pacers are left with a terrific win cushion, and mathematically will maintain strong odds to make the postseason, without him on the floor, their chances of conference contention are slim to none. This is not to say they will or should automatically be trade deadline sellers, but it’s worth noting that they have a host of expiring contracts on the roster that could bring immediate dividends if Indiana decides to get thrifty and play for next season.

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Myles Turner’s big extension kicks in next year and Domantas Sabonis will command a decent number on his second contract down the line. Other than that and Oladipo (who hits free agency in after the 2020-21 season) the Pacers are not tied down to much on the roster. To run through it in brief: Darren Collison, Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Cory Joseph and Kyle O’Quinn total about $59 million in expiring contracts.

The question for the Pacers has been how to use that cap space, and with the way they were trending, holding onto those guys through the end of the year, mounting a playoff run and figuring it out from there felt sensible. With Turner and Sabonis also on the roster, Indiana could have made a reasonable win-now pitch to free agents. Should Oladipo’s recovery hold him out to begin next season, that sales angle will be somewhat muted. With that in mind, it’s worth wondering if the Pacers should consider dangling their expiring deals and trying to generate value, whether it’s eating someone’s long-term money to acquire draft picks, or targeting rotation-caliber players under team control who they can incorporate now and build with.

Of course, Indiana has a good thing going, and they don’t have to blow anything up—they held on for a 110–106 win over Toronto  on Wednesday—but buying aggressively at the deadline no longer feels rational. We won’t know for sure until Oladipo’s MRI on Thursday. But it’s fair to say the Pacers are at a jarring crossroads for now. Their decision process between now and the Feb. 7 deadline will speak for itself.

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