It’s a funny thing about expectations. When the Indiana Pacers still had Paul George and had designs on a deep playoff run, every loss, especially the kind of blown-fourth-quarter-lead loss endemic to bad teams, was a rage-inducing moment for fans, who got vicious and called for the heads of coaches and front office people.
Now that PG13 is in Oklahoma City and the Indiana core is young enough that no small few of them are still on their rookie contracts or the extensions that came from them, those same losses are chalked up to the growing pains of an up-and-coming young squad.
As a Pacers fan, this is tremendously liberating.
Watching Kristaps Porzingis light up Indiana for 40 points on Sunday, the reaction was not “oh shit, this team sucks, what is wrong with them?” It was “OK, so what does this teach us about the way guys like Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner need to learn to close out on big men who force them to range away from the rim?”
We can watch Turner struggle with his positioning on rebounds, getting lit up on the glass by the likes of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins (69 points and 27 rebounds between the two of them) in the loss to New Orleans, and rather than lament how it’s hurting the team trying to grow him on the fly when there’s a playoff berth to fight for, it becomes watching him learn and get better during a season of no expectations. It’s worth pointing out that Turner had 12 rebounds himself in that game, including as many offensive boards (four) as Davis and Cousins combined.
Victor Oladipo is learning how to be a primary scorer. Lance Stephenson‘s antics (and his horrendous advanced stats, including negative Win Shares) are comic relief and chemistry rather than a washed-up never-was who can’t actually play basketball competently. T.J. Leaf can get minutes with no pressure.
And the team’s just good enough to win a few and make an honest showing in the ones they lose. They’re not the “trust the Process” 76ers, who were just embarrassing, or the can’t-get-a-high-pick Brooklyn Nets, who were just hopeless.
It is common practice among NBA writers to lament Mediocrity Hell, that horrible state where a team is too bad to contend and too good to tank.
But since the Pacers aren’t going to attract any high-profile free agents, there have to be other roads to success. And those aren’t the kind of roads that outright tanking or add-the-last-piece free agency are ever going to be able to address.
Look at Indiana’s history. The guys they get are draft steals. Paul George (10th overall, 2010). Danny Granger (17th, 2005). Myles Turner (11th, 2015). Or they get a perfectly good return on investment from trading a pick that can’t go for a superstar—whatever you can say about Caris LeVert, getting Thaddeus Young was better for Indiana in terms of getting a proven NBA talent with the 20th pick in the draft via trade.
So Mediocrity Hell doesn’t matter. Developing young talent and trying to build a core that ends up greater than the sum of its parts matters. And while nobody’s advocating for moral victories or trophies for participation, this team isn’t supposed to win in 2017-18. It’s supposed to win in 2019-20 and beyond, when players who grew up together as NBA talent have that chemistry that leads to wins.
So it’s liberating watching these guys play hard, even if they’re overmatched. Because every time the team loses by 5 but their players get better in the process, they lost a battle to win the war.