Throughout the 2018-19 season, the Indiana Pacers have built a 31-15 record largely on the strength of having the deepest team in the league.
It’s not just that the Pacers can’t find space in the rotation for the likes of Aaron Holiday, Edmond Sumner, and Alize Johnson. Rookies have never fared well under “veterans’ coach” guys like Nate McMillan and Gregg Popovich no matter where in the league they’ve played.
No, it’s that the Pacers can’t find space in the rotation for a legit NBA backup center like Kyle O’Quinn. Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are so good that O’Quinn picks up garbage time minutes and DNP-CD notes in the box score more often than he picks up rebounds or assists.
With Turner in the lineup, the Pacers are a brutal, lockdown defense team that can drag even the mightiest of offenses into double-digit final scores. When Sabonis and Tyreke are scoring off the bench, double-digit first quarter deficits turn into close games at halftime and blowouts by the end of the third quarter.
And, admittedly against crummy competition, the Pacers went 7-4 with Victor Oladipo out for the whole game and won the two games Vic left with injury, bringing their overall tally to 9-4.
All of this is meaningful now that every Pacers writer in the entire media universe has weighed in on Oladipo’s ruptured quadriceps tendon, his lost season, and Indiana’s chances of making a playoff run.
I’m not here to rehash any of those arguments. I’m just going to point out three simple truths:
Vic’s the Leader, But He’s Not the Whole Team
Oladipo is good. Very good. A bona fide All-Defensive Team guy and the best clutch scorer in basketball this season, the guy Pacers fans trust more than anyone since Reggie Miller to make a shot with the game on the line.
He’s also the worst volume three-point shooter on the team, a guy whose numbers are down drastically on offense from last year, the guy who commands the defense’s attention but who is ultimately the guy who shot just 42.3 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three.
Remember when Pacers fans spent every game since Oladipo’s return from “knee soreness” earlier in the season fretting that he had no lift on his jumper and that something was seriously wrong with the knee that we weren’t being told about?
Well, imagine the worst-case scenario from that, only it happened for an unrelated reason on a different play.
Oladipo has struggled this year. But one of the best upshots of that fact is that the rest of the team got a whole lot better without him than they were last year, when they went 0-7 in Vic’s absence with Lance Stephenson forced to start at shooting guard.
The Other Starters Are Better Than You Think
We can argue all day about Darren Collison, we can argue all day whether Evans makes a worthwhile starter when Vic is out, we can even talk about potential trades in case the ruptured quad tendon—the injury that ended Charles Barkley‘s career and the one that turned Tony Parker into the way-past-his-prime guy that he is in Charlotte this year—sets Oladipo up to never again be as athletic as he was last year.
Or we can look at a team that has Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis, and we can think “there’s a good reason this team was a top-five team in the entire NBA before Vic got hurt.”
We Just Saw This Same Story Last Year
Did everyone in Pacer Nation stop watching basketball after LeBron James ripped our hearts out in the first round with help from the referees?
Because that’s the only reason I can think of why this Pacers team, which is better without Oladipo than the Celtics were last year without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, can’t pull it together, shock the world in the playoffs, be better than the sum of their parts, and battle through a LeBron-less Eastern Conference come playoff time.
We haven’t seen a single game yet with Oladipo definitively gone, and yet Pacers media are tripping over themselves to try and alienate the seasoned veteran depth of this team by suggesting they should just give up their minutes in the rotation to a bunch of guys who can’t seem to get away from Fort Wayne for long enough to make a name for themselves.
I’m all for giving young guys some run, but ultimately Nate McMillan is the coach this team needs right now (as long as someone else draws up the offense, but that’s a story for another day.)
Nate knows how to manage veterans and get the most out of them—it’s why Young and Bogdanovic have been so good and why Evans and O’Quinn have accepted their roles on this team.
Holiday’s a legit future star, but let’s think of the Pacers more as the 2018 Celtics and less as the 2014-15 Indiana team that was trash without Paul George.
There’s No Rush to Make Moves
Here’s what the Pacers need to do, and to the credit of GM Kevin Pritchard, it seems to be his preferred course of action.
If you can make a huge deal to get Beal, do it; you don’t often get a guy on a not-too-awful contract for a couple of years who has a chance to legitimately replace everything lost to Oladipo’s injury.
But if that’s unrealistic—and I strongly suspect that it is—you let a team that went 9-4 without its star player make the best playoff run that they can.
Then, in June, you re-evaluate. How’s Oladipo’s rehab? Do any of the veterans want to come back for 2019-20 or is it going to be all cap space and G-Leaguers and no continuity? Can Sabonis and Turner coexist with one of them playing the 4?
That’s something you can find out next year; Sabonis will still have trade value at next year’s deadline even as he is about to become a restricted free agent after the 2019-20 season.
The point is, all the questions surrounding Oladipo’s post-injury future are not questions that need to be answered by blowing up a 31-15 team.
Be the 2018 Celtics. Win one, or 16 after the regular season, for the fallen star.
Calm down, Pacers fans. Everything is going to be fine. Really.