For the observant, Pacers “Tuesday” is once again running on Wednesday this week.
The difference is that this week, it’s because how this column was going to turn out was in the balance right up until Domantas Sabonis made a free throw to put the Pacers up 3, good defense forced a bad shot on the ensuing possession, and Indiana beat the freaking Los Angeles Lakers 105-102 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, sending LeBron James and his jolly band of mercenaries back to Tinseltown with their delusional Twitter following brim-full of excuses as they learn for the first time that you can’t count on Anthony Davis in the regular season.
But then again, the Pacers didn’t have Victor Oladipo and haven’t since last January. So don’t talk to me about superstars as an excuse. The Pacers are 19-9 without theirs. The Lakers are 1-1 without only their second-best player, never mind their only player on the team to make an All-NBA or All-Defensive team.
Over an 82-game season, that’s 56-26 against 41-41. Check and mate.
All joking aside, though, we are long past that point early in the season where the Pacers were legitimately a concern to their fans when they couldn’t even dominate against some truly dreadful competition.
And leaving aside the utter weirdness of the Detroit Pistons taking 3 out of 4 and wrapping up the season series before some folks even put up their Christmas tree, the Pacers are 18-6 against everybody else.
And among that “everybody else” stands the Lakers, Jazz, Nets (twice), Celtics, and Lakers, all teams with winning records and all teams to fall in defeat to the boys from Indy.
Since starting 0-3, Indiana is 19-6, and four of those six losses were the Bucks, Rockets, Sixers, and Clippers, or “four teams that could plausibly be the four conference finalists come Memorial Day.”
They are 19-2 against everybody else, the two losses being the Pistons and (ugh) Hornets.
Put simply, this is a team that was not supposed to win 56 games all season playing on that pace without their All-Star, All-NBA, All-Defensive, All-Everything shooting guard.
Indiana has two separate stretches this season where they’ve won seven out of eight games. They own four (!) three-game or longer winning streaks, including the four-game streak they kept alive against the best team in the West and possibly the league.
They are 5-4 against teams currently over .500, but—thanks to the Thunder and Magic—9-4 against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended Tuesday night.
Domantas Sabonis has emerged as an honest-to-gods superstar. Last year, his .197 WS/48 matched that of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyrie Irving.
This year, his WS/48 are down a bit because of playing more starters’ minutes, but he’s still posting a .175 in that stat, which puts him above almost everyone on his own team (more on this in a minute) but above Ben Simmons, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, and all but 45 of the rest of the 304 leaderboard-qualified players in the NBA.
And the guy ahead of Sabonis on the Pacers’ WS/48 list?
If you guessed Malcolm Brogdon, you get a seat in “The President”’s Cabinet.
Brogdon is on .188 WS/48, astonishing for a guard and tied with Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard for 34th in the league.
Malcolm Brogdon has the same WS/48 as Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard.
And the shooting guard position on this team is played by Jeremy Lamb, who, while he’s been competent (.111 WS/48 and 0.4 VORP), he’s no Victor Oladipo.
Just wait until the superstar comes back, the defense has to pay attention, and all of a sudden Brogdon, Sabonis, and the forgotten and overlooked Myles Turner will all have more space to work on offense while T.J. Warren (who has led the team in minutes in a giant middle-finger gesture to his reputation for being fragile) bombs away on open long-range looks, of which he’s making an above average 37.1 percent.
I wanted to wait until after the Lakers game to make a verdict here.
But with LeBron and friends sent packing with an L in their suitcase as a souvenir (wait until next year, Lakers, that’s eight straight Pacers wins at Bankers Life), it is beyond doubt at this point:
The Indiana Pacers are for real, and they are contenders.