The Pacers Are Learning What They Have Without Victor Oladipo

When Victor Oladipo went down for 12 games earlier in the season (yes, technically it was 11, but there was just about the entirety of the game against the Hawks), the Indiana Pacers largely weathered the injury by way of inserting Tyreke Evans into Oladipo’s spot, playing the same way they more or less had all season, and letting the results stand or fall until such time as Oladipo returned.

They went 8-4 that way, as Evans, who started all the games in which Oladipo was out, made a passable (“good” is a gross overstatement, but competent) account of himself, good enough for Indiana to beat up on some bad teams and get those eight wins.

Now, with Oladipo out for the rest of the season including whatever playoff run the Pacers are able to make, “slot in Tyreke and hope for the best” is proving a non-starter, and it does not help prepare Indiana for the reality that if Oladipo doesn’t bounce back from a ruptured quadriceps tendon—the injury that ended Charles Barkley‘s career and turned Tony Parker into a shadow of his former self first in San Antonio and then in Charlotte—this becomes a completely different future plan for the franchise.

And while it’s been no fun at all for Pacers fans, who got spoiled rotten by the team’s fantastic start during which time Indiana was one of the top five teams in the entire NBA for both record and point differential, it has taught us some things, good and bad, about where this team stands as that nightmare stretch of games in March looms on the horizon.

Myles Turner, Defensive Player of the Year

The difference between Myles Turner and a guy like Rudy Gobert is that Turner can range out on stretch 5s like the Bucks’ Brook Lopez without compromising his ability to drop back into the paint to serve as help defender on back cuts and rotations to the basket.

He’s also so good a defender against the pick-and-roll that you start thinking to yourself that if Turner had a time machine, he could’ve gone up against the John Stockton/Karl Malone-era Jazz and held that team to about a 50 offensive rating on pick-and-roll plays.

And dear gods, he even learned how to rebound, closing the one remaining hole in his game that kept him in that “good but frustrating” tier of players and elevated him into the league’s true defensive elite.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions and unsolved problems with Turner, but they’re on the offensive end of the floor and are less about Turner’s talents and more about Nate McMillan‘s coaching.

We all want Turner to shoot more. Without Oladipo around, Turner needs to be shooting 15 shots and five three-point attempts a game. He’s hitting 36.8 percent on threes for the year, an eFG% from out there of .552. That’s better than his .533 efficiency on two-pointers and serves to raise his eFG% overall to .537.

But Turner is shooting 27.3 percent of his attempts from long midrange (16 feet out to the arc) and just 20.8 percent of his attempts from three-point range. That is a genuine travesty that is symptomatic of…

Nate McMillan’s Offensive Incompetence

When Oladipo was around, the Pacers played solid if not spectacular offense, certainly well within the level of what they’d need to be able to do in order to win games.

Without Oladipo, and without Evans acting as a functional stopgap, the Pacers’ offense has been downright putrid.

The last time the team cracked 110 points was the Raptors game, the one where Vic got hurt.

Since then, in six games, only two of them wins? 103, 100, 89, 100, 95, 109. That…is horrendous.

Sure, five of those games were on the road, but they included losses at Memphis, Orlando, and Washington, all Dumpster fires with no hope of making the playoffs. And the lone home game was a 132-100 humiliation at the hands of Golden State.

It’s hard to draw too many conclusions when a team’s getting blown out, but such fundamental principles as “three is more than two” and “you need guys moving in space with and without the ball to create open looks on the perimeter and driving lanes to the basket” shouldn’t be dependent on having a healthy superstar.

It doesn’t matter that Tyreke Evans couldn’t consistently make a layup if you put a six-foot cat tree in the restricted area. That’s always just meant a Domantas Sabonis putback slam anyway.

And it doesn’t matter that nobody on this team is exactly Giannis Antetokounmpo athletically speaking.

But wait a minute, back up, speaking of Sabonis…

As Domas Goes, So Goes the Bench Unit

The Pacers are only as good as Sabonis’ sixth-man minutes.

When he’s shooting 7-of-9 and getting a double-double in the first half like he did against New Orleans, all is right with the world.

When he’s struggling with his shot, the Pacers couldn’t top an over/under from the Dark Ages.

There was a five-game stretch in which Sabonis was in a slump and made a horrid 13-of-39 (33.3 percent), including the four-game losing streak plus the Miami game. If he’s back in earnest, that by itself may be enough to make Indiana a secure 5 seed and destined for a slugfest with Boston or Philadelphia come April.

The Young Dudes Are…Young.

Aaron Holiday is raw as the food in a hippie commune cafeteria.

Alize Johnson…I mean, look, I love his energy too, but he’s got a minus-0.4 PER, -0.097 WS/48, a -16.9 Box Plus/Minus, and -0.1 VORP in just 32 minutes across 11 games. His on-court Net Rating is minus-22.1.

That is…well, it’s beyond Thunderdome levels of bad. Sure, it’s only 32 minutes, but most of those minutes were in garbage time. Relative to the sport, there was more offense in the Super Bowl…from the Rams.

And Edmond Sumner isn’t much better, with 0.4 PER, -0.099 WS/48, a -7.2 BPM, and a -0.2 VORP in 115 minutes. He makes 2019 Carmelo Anthony look like 1989 Michael Jordan. But at some point you have to say that maybe these garbagemen just aren’t very good.

We know Holiday is talented and brimming with potential. Johnson and Sumner look so far like their ceiling is in the G-League.

So What Does This All Mean?

Well, it means about what it meant the first time Oladipo went down. The existing veterans, doing the-same-but-more tactically, and with Holiday’s continued development factored in, look like the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference, maybe sixth depending on how you feel about the Brooklyn Nets.

The two young guys not named Holiday have been absolutely atrocious and raised more questions than they’ve answered about whether they’re fit for purpose in the big leagues.

Nate’s still a terrible offensive coach. Turner is still the best defensive anchor Indiana or any other team could ask for. Sabonis is the linchpin and sometimes looks by himself like the difference between 50 wins and 30 wins.

But in going 2-4 over their last six, the Pacers have mostly learned what everyone already knows; you can be as deep as the deepest ocean, but you’re not making waves without a superstar.