The 2022 Indiana Pacers were a legitimate disaster, their 25-57 record the worst the franchise had posted since 1985.
Through games of November 21, the 2023 Pacers stand 10-6, fourth in the East, on pace to win 51 games and storm back into the playoffs after a two-year absence.
What’s more, this has been a redemption of sorts for coach Rick Carlisle. Carlisle faced accusations that maybe he just didn’t have “it” as an NBA coach anymore. After all, Carlisle’s teams in Dallas hadn’t won a playoff series since winning the title in 2011. Dallas missed the playoffs four times. And he did coach his old team in Indiana to its worst record in 37 years.
All of that seems to be momentarily forgotten in the heady joys of a five-game winning streak and a 9-2 stretch after the team’s awful 1-4 start.
So are the Pacers for real? Or is this just a case of a team winning a few games early in the season and looking far better than they are?
After all, we just talked about the Portland Trail Blazers…yikes, that was ten days ago now, my job has eaten my life…and they’ve lost four out of five after an illusory 9-3 start that wasn’t as good as that record.
We’ll break this down by level of competition and then look into the stats through a fifth of the season to see if this team can think of the playoffs…or if they’re in for a fall even as they’ve accomplished over 40 percent of their preseason Vegas over-under of 24.5 wins.
Who Have They Beaten (And Lost To?)
Indiana’s ten wins have been against Detroit, Washington, Brooklyn, Miami, New Orleans, Toronto, Charlotte, Houston, and Orlando (twice.) So they’ve beaten just three teams currently over .500, and six of their wins are against teams that wouldn’t even get a play-in game if the season ended today.
Their six losses, on the other hand, were against Washington, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Chicago, Brooklyn, and Denver. Only two of those teams currently have winning records. San Antonio is one of the worst teams in the league. Brooklyn is a mess. Philadelphia is also a mess. And Chicago, while they may turn things around and while they did just beat Boston on Monday, are nonetheless 7-10.
Indiana’s had a ton of games against bad teams. Beating up on the dregs of the league does not a 50-win team make. Let’s wait until we’ve seen them play Boston, Milwaukee, Utah, or even Cleveland before we anoint them as being back in the saddle.
What About Net Rating?
Well, a 51-win team should, in theory, be sitting somewhere in plus-3.5 territory Net Rating-wise.
Indiana, after clobbering Orlando by 21 points on Monday, sits at plus-2.7.
And let’s not forget that the same gods-awful Magic team only lost to Indiana by one point in their previous encounter on Saturday night.
If a team builds its record by smacking around the creampuffs of the league, you’d expect them to actually under-perform their Net Rating. They should look better than they are running up the score on lousy squads.
Indiana has the opposite problem. They look more like the kind of overdog that wins close against playoff teams and hasn’t faced the easy squads yet.
In other words, they look like a team that’s painted a target on their back for those prior-mentioned Celtics, Bucks, and Cavaliers.
Teams are going to go into Indiana (or have Indiana come to them) thinking they’ve got a real test. What they’re going to find is a team that hasn’t been put to a real test yet.
That’s the stuff that blowout wins are made of for real playoff-quality squads.
Worse still, Indiana has its annual West Coast road trip coming up after the Thanksgiving festivities. And sure, they could beat up the Lakers. Everyone else has. But a Golden State team that’s better than their 8-10 record? A 9-6 Kings team that looks like it might be coming together this year with former Pacer Domantas Sabonis?
Indiana has the league’s ninth-best Net Rating. But it sure looks like that might be smoke and mirrors.
So What’s This Team’s Likely Result?
That Vegas over-under of 24.5 always looked insulting. Indiana, at their absolute worst, can’t be worse than last year’s team. And that team won 25 games.
But they’re not about to double the Vegas line plus a game to get to 50 wins either. The class of the league will see to that.
So it looks more like this Pacers team will land somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. But they’ve done some of the work already.
I’m going to say this is a 35-win team that flirts with the play-in tournament but isn’t in the final eight for the actual playoffs. They’re still a year or two away. But the young talent looks like it’s got a pretty good ceiling down the road.
It sure is fun to watch this squad win some games though. After all, anyone who’s been reading this site for long enough knows I’m a Pacers fan.