The Indiana Pacers: The NBA’s Agony Booth

Since Christmas, the Indiana Pacers are 0-6, dropping their overall season record to 14-25. On the bright side, that’s the combined win total of the two teams—Detroit and Orlando, with seven wins each through games of January 7—below them.

On the downside, this is a team with a minus-0.3 Net Rating, basically a 40-win team on paper, on pace to go 29-53. That would be the worst record by an Indiana squad since Reggie Miller‘s second year in the league in 1988-89, when they went 28-54 and got to pick George McCloud seventh in a truly awful ’89 draft in which Pervis Ellison was the first overall pick and the three best players by career Win Shares went 26th (Vlade Divac), 17th (Shawn Kemp), and 36th (Clifford Robinson.)

In other words, for a huge swath of Pacer Nation, this is the worst Indiana team of their lifetime, and only fans old enough to remember those putrid years when the team had zero winning records in eight years and still had yet to win a playoff series since the ABA merger can recall worse times for the team.

It wouldn’t be until 1994 that Indiana finally won a playoff series, incidentally.

What’s even worse is the way the Pacers have lost those last six games.

By 8 to East leader Chicago. By another 8 to the now 20-19 Charlotte Hornets. By 2 to Chicago again. Four to Cleveland, the East’s current 6 seed. Ten to the Knicks, a 104-94 slog of a game that brought to mind those old slugfests in the ’90s. And finally by 8 to Brooklyn, keeping the Nets in a statistical tie with Milwaukee for second place.

And sure, that’s three losses to teams that could easily face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals. But it’s that agonizing tendency to lose close that has defined a Pacers season that on paper should have them at 19-20; indeed, if they’d won a few of those games, they’d still have a positive Net Rating, which they had at 14-19. They’ve only been outscored by a total of 10 points in 39 games.

Some of that is the Omicron asterisk. Some more of that is the Pacers’ tendency to be made of papier-maché. At this writing, ten players are either injured or in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

But you know who’s not on that list? Domantas Sabonis, Indiana’s best player, a guy who’s doing his usual All-Star caliber thing with 2.1 VORP and .192 WS/48, the kind of superstar numbers nobody notices because nobody pays attention to Indianapolis unless there’s a car race going on. It’s the NBA’s Siberia.

Myles Turner also isn’t on the list, and he’s quietly having one of the best seasons of his career. Sure, 13.2 points and 7.3 rebounds a game may not look like much, but 2.8 blocks per game and an 8.2 block percentage—both league-leading—again have him making a strong case for Second Team All-Defensive behind Rudy Gobert.

And have we all forgotten that Turner’s still just 25? His 26th birthday is in February. He’s younger than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not that he plays like Giannis, that’s just to point out that after last year’s Finals, everyone was talking about the Greek Freak’s potential and the long career he’s got left, so Turner’s still got room for improvement as well even after six full years in the league.

Chris Duarte‘s been an absolute gem of a rookie as well. He’s posted a .514 eFG% in his debut campaign, scoring 13.2 points per game and hitting 35.3 percent of his long-range shots. Even though he’s already 24, practically a senior citizen by rookie standards, the simple fact remains that his ceiling, if his shot continues to develop, is another electrifying Pacers shooting guard, an heir to the throne of names like Miller and Paul George and—before he got hurt—Victor Oladipo.

And let’s not forget Malcolm Brogdon, the best 55 to 60 games you can get each year out of a guy making $21.7 million. Sure, there’s a bit of Bronx cheer sarcasm in that statement. But Brogdon is also leading this Pacers team in points per game at 19.0 and posting 1.1 VORP in his 26 games on the actual floor so far.

So what on earth is wrong with this team?

Is it a coaching problem? It’s hard to blame a legend like Rick Carlisle, who had a team poised to contend in the mid-aughts before the Malice at the Palace ruined that era of Indiana basketball and who won the title in Dallas in 2011.

But Carlisle has a bit of the bad part of Gregg Popovich in him; without that superstar with whom he shares a close relationship—Dirk Nowitzki in Carlisle’s case, Tim Duncan in Pop’s—there’s that tendency to run into locker room problems.

Plus, as good as the Mavs have been in the newly-dawned Luka Doncic era, they’ve been underwhelming in the playoffs so far. That might be because Dallas isn’t as good as their electric offense makes them look on any given night. After all, they’re just 21-18 this year, on pace to go something like 45-37 or 44-38, hardly a world-beating record.

But it might be because, as many coaches who cut their teeth in the Dark Ages have found out in 2022, his old doses of magic potions don’t work anymore and need a booster of modern ball to fight off the NBA’s new offensive and defensive variants.

It might also be a problem of that hated nemesis of the statistically-minded, “grit” and “toughness”.

Indiana has one win, a 94-91 gut check against Sacramento on November 7, by one possession.

They have nine losses by three points or less.

And sure, great teams win big and lose close—Indiana’s record in games decided by 10 or more points is 10-6—but that still means they’re 4-19 in games that plausibly came down to making a run in the fourth quarter or hitting a critical shot to seal the game at the end.

For fans of this team who remember 2018 and “give it to Victor and watch magic happen”, this is demoralizing. If they’re down double digits in the fourth, they might make a too-little-too-late run to keep it interesting. If they’re up double digits, they’ll cruise to a win rather than let the enemy get too close.

But in the games that separate lottery teams from contenders, the games Indiana used to win under—man, I hate to say this, but Atlanta’s run last year demonstrates it—Nate McMillan, the Pacers have been beyond atrocious. 4-19 in single-digit games and 1-9 in single-possession games?

That’s either a sign that one heck of a snapback regression is coming, in which case look out play-in tournament…

…or it’s a sign that management might just need to blow up this team and start completely over.

Then again, the last time Indiana failed to win 30 games in a season, they made the playoffs in 16 of the next 17 years, went to the conference finals six times, and got over the hump to the NBA Finals once.

If we’re looking back on Pacers basketball in 2039 and seeing the disastrous 2022 campaign as the turning point, I think most fans in Indiana would be OK with that.

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