The Indiana Pacers’ Worst Season: 1983

The Indiana Pacers, like the city of Indianapolis itself, represent blissful Midwestern mediocrity perfectly. They’re never too good. They’re never too awful. The Pacers are just a whistle stop on the way to somewhere else. A speed bump for a contender in the playoffs, you might say.

So should it surprise anyone that the worst season in franchise history was one where they weren’t even the worst team in the league?

Indiana went 20-62 in 1983. They weren’t as utterly wretched as the 14-68 Houston Rockets. In terms of Net Rating, they were better than the 23-59 Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, on paper, they were a 27-55 team.

Let’s dive back into the 1983 NBA season. And let’s take a look at a team that was both not all that bad…and the worst ever.

The On-Court Record

Great teams win big and lose close. The Pacers won three games by double digits. They lost…a lot more than two games, I’m not counting all those bars on Basketball Reference, OK?…by double digits.

But the simple point of the matter is that for most of the season, the Pacers could be reasonably counted upon to provide a competitive game for three quarters before the other team pulled away in the fourth, and that just means you can put the kids to bed at a reasonable hour so they can be up for school the next day.

Indiana’s Net Rating was just minus-5.6. And frankly, gutting out a bunch of close wins—17 single-digit margins and a bunch of games within five points—means their fans at least got entertaining basketball out of a putrid team.

Like we said at the top, this was a merely bad team masquerading as a truly awful one in record.

The Featured Players

You can’t blame injuries for this team’s fortunes. Indiana ran 13 players out all season. 12 guys played 50 games or more. 10 guys played 60 or better. And eight guys managed at least 78 appearances.

Clark Kellogg and Billy Knight were even legitimately good. Kellogg posted .119 WS/48 and 2.0 VORP. Knight put up .125 WS/48 and 1.5 VORP.

It’s not like everyone else dragged the team down either. The only two guys with negative Win Shares were the guys who were 12th and 13th on the team in minutes.

The trouble with this team was that it was utterly putrid defensively, 22nd in the league, ahead of only a wild and woolly Dallas Mavericks team that was dead last in defense but fourth in offense to put up a 38-44 record in a bunch of shootouts.

Indiana was 15th offensively, and in a 23-team league, that’s not enough to do what Dallas did.

The Pacers had Herb Williams, who would be a part of the Knicks’ 1990s teams as Patrick Ewing‘s backup. They had Jerry Sichting, who would depart for Boston during the 1985 offseason and win a title with the ’86 Celtics relieving Dennis Johnson off the bench.

And they otherwise had a bunch of who-dats nobody who wasn’t watching those lousy teams in Indiana in the early to mid-80s has ever heard of.

The Coach

Jack McKinney coached the Pacers for four years after getting shoved aside from the 1979-80 Lakers after starting 10-4. This is unfortunate for McKinney insofar as Paul Westhead gets all the credit for Magic Johnson winning his first championship in his rookie year.

McKinney coached the Pacers for four years and won 44, 35, 20, and 26 games before being shown the door.

He then coached the Kansas City Kings for nine games in the ’84-85 season before getting replaced by Phil Johnson. McKinney went 1-8. The Kings departed Kansas City for Sacramento the next year. So that’s something.

And even though McKinney was under 50, that’s that for his coaching career.

A team of Midwestern blissful mediocrity had a blissfully mediocre coach from Chester, Pennsylvania, which is not Midwestern. It’s a suburb of Philadelphia.

But then again, the Pacers have done well enough with guys from Philly. OK, Frank Vogel’s from Wildwood Crest, New Jersey, which isn’t really near Philly exactly, but it’s closer to Philly than it is to New York City, and Vogel’s got a Mid-Atlantic accent, so…work with me here.

Point is Jack McKinney was a mediocre coach of a mediocre team that wasn’t as bad as its record.

The Aftermath

The Pacers stunk for the rest of the ’80s. They made one playoff appearance after a 41-41 season in 1987 before sinking back into obscurity.

Then they got Reggie Miller and Rik Smits and were good for the whole ’90s.

Then Ron Artest beat up a fan. And just like that, they stunk again.

And now they’re lousy once more, their 25-57 record in 2022 the third-worst ever and worst since going 22-60 in 1985.

They’re the Pacers. Midwestern mediocrity in NBA team form. But hey, you want an escape from mediocrity in Indianapolis, go grab a tenderloin sandwich. Nothing mediocre about those at all. Mmm, mmm, good.

NEXT: Los Angeles Clippers, and the best, greasiest Jheri curl any pro ballplayer ever wore. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!