The NBA season has mostly assumed its shape by mid-January. The bulk of the questions so urgently posed in August and September have either been answered or revealed as highly irrelevant, and the rest won’t get resolved until the playoffs. We have a sense of who’s good and who’s not, how far your entertainment dollar goes with each franchise, which local broadcast crews immediately merit muting upon arriving at their League Pass channel. We know what we need to know, if not as well as we’d like. There of course remain pesky gaps in our understanding, riddles of how and why that we haven’t quite cracked, because the NBA is too vast to track perfectly, there are only so many hours in a day, and here is where I slip in an admission that I’m not sure I had actually watched a full Indiana Pacers game until a few weeks ago. The best explanation I can provide is that I have a life, and that life involves too many evenings spent watching Orlando Magic basketball. This is possibly worse than no explanation at all. Jonathan Isaac couldn’t crack the starting lineup of any self-respecting team in the league, but he fascinates me. Anyway!
The Pacers have been, this entire season, solidly the third-best team in the Eastern Conference while being something like the sixth-most discussed. When writers and pundits casually refer to the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, and Sixers as NBA Finals contenders, polite but slightly miffed Hoosiers have repeatedly had to point out: the Pacers have been about as good, if not better, than all of those teams. And they’re right to do so. My theory as to why Indiana is home to perhaps the league’s most underappreciated team is that 1.) it’s Indiana, and 2.) the Pacers aren’t as legibly good as the teams that surround them in the standings. You look at their record and struggle to grasp what’s excellent about them.
Because Myles Turner is playing well—great rim protection, solid shooting, still a bit vexatiously lacking in the rebounding department—but he hasn’t properly broken out in the way Pacers fans have been hoping he might. Thad Young is in a contract year, which is to say he’s operating at 120 percent capacity yet remains squarely incapable of surprising anyone. Domantas Sabonis does everything right, but traditional big men are hard to get enthused about. The team’s second banana is Bojan Bogdanović, who more closely resembles a failed mayoral candidate than a world-class athlete, though he is definitely the latter, putting up 16 points per night and improbably containing some of the league’s better forwards on defense.
In short, the Pacers are formidable without looking the part. They’re an assemblage of what we might condescendingly refer to as nice players who are outperforming their reputations. Nobody has made a leap; nobody is transcending their station. This renders the Pacers dismissable, but if you pay close attention to their games as I have for the last little while, you find them immensely pleasurable to watch, because while they don’t blow their opponents away with talent, and they do have shortcomings, nothing is obviously out of order. There is no gaping hole in the rotation, no obvious lack of shooting or wing defense. They run incompetent teams off the floor and at least make great ones work for a victory. It’s very satisfying to observe them going about their business, reliably, night-after-night. They’re like the NBA’s postal service.
Victor Oladipo stands outside all of that as the Pacers’ one truly brilliant player, and in doing all that he does—playmaking, checking the opponent’s most dangerous guard, hitting tough shots late in the shot clock—allows everyone else on the roster to simply fill a role. Basketball is a team game, but you need starpower to succeed with any consistency, because there are going to be nights when what typically works perfectly doesn’t, or when the squad is tired and somebody has to keep them in the contest for half a quarter. There are only something like 15 players in the league capable of doing that, and Oladipo is one of them. In a certain way, the crucial thing he provides is his presence. We’ll be fine. We’ve got Victor.
Of course, after his terrifying tumble in Wednesday night’s game against the Raptors, the Pacers are going to be without him for a long time, possibly even into next season. He had already been playing somewhat infrequently and not quite up to his standards because his right knee was balky, and now it’s in critical condition. The diagnosis is bad, but bearable: he has a torn quad tendon. (Some folks had feared he jacked up his kneecap in a way that would have been career-threatening.) If Tony Parker’s quad tendon injury from 2017 gives us anything to go by, Oladipo will hopefully be back on the court by next fall, though it remains to be seen in what kind of shape. There’s not much more to say about this, other than that it sucks in all the obvious ways.
All Indiana and Oladipo can do from here is look toward the long-term. Get him the best treatment money can buy, make sure he doesn’t rush himself back. In the meantime, the Pacers are moderately screwed. Oladipo’s injury derails what could have been a magnificent season. If there’s any solace to be found in Indianapolis, it’s that the team is likely to remain sound. Without the element that makes them special, they will still be able to hum along, make the playoffs, give anybody they face a tough time. There’s no getting around how disappointing it is, but the Pacers are well-equipped to muddle through the disappointment with some dignity. And Victor? They still have him. His health may be in doubt, but he’s tough as hell. We can sure he’ll do everything he can to get back to his best. All he and the Pacers need from here is some luck that they’re thoroughly owed.