It is hard to say whether things actually happen in Indiana. Assuredly, Kelly Dwyer is somewhere in a parked car, listening to old man catnip. Notre Dame is pioneering new hypocrisies, complaining sorts from the Chicago suburbs are retiring to prefab boxes off the side of the highway, where at least the property taxes are low. Beyond that, who could possibly know what’s a-tittering in the Hoosier state? No one cares to find out.
The Pacers have represented a more benevolent strain of Indiana’s bland constancy. They’re reliably running a pretty good shop over there, punching above their weight as a franchise that will never acquire top free agents and even struggles to hold on to their homegrown talent. The Pacers draft and develop impressively; they almost always have solid coaching in place. But the years do run together like so much flat, featureless land. When was it Nate McMillan took over? When did Larry Bird walk and leave Kevin Pritchard in charge? What was the exact season things fell apart for Roy Hibbert? The teams they put out are tough to play against in February, if easily disposable in April, when everybody’s locked in. They are in perpetual need of either a franchise player or a second star, making the best of it with whatever they have. If a seven or five seed and an annual first-round playoff exit seems dissatisfying, you should talk to some Kings or Knicks fans. You win 45 games in a season, those are 45 nights you feel alright.
The Pacers haven’t been particularly rewarded for their competence. The latest case in point: Victor Oladipo is nigh untradeable at the moment. It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for the former Magic and Thunder cast-off, who burned out almost as quickly as he rose to prominence.
The consensus around the 2017 trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City and Oladipo plus Domantas Sabonis to Indiana was that Kevin Pritchard had done what he could on short notice and with almost zero leverage, grabbing two decent young players in return for a discontented star entering a contract year. George’s trade request “couldn’t have come at a worse time for me,” Pritchard said at the time. “Had we known [he wanted out] a while ago, we could have been more prepared. And then the way it got out… we struggled with that.” A typical Indiana problem: you can’t keep your best player, so you move him in exchange for talent you can control. You probably get worse in the process, but there’s not much you can do about it.
Except Oladipo, unbeknownst to everyone involved in the deal, was in the middle of transforming his game and his body. A disappointing high lottery selection, he was fed up with the ponderousness of his career too. He left Oklahoma City as a just-okay starting two-guard and arrived in Indiana as a convincing approximation of Dwyane Wade. It feels like longer ago, but he was incredible in 2017-18, having developed a deadly off-the-dribble three and getting to the rim with terrifying assertiveness. Plus he could harass the other team’s best backcourt scorer on the other end of the floor. It turned out that the Pacers had swapped an exciting young two-way player for… an exciting young two-way player. They had every right to be ecstatic about it.
And then he got hurt. At the outset of 2018-19, Oladipo was beginning to prove that his breakout year wasn’t a fluke, but he picked up a knee injury in November, which knocked him out for a few weeks, and when he came back, he clearly wasn’t right. There was speculation he might need to get surgery, but before that decision was made, he ruptured a quad tendon in late January, and that was the end of his season.
From that point forward, he hasn’t been healthy. He returned with a minutes restriction earlier this year, playing in fits and starts: five games, then a rest, three more games, then two nights off, etc. When the NBA announced its plan to finish the season in Orlando, Oladipo and the Pacers announced that he would join the team, but he wasn’t going to play. And then he played anyway. He didn’t look great. Rust? Physical limitations? Oladipo is not unlike his fellow traumatic injury-sufferer Gordon Hayward. It’s impossible to declare one way or another what he is. Will he ever get back to his old self, or is he permanently diminished? Can he stay in the lineup for 20, 30, 40 games in a row? Does he need to be put on a load management-type schedule? Would that even help?
Hell, we don’t know if he wants to stay in Indiana. With the entire league reserving judgment on him, this is going to be a whirlwind season in terms of the amount of questions Victor Oladipo resolves in the space of six months. At the end of 2020-21, he could be re-signing on a max deal with the Pacers, trying to rebuild his value on a one-year contract somewhere else, or negotiating with a team that traded for him midseason. He might be cooked due to physical limitations, or maybe he’s just going through an extraordinary rough patch.
Here’s where you have to give the Pacers a lot of credit: Domantas Sabonis, the undisputed Third Guy in the Paul George trade, spent last season inhaling rebounds and pulverizing opponents in the low post. By luck and by design, Indiana brass consistently finds good players. A Pacers squad that features Sabonis, Malcolm Brodgon, and a near-fully recovered Oladipo could make some noise in the Eastern Conference. Whether that comes to pass, we’ll see, but at least Oladipo’s struggles haven’t ruined the Pacers entirely. He’s only 28. There’s plenty of time for him to help them thrive, if his body will let him.
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2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards