The Indiana Pacers are in Philly for what may be the most important game of the season — this matchup between the Pacers and Sixers may be pivotal to the eventual playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference.
Question #1: When Victor Oladipo suffered his season-ending knee injury, many assumed the Pacers would plummet in the Eastern Conference standings. But they haven’t ceded any ground to the Sixers or Celtics. How have they sustained their winning ways without Oladipo?
“There’s no I in team” is as cliche as cliches get, but it is a real indicator of why the Pacers have been able to stay afloat despite the loss of their bloodline. Team basketball is the foundation of their 10-8 record following Oladipo’s devastating injury. It is clear that winning without a primary creator is difficult, but far from impossible. Bojan Bogdanovic’s transition into being a de facto primary has been a major catalyst for success. Over the last 18 contest, Bogdanovic’s scoring has ballooned to an impressive 22.1 points per game, slashing 52.1/41.2/81.6 on 63.1 TS%.
Indiana’s offensive rating over this period ranks 17th in the NBA, but it has been good enough to survive, largely off the back of their fifth-ranked defensive rating. Myles Turner’s emergence as a defensive stalwart has spearheaded Indiana’s dominance on that end of the floor. Tied for first in the NBA in Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (3.3) and sixth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (3.56), Turner’s shot erasing prowess stymies offensive attacks, forcing drivers to rethink their plan of attack. Blocking three shots per game, Turner is the league’s best help-side shot blocker. He still struggles one-on-one on the block (we’ll get to this later), a fact that could become his downfall in the future. Still, surrounding Turner with defensive studs such as Cory Joseph, Thad Young and Wes Matthews has made Indiana’s defense a fierce unit.
Indiana’s schedule over the last 18 has been relatively easy, as they’ve only faced five playoff current playoff teams (GSW, MIL, DET, MIA, LAC) and went 2-3 in those games. Their upcoming schedule is a gauntlet, facing 10 playoff teams in the rest of March, nine of which are a current top five seed in their respective conferences. With the Celtics beginning to surge, holding on to the three seed seems unlikely at this point. If one thing is certain, the next month will be a test of Indiana’s mettle.
Question #2: As of now, Indiana’s roster seems like that of a team that will consistently be very good but never pose a serious threat to become champions. But this summer, they can free up a pretty significant amount of cap space. What types of players should they pursue as they hope to make the leap into title contention?
Before I start speaking on potential free agent acquisitions, I must mention Indiana’s litany of unrestricted free agents who need new deals. These players include much of the Pacers’ current rotation: Bojan Bogdanovic, Thad Young, Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Tyreke Evans, Wes Matthews and Kyle O’Quinn. Add on a potential extension to Domantas Sabonis and Indy’s $57.9M cap space doesn’t seem as large a number.
As for potential additions, it is unlikely that any big name free agents make their way to the Circle City just by the nature of the market. A player could be enthralled with the culture and/or proposition of playing next to Victor Oladipo so I won’t rule out the possibility of landing a big fish entirely. Poaching Jimmy Butler (editor’s note: stop it, Ben.) would be a nice addition as a creator and defender next to Victor Oladipo and he wouldn’t have many young players around to traumatize. Klay Thompson is the dream signing but him coming to the Pacers is less likely than Ben Simmons hitting a three-point shot in the next decade (editor’s note: STOP IT, BEN!).
Indiana could look to add Kemba Walker to provide extra shot-making and creation from the backcourt, forming what would be the best backcourt pairing in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks likely will not be able to bring back Nikola Mirotic and Malcolm Brogdon under their current cap situation and both would be good pieces for Indiana, providing extra shooting value to the offense. I like the idea of Khris Middleton on the Pacers but he will likely command a max offer and I want no part of that contract. With the Pacers’ current roster, there likely isn’t a real path to title level improvement without hitting on a big free agent or multiple good ones. But with Kevin Durant potentially leaving Golden State next offseason, anything can happen, I guess. As long as Terry Rozier comes nowhere near the state of Indiana, I will be a happy camper.
Question #3: The Sixers and Pacers haven’t played since January. And a lot has changed since then — most notably, the Pacers have lost Victor Oladipo and the Sixers have added Tobias Harris. If these teams match up in the playoffs, who would you pick to win the series?
With a healthy Victor Oladipo on the roster, the Indiana Pacers would beat the Philadelphia 76ers in a playoff series. But hypotheticals are for losers; our singing prince won’t be there to rescue the Pacers in the postseason. As well as Indiana has played this season, I don’t see any way in which they defeat Philly in a playoff series. The root of Indiana’s matchup problem comes with Joel Embiid, who is a one-man wrecking crew down low. As I mentioned earlier, Myles Turner’s biggest weakness as a defender is his strength as a post defender, a factor which Joel Embiid exploited for 40 points in a December matchup. Indiana lacks a player like Al Horford or Rudy Gobert who has the strength to bang with Embiid and force him off of the block.
If Embiid decides to be aggressive, the Pacers will have no choice but to send help at Embiid and force him to be a playmaker. Indiana has not seen Tobias Harris yet, though, who makes double teaming anyone a difficult proposition. Leaving a scorer of his caliber open anywhere on the floor is a death sentence. Indy will have their hands full trying to scurry around handoffs and screens to limit JJ Redick’s shooting and denying Ben Simmons’ violent cuts to the rim. If Butler continues to shoot threes as he has over the last 15 games (23.1%), doubling off of him could be an option. Even then, leaving a creator of his caliber with oodles of space to operate is a dangerous strategy.
One area where Indiana will give the Sixers fits is when the starters come off the floor. Indiana’s bench has been a force this season: their typical bench unit of Joseph, Tyreke Evans (side note: Tyreke Evans actually being good, which he hasn’t been this year, would be a potential X-factor in this hypothetical playoff matchup. When he’s hitting shots and fulfilling his creation duties, Indiana’s offensive takes a sizable step up.), Doug McDermott, Young and Sabonis have the second highest net rating of any five-man lineup in the NBA (+27.9). While their starters are undeniably more talented, Philadelphia’s roster lacks the girth of Indiana’s. Although rotations tighten up in the playoffs, sustaining lineup quality throughout the game is key and something Philly could struggle with. When Embiid sits, who is going to check Sabonis in the post? Where is their offense going to go when their stars become fatigued and Indiana continues to roll fresh, high-level defensive players onto the court?
But with all of that said, the loss of Victor Oladipo’s primary creation gravity would be too much for the Pacers to overcome in a series with Philadelphia. I would expect the Pacers to put up a fight and make almost every game tight but I don’t feel comfortable giving them any more than two games against this souped-up Sixers’ squad.
Big thanks to Ben for answering our questions before the big game!