Out of the three teams swept out of the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the NBA bubble in Orlando, the Indiana Pacers were probably the most surprising defeat. The Pacers entered as the No. 4 seed going up against the Miami Heat at No. 5. The matchup was relatively even despite the Pacers being down arguably their best player, All-Star C Domantas Sabonis. Still, Indy had to feel better than a sweep heading into this series. Now, they’ll start the offseason early with not much on the agenda. Here’s my exit interview for the Pacers.
Indiana Pacers exit interview
Are injuries to blame for early playoff exit?
My answer would be yes and no. Having Sabonis in there as a presence on the glass and in the post would have gone a long way against Bam Adebayo and the Heat. The Pacers offense became very one-dimensional without Sabonis in the bubble. Miami had the wing defenders to match up against Malcolm Brogdon, Victor Oladipo and T.J. Warren and that really hurt Indiana’s chances of advancing.
The Pacers lack of depth got exposed a bit but there were still a few games in the series where you went, “Yeah, the Pacers probably should have won that game.” Game 3 sticks out. Indiana made that huge run to cut down an 18-point lead at halftime for Miami. Brogdon had a huge game and then things unraveled towards the end. Busted possessions because the Heat could game plan pretty easily to stop what the Pacers were doing. Really, if the Pacers win a fourth quarter or two, this is a totally different series.
I think Indy squandered some opportunities to make this series last longer but what would it have been for? Maybe Sabonis comes back and the Pacers sneak into the second round before being dispatched by the Bucks. Or would this roster at 100% health have enough to give Milwaukee problems? I don’t think so, but you never know in the bubble. It wasn’t a completely lost season for the Pacers. They over-performed in the regular season without Oladipo for much of the year. A few players took big steps in development. The Pacers are on the right track.
What to do with Victor Oladipo?
This is an interesting situation for the Pacers. You have Dipo coming off major surgery and returning in less-than-stellar shape. The circumstances were never the best but Oladipo got a ton of time to heal from his torn quad and look more like the player from the past two seasons. That never really happened. Vic really struggled shooting the ball this season — 39% from the floor and 31% from 3-point land. It was a limited sample, but really his stats all across the board plummeted.
Maybe this was a results of coming back late and trying to mesh with the team? Brogdon was in the midst of his best statistical NBA season. Sabonis was already an All-Star after breaking through. This team was Oladipo’s for a stretch and that didn’t seem quite the same after he returned. That can be tough for a guy as competitive as him. The mental aspect of returning from the injury and getting right must have taken a toll on Oladipo. We saw it a little bit in the emotional post about opting out and subsequent decision to opt back in. But now what do the Pacers do?
Oladipo will be on an expiring deal. He’s got one year left on a four-year, $84 million extension he signed in 2016. Looking at the Pacers roster and how this season ended, you’d think Indiana might entertain the idea of dealing Oladipo as a rental to a contender to recoup some assets. It would be a bitter sweet ending for his tenure in Indy, but may be the best move.
I know I argued depth was a bit of an issue but the Pacers were also without Jeremy Lamb, who had filled in for Oladipo when he was sidelined. Justin Holiday is off the books but could return with his brother Aaron still on the roster. Aaron had a great season and started most of the bubble in the back court. The Pacers have the core of Brogdon, Warren, Sabonis and Myles Turner locked up through the next two seasons. Clearly some cap space to add another couple pieces for depth may be better than hoping Dipo bounce back.
The Pacers also don’t have a first-round pick. Sending Dipo to a fringe contender looking for one additional piece might be appealing if a late first-rounder is involved. It’s not a great draft but there are players in it (you know what I mean). I don’t think the Pacers are thinking they were just short of contending and will go right back at it with this same roster next season. Moving Dipo looks like their only play in the offseason. Or hold onto him until the deadline to see where the team is at.
I’ll close with this. My thinking for almost every team in the East is: Can we compete with the Bucks — or even Nets — let alone the West? If the answer is no, you have to re-evaluate things. The Pacers can’t compete with either team, let alone the Heat, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. So a change must be done. You can’t sit around hoping Oladipo gets back to 2017-18 form, Brogdon evolves into a top 10 PG and Sabonis turns into his Dad. Indiana’s best chance at competing is to maybe take another step back to move forward.