Basketball Insiders continues the “Now What” series with a look at the Indiana Pacers. A disappointing 34-38 record earned them a spot in the Play-In Tournament, where they crushed the Charlotte Hornets but were then destroyed by the Washington Wizards. They limped across the finish line, and now face an uncertain offseason that could be filled with changes.
Following a wild roller-coaster season, the Pacers find themselves at a crossroads. Expectations were high for the team coming into this season, with a new head coach and a rejuvenated roster. Early in the season things were rolling along nicely, but the Pacers were ultimately victims of the injury bug amid the condensed season. For just the second time in the last decade, they will be a lottery team heading into the 2021 NBA Draft.
The primary focus for the front office, like last year, will be finding their next coach. The team announced on Wednesday that Nate Bjorkgren would not be returning next season. After taking a chance on the first-year head coach, the tumultuous season ultimately led the organization to look for a coach with more experience.
There are plenty of other riddles to solve, both in the draft and in free agency. There are decisions to be made regarding this roster, and none of them can be considered minor at this point. Indiana is swimming in the river of mediocrity, and that must change.
The future for this team has been cloudy but getting answers to several questions this offseason will help clear things up.
For all of the uncertainty surrounding the Pacers, they do have some good things going for them. After jumping at the opportunity to land a young talented player like Caris LeVert, they had to wait on his recovery following treatment for the mass that was found on his kidney. His return to the floor in March was a wonderful sight to see, and the fit alongside his new teammates has been harmonious.
LeVert was thriving as a member of the Pacers, but it was cut short just before the Play-In Tournament began when he was forced to sit out due to health and safety protocols. Despite his absence, LeVert has solidified himself as the guy on this team that can create for others, as well as get his own shot whenever they need it.
When they don’t need to take that route, the Pacers are perfectly fine with running their offense through Domantas Sabonis. The big man had a career year, serving as the engine of the team’s offense. Sabonis averaged career highs in points (20.3), assists (6.7), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.5) this season. He also pulled down 12 rebounds per game and got to the free-throw line more than he ever has during his five-year career.
Just getting their full complement of players back healthy is something this organization can feel good about. With TJ Warren essentially missing the entire season and Myles Turner having his impressive season cut short due to injuries, the Pacers will only improve with them back in the fold. Jeremy Lamb missed half the season, Malcolm Brogdon missed 16 games and Sabonis missed ten due to injuries as well.
Indiana’s offense should be one of the most dynamic in the league next year, with LeVert, Sabonis, and Brogdon leading the way. The other players on this roster will need to play their roles, hit open shots, and defend. If those needs can be addressed this offseason, the Pacers should be back in the playoffs next year.
The injuries may have done them in towards the end of the season, but what really killed the Pacers was their inability to defend, rebound and close out games. They had the fourth-worst rebounding differential (-4.1) during the season and blew 17 fourth-quarter leads. Those two ingredients are a recipe for disaster.
The biggest question surrounding Indiana’s offseason was answered earlier this week. Kevin Pritchard met with Bjorkgren on Tuesday and decided that it was time to move on. He acknowledged that they took a chance last season and it just didn’t pan out. He also addressed what he is looking for in their next leader.
Pacers president Kevin Pritchard spoke for 23 minutes, mostly looking forward.
– Wanted to take a risk last hire. This can’t be that. Have to get it right
– Need a vocal leader in the locker room
– Must re-establish defensive identity
– Added emphasis on hiring the right staff
— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) June 9, 2021
The real question is how much of the blame for this turbulent season should be on Bjorkgren’s shoulders? He didn’t have Warren, Turner, LeVert, Oladipo, or Lamb for most of the season. He was reluctant to play Aaron Holiday for whatever reason and relied heavily on the defense and availability of Justin Holiday and TJ McConnell. Despite all of this, he still had this team one win away from the playoffs.
Brogdon and Sabonis both thrived in Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon averaged a career-high in scoring while the team averaged a franchise record 115.3 points per game. It was a massive leap from the old, slow-tempo offense that they ran under former coach Nate McMillan. In the end, the disconnect between the players and others within the organization was too much to ignore.
Indiana will have several candidates to choose from, including some they met with last summer. The front office will be looking at former player and current Los Angeles Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups, former Portland Trail Blazers coach and Indiana native Terry Stotts, as well as Mike D’Antoni, who was the favorite to get the job last season before joining Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn.
Indiana will have an opportunity to grab some high-end talent in the draft this summer. This will be just the second time they will have a lottery pick in the draft in the last ten years. The Pacers likely won’t land the cream of the crop with the 13th or 14th pick, but there is plenty of solid talent throughout this draft class.
One name that has come up frequently in mock drafts is Keon Johnson, who is a relentless wing defender. That has been a void ever since Victor Oladipo suffered his quad injury in January of 2019. Should the Pacers not bring back Doug McDermott, they could look at Corey Kispert from Gonzaga, who is an elite perimeter shooter. Other names to monitor are James Bouknight from UConn and Jared Butler from Baylor. The Pacers typically like to take the best talent available, regardless of position need.
In terms of free agency, the Pacers are already over the salary cap. Despite the lack of money to throw around, Pritchard has a solid reputation for finding bargain deals. There are several solid role players available that could potentially help this team next season. Under-the-radar guys like Dewayne Dedmon, Wayne Ellington and Tony Snell would be able to fill some of the weaknesses that the team had this past season.
The roster is in flux so while there isn’t one obvious position that they need to fill, it is safe to say they will be set at the starting center position with either Sabonis or Turner. Even with Warren coming back, there are questions with their wing players, so it would not be a surprise to see them chase someone like Torrey Craig. He could become a hot name when free agency begins, should the Phoenix Suns keep rolling in the playoffs. Regardless, that is the type of player that Indiana would desperately covet.
The silver lining with all of the Pacers’ injuries is what they found in their absence. Oshae Brissett played 21 games for Indiana this season, and he showed some serious potential. After the regular season, Brissett scored 31 points and pulled down ten rebounds against his former team, the Toronto Raptors. His range was on display as well, as he shot 42.3 percent from three-point range during the regular season.
Brissett was 10-14 overall from the floor in their Play-In Tournament victory over the Hornets, scoring 23 points to lead the way for the Pacers. He signed a three-year contract so the Pacers will have some flexibility at the position going forward.
Indiana’s only free agents are McConnell, McDermott and JaKarr Sampson. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of a threat if they were not able to retain any of these guys. Both McConnell and McDermott had career seasons and showed their value to other potential suitors this summer. McConnell led the league in steals with 128, which is 20 more than Jimmy Butler, who finished second. The 29-year old also averaged career-high numbers across the board.
McDermott also posted the best statistical numbers of his career, improving in many areas of his game. Known mostly for his perimeter shot, the former Creighton star was a nightmare to chase as he weaved his way through screens and split down the lane for layups. After landing on his fifth team, it seemed as though he found the perfect fit in Indiana, but money always talks.
The Pacers can certainly replace their production should they decide to leave, but the most difficult roster decision has been a long time coming. It is the elephant in the room – Turner or Sabonis?
As Tristan Tucker recently pointed out, this frontcourt pairing has run its course. While Pritchard has reiterated that the two big men could stagger their minutes, it simply has not been working. The two-man lineup of Sabonis and Turner yielded a -2.3 net rating, which was the fourth-worst of the team’s top 15 pairings. The on/off ratings also revealed that the best option going forward is to split up the Turbonis experiment.
Both players have excelled on one side of the ball. Sabonis has fueled Indiana’s offense, posting ten triple-doubles this season. He also recorded 48 double-doubles in just 62 games. Turner was on pace to shatter the record for most blocks in a season before his injury derailed that plan. He still led the league in blocks per game (3.4) for the second time in the last three seasons.
For whatever reason, the numbers have not translated to team success. With both players under contract through at least the next two seasons, the time to trade one of them is now. It is a risky proposition, but one that the organization must make. The big question is which player should Indiana move? Sabonis will likely yield more of a return but he is also the more important piece for this roster as currently constructed.
The Indiana #Pacers are expected to listen to trade offers for Myles Turner this offseason, source tells @HoopAnalysisNet. Among teams expected to have interest are the #Hornets, #Lakers, #Knicks, and #Celtics. Plenty of other suitors could pursue as well.
— Evan Massey (@massey_evan) June 3, 2021
All of that being said, many teams would love to get their hands on a floor-spacing center that protects the rim. Turner’s name was floated in several trade discussions before the season. One that nearly came to fruition was with the Boston Celtics, which was centered around Gordon Hayward. Many front offices have already set their sights on putting together a package for the 25-year old, with the Los Angeles Lakers high on the list of interested teams.
The last time Indiana drafted a player in the lottery was in 2015 when they selected Turner with the 11th pick. Oddly enough, he might be the one that is dealt to get this team out of mediocrity.