The Indiana Pacers Are so Much More Than Victor Oladipo

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 12: Darren Collison #2, Victor Oladipo #4 and Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers lead the team back on the floor during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 12, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers won 113-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The acquisition of a transformative star, which the Indiana Pacers achieved by landing Victor Oladipo in 2017, is usually the franchise-building endgame.

We're learning this year that adding Oladipo was only the beginning.

Oladipo's unexpected leap, which earned him Most Improved Player honors for the 2017-18 season, transformed Indiana. Elevated it. He was indispensable to a playoff team most expected to finish near the bottom of the conference in uninteresting fashion.

There was a found-money feel to the whole thing. The Pacers gave up Paul George because they had to, dealing him to the Oklahoma City Thunder with zero leverage...and they got back a dude who straight-up outplayed him. Indy finished with a 48-34 record, identical to that of George's 2017-18 Thunder.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 13:  Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers handles the ball against Paul George #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on December 13, 2017 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

If the story stops there, it's a happy one for Indiana. The Pacers converted an older star who asked out into a younger one who broke out.

Fortunately for Indy, the narrative has continued, and developed, in yet another unexpected way. The Pacers, having made minimal offseason additions to a roster that felt a little thin around Oladipo last year, are even better now.

The kicker: Oladipo has been worse.

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Although you'd be locked away for suggesting the Pacers have outgrown their need for him, it's still true that they've performed marginally better with Oladipo off the floor in 2018-19. That's a striking change from last year when Indiana went 0-7 in games its star guard missed and saw its net rating drop from 6.0 with Oladipo on the floor to minus-8.2 without him.

When Oladipo rested his sore knee for 11 games this past November and December, Indiana went 7-4 (8-4 if you include the game he left after five minutes against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 17). Oladipo's usage rate and true shooting percentage are both down from last year. He's getting to the foul line less frequently, has lacked the same burst when attacking the rim (though he's looked a bit bouncier in the last couple of weeks), isn't dunking as often and is no longer serving as the be-all, end-all for Indiana's offense.

Fortunately, he's had help.

Myles Turner deserves the lion's share of credit for Indiana's vastly improved defense. He's the league leader in blocks per game, has been more engaged in space and may be gaining notoriety during an injury absence in much the same way Oladipo did a year ago. A shoulder injury recently kept him out for four games, and during that time, the Pacers' defensive rating was 119.8, a long way off brand for a squad with the No. 2 defensive rating on the season.

Yes, his six-block game came against the lowly Bulls in November, but you can see immediately that Turner isn't about that old Roy Hibbert verticality stuff. He's covering ground, swatting shots from everywhere.

Domantas Sabonis, the other guy in the Oladipo deal, has improved to a degree that rivals what Oladipo did last season. Sabonis is on pace to be the first player in NBA history to average at least 15 points and nine rebounds in under 26 minutes per game. He, not Oladipo, leads the Pacers in box plus-minus, player efficiency rating and value over replacement player (VORP).

Sabonis is a deft finisher around the rim, and his 66.7 true shooting percentage is higher than that of any player who's taken at least 390 shots this season. That he's been so efficient without taking threes (5-of-7 on the year; shoot more, please!) illustrates his extreme interior prowess.

Considering Sabonis has experience as a three-point specialist who took a third of his shots from deep during his strange rookie campaign with the Thunder (compare that to a three-point-attempt rate of 5.6 percent last year and 1.8 percent this season), there's a good chance he'll join Turner as a floor-stretching threat someday.

Turner and Sabonis are young, though. They're supposed to get better. Indiana's veteran improvement has been the more impressive story.

Thaddeus Young, like Turner, should get All-Defense consideration. He handles bigs underneath just fine, and if you need him to switch, well...he's good with that, too.

Bojan Bogdanovic is the best, most complete two-way wing you never, ever think about. Both he and Young are well above their career averages in true shooting percentage, and Bogdanovic, particularly, has striped it. He's at 45.0 percent from deep on 4.4 attempts per game.

Cory Joseph, Darren Collison and Doug McDermott are all contributing on the margins with smart play and reliable shooting.

The big offseason get, Tyreke Evans, has mostly been a flop. It hasn't mattered because Indiana's defense has made a bigger impact than one free-agent signing ever could. Second in points allowed per possession after ranking 12th last year, the Pacers generate turnovers at the league's second-best rate and put opponents on the line less often than anyone.

That's a tough combo to execute: aggressively hunting the basketball while fouling so rarely. Indiana is making it work, though, and has done it with Oladipo, an All-Defensive First-Teamer last year, missing a quarter of its games.

Granted, the Pacers have played the league's easiest schedule to date. They've also won just four times in 14 games against teams with winning records. Oladipo's knee soreness is a concern, as is the possibility of across-the-board regression as the slate toughens in the second half of the season. This is why it's still reasonable to view the Pacers as existing just a hair below the East's perceived upper echelon: Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia, all of whom have more star power than Indiana.

MILWAUKEE, WI - MARCH 02:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dribbles the ball while being guarded by Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers in the fourth quarter at the Bradley Center on March 2, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

All that said, you've got to appreciate that the Pacers didn't relax when they unexpectedly wound up with a cornerstone. They kept adding, kept developing. Normally, in the star-centric world of NBA analysis, you'd attribute the growth of Indiana's support players to Oladipo's presence, but that's not the right approach here. Not entirely, anyway.

Yes, Oladipo is "the guy," a talent so undeniable that he organizes the rest of the roster into appropriate roles and alleviates their concerns with credit or blame because everyone knows he'll get more than his share of both. But there's more going on in Indy than a star who's carrying a mediocre team.

These Pacers are proving they can thrive collectively and that they can do it with a team-building scheme that cuts against the rest of the league's free-agency-obsessed, happy-to-tank norm. This shouldn't come as a surprise. The Pacers are very good at exactly the thing they're doing right now because they've got a ton of practice at it.

For 30 years, Indiana, never a free-agent destination, has refused to tank. It's picked 10th or later in every draft since it selected George McCloud seventh in 1989. The Pacers specialize in drafting well, in seeing stars where others don't, in developing support for those stars with contributors of all stripes.

In a manner that feels a bit too on-the-nose for a team so easily linked with Hoosiers, the Pacers' approach is uncomplicated, workmanlike and patient. It's noble.

In other words, it's all Indiana.

            

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Jan. 15.

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