Indiana Pacers Are a Dark Horse in the East

TORONTO, ON- Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry looks back to Victor Oladipo of the Indian Pacers in Toronto on Sunday(Rene Johnston/Toronto Star) (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Indiana Pacers have made some very intelligent moves this offseason which could propel them to being a dark horse team in the East, most notably signing Malcolm Brogdon in a sign-and-trade deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. They also signed Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, and T.J. McConnell. They have squad depth, shooting, defensive flexibility, and most importantly a superstar player in Victor Oladipo who can lead his team out of the East.

The Indiana Pacers Could be a Dark Horse in the East

Defensive Versatility

Last season the Pacers had the third-best defensive rating in the entire NBA, just behind the Utah Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks. Coach Nate McMillan is well known to be a defensive coach who values gritty hard-nosed players who can play both sides of the ball.

In addition to Warren, they still have Myles Turner who led the league in total blocks and blocks per game last season. Incredibly, Turner actually managed more total blocks individually (199) than the entire Cleveland Cavaliers roster (195) in 2018-19. He was undoubtedly one of the best defenders in the league and should have had much more consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Furthermore, the Pacers have the distinct advantage of having a two-way superstar. Oladipo has quick hands and is fast laterally, enabling him to keep players in front of him. Along with Oladipo, they also have Malcolm Brogdon in the backcourt who is an intelligent defender. He can read plays and make defensive plays.

Victor Oladipo

Having a superstar player who can create his own offense is essential for any team that wants to compete. The Pacers have a superstar guard in Oladipo that can do just that as well as defend both guard spots and facilitate for his team. He can also be a spot-up player beyond the three-point line when Brogdon is initiating the offense.

Oladipo has proven himself to be a great player on the Pacers but that is partly because of the way Indiana has organized the team to perfectly fit around Oladipo as the lynchpin. With Oladipo handling the ball a lot, they needed a point guard who can play off the ball. Brogdon fits the description perfectly. Oladipo’s play also means that he needs floor spacing around him, so the signings of Lamb and Warren, as well as Brogdon, will leave a lot of space for Oladipo to operate.

Floor Spacing and Rebounding

Signing Warren and Lamb to replace Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young was an underrated move. Lamb had a great season, proving himself to be an efficient scorer and fantastic rebounder for his size. He averaged career-highs of 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

Warren had a career year last season as well. He shot a very impressive 43 percent from three-point range on over four attempts per game. He has potential as a defender and can grab some boards each night too.

Squad Depth

One of the biggest weapons the Pacers have is Domantas Sabonis off the bench. He was dominant last season in the second unit and is easily a starting-caliber center in the NBA. The stellar play of Turner rightfully kept him out of the starting five, but he could once again be a dark horse candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

As well as Sabonis they also have McConnell who will be the primary ball-handler for their bench. The signing of McConnell was crucial because not only did it leave the Pacers with a monopoly on all players named T.J. in the NBA (T.J. Leaf and T.J. Warren are the other two), it also detracted from one of their big rivals in the eastern conference, the Philadelphia 76ers. McConnell was a fan favorite in Philadelphia giving them energy and playmaking off the bench, especially come playoff time. Pacers fans will be hoping that he can provide a similar impact for them this season.

Contenders

It is widely considered that the top teams in the East will be the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks, so it’s logical to assume that if the Pacers are to get out of the East they will have to go through at least one of those teams, but probably two of them. The Indiana Pacers are a dark horse, certainly not a favorite, but they could get through all three of those teams if things fell their way.

Boston Celtics

The weakest of the three teams is probably the Boston Celtics as it is yet to be seen how Kemba Walker will fit in and how they will survive after losing their key veteran, Al Horford. In a playoff series between Indiana and Boston, Sabonis should get a lot of minutes and usage as they try to punish Enes Kanter down low and in pick and roll where he has been a liability his whole career.

The other key to winning this series would be stopping Walker. The Pacers have Brogdon and Oladipo who can both take turns guarding him, limiting his scoring. Walker is primarily a pick and roll scorer and Turner can defend the pick-and-roll, with Brogdon or Oladipo trailing Walker round a screen to challenge the shot from the side.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia has turned their team into a defensive juggernaut this summer with the addition of Josh Richardson and Al Horford. These additions could actually work in favor of the Pacers in a way because it would allow them to throw out big line-ups with Sabonis and Turner more often. They are perfectly matched to guard Joel Embiid and Horford, while also being great offensive players themselves. If they don’t go big then the Pacers could go small against the Sixers with Brogdon, Oladipo, Lamb, Warren, Turner/Sabonis. This lineup could space the floor and exploit Al Horford by bringing him out to the perimeter to stay close to Warren because of his threat from three.

Head coach Nate McMillan should find many ways to exploit this Philadelphia team because of their unique starting line-up. It is very believable that the Pacers could beat the Sixers if they keep everyone healthy.

Milwaukee Bucks

The scouting report on the Bucks has only two words and they’re in caps and bolded – Giannis Antetokounmpo. There have been very few players in the league who could stop Antetokounmpo. Most of the time it is a case of team defense rather than one on one that slows him down. The Pacers certainly have the chemistry and team philosophy but it will, of course, not be easy.

One problem that many teams have faced when guarding Antetokounmpo is who to put on him as the primary defender. Should they use a big man who can guard him in the paint better, or should they use a forward who may not be as tall or strong but is more mobile?

Last season, Thaddeus Young was the primary defender on Antetokounmpo for the Pacers. They’ll have to look elsewhere since the departure of Young this summer. The Pacers should consider Myles Turner to step up to the task. He has the strength and length to be able to contest down low, while also being agile enough to stay with Antetokounmpo further away from the hoop.

Indiana Pacers: The Dark Horse

They aren’t the favorites but they function so well as a team that they can beat teams with obvious weaknesses like Philadelphia and Boston. The biggest challenge for Indiana would be the Bucks. They definitely have a chance if they execute on offense and stay healthy. The Indiana Pacers could be everybody’s favorite underdog come April 2020.

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