A Waiting Game for Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers
In his first season in Indiana, Oladipo got real. The former number two overall pick was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, leading the Pacers into the playoffs with a 48-34 record.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say a star was born. (Going forward, all his buckets must be called in the same vocal pattern Lady Gaga uses on that one note in “Shallow” – you know which one.)
Behind their newly-minted star, Indiana looked to build on their success in 2018-19. But after a torn quadriceps tendon in late January ruled him out for the year, their progress came to a halt.
Now, almost eight months removed the injury, the franchise is looking to get back on track.
But how will they survive until then without him? And how sure can they be he’ll return to form?
Survive & Advance
As inspiring as the Pacers’ success in Oladipo’s absence was, it’s hard to see last season as anything but a loss. With the injury keeping him out until after the New Year, Indiana’s in danger of suffering the same fate this season.
The biggest challenge facing them this year is the same as last: win without a bonafide star. Factor in the departure of Bojan Bogdanović, the odds are stacked against them even higher.
Brogdon fills a lead guard role that the team was without for a large part of last season. His playmaking and defensive versatility stabilize the Pacers’ rotation with and without Oladipo. Lamb is one of the more under-appreciated players in the league, a three-and-D threat with the ability to score off the dribble. Warren’s a gifted isolation scorer with the chance to fill the hole Bogdanović left.
All three have the talent and potential to man the ship sans Oladipo, but it’ll have to be a group effort. Brogdon has never been a primary scorer, Lamb can fade out of games, and Warren can turn into a black hole on offense.
Center of Attention
Both are deserving starters, but neither has the speed to hang with combo forwards, leaving the Pacers at a disadvantage when they’re on the floor together.
Turner is somewhat of a unicorn, a rare mix of elite rim protection and gifted scoring ability. He’s improved exponentially as a floor spacer since he entered the league, shooting 39 percent from behind the arc last season. Before an ankle sprain last week, he raised that number to 53 percent on almost four attempts per game.
Sabonis is no slouch either. Recently signed through 2023-24, he’s a gifted offensive player who could instantly make an impact for a playoff team looking to fill their center spot. At his age, it’s more than likely that the Pacers will be working from a place of power in trade negotiations should they choose to deal him. Him starting the season averaging over 21 points per game doesn’t hurt either.
However, if the two can mesh on both sides of the ball, Indiana could stand pat. Frontcourt duos with the size of Turner and Sabonis are seldom seen in today’s NBA, letting the Pacers zig when everyone else zags. That’s not necessarily a foolproof outcome, but it makes for an enticing experiment.
Indiana doesn’t have to be great until Oladipo returns. But they do have to be good. With the infusion of talent in the East, they’ll want to secure a high seed to avoid a similar playoff match-up like last year. The roster has a puncher’s chance of doing so, but it’ll take a leap from their big men to get them there.
So let’s say the rest of the Pacers give the team a chance at a top seed. What version of Oladipo do they get back?
With such an uncommon injury, there’s little to no basis on how he’ll perform upon returning.
What we do know for certain is that it will be about a year of time off. That lay-off is tough for any player to come back from, no matter their role. Being a primary option for a playoff team makes his comeback that much harder.
Despite how great he was these past two seasons, we’ve still yet to see him lead a top-seeded team for a whole season. He offered a taste of that last year, putting the team on track for 55 wins before his season ended. If that pace came to fruition, they would’ve found themselves with a more favorable playoff matchup as the third seed.
With the uptick in parity amongst playoff teams in the East, 55 wins may seem far-fetched. The Philadelphia 76ers are all in, the Boston Celtics are revamped, the Toronto Raptors have something to prove, and the Miami Heat look to be on the rise. If the Pacers want in that upper echelon, they’ll need Oladipo to play at a high level.
Truth be told, the long answer to the original question is something few are equipped to offer. Dr. Brian Sutterer broke down the processes involved with the injury after it happened, but even he wouldn’t go so far as to make a prediction on Oladipo’s return.
Just like at the beginning of his career, Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers are playing the waiting game.
It may not be the desired plan, but it is a plan. The Pacers seem to recognize that too, as they’ve yet to make an “all-in” move typical of title contenders.
They’ve started the year 3-3, with all three noteworthy free agent signings making their presence known. But the numbers don’t lie. Short sample size or not, a .500 team isn’t an ideal situation for Oladipo to return to.
Indiana will have to be patient with Oladipo and the team at large this season. If they get to and stay over .500, even the slightest return to form will make them a playoff threat. Should he come back without missing a step, Finals aspirations won’t be unrealistic.
Inversely, should the team continue to struggle, don’t be surprised to see the lay-off become an extended one. With as young as their core is, it’d pay for them to remain patient and trust in their future. Drifting into a higher draft slot would only add to that.
One More Time
While we may have grown accustomed to this version of Oladipo, it’s unclear if or when he’ll get back to it. Just like the beginning of his career, he’s an unknown commodity budding with promise.
Again, Victor Oladipo has the basketball world waiting for something real.
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