Winning is by and large not on the agenda for the Indiana Pacers this season.
At 25-47, qualifying for the play-in remains a mathematical possibility for the Pacers with 10 games left before the regular season concludes, but in reality, circumstances beyond their control will send them packing and looking towards this year’s NBA Draft. It also doesn’t help that Indiana has the 10th-toughest schedule based on remaining games.
Nevertheless, the Pacers have seen some gains this season as development continues to become the team’s primary agenda. Players with injuries are given off-nights in part to preserve health and allow role players and younger members of the squad more chances to gain much-needed game experience. From the experience comes progress, which usually manifests itself in improvements in both individual and team play. At times this also comes in the form of games won despite many viewing 2021-2022 as a “losing” season for Indiana.
Acquiring Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings before the trade deadline proved to be a solid building block to lean on. Having to give up Domantas Sabonis might have been tough, but the early returns have so far been promising. Haliburton and Hield are averaging more numbers across the board compared to their stints with the Kings. Unfortunately, their production didn’t translate to wins as the Pacers are 5-11 since both arrived in Indiana despite them being seen as the “winners” of the trade so far.
The remaining games this season could be utilized to further acclimate both Haliburton and Hield to Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle‘s system while also allowing the former to have more control of the offense than during his time with the Kings. Moreover, it gives Indiana a major security blanket for the oft-injured Malcolm Brogdon, who has yet to play more than 56 games for the Pacers.
A prime example of such was in Indiana’s 129-98 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, who themselves are going through a similar rebuilding phase after making some moves in the trade deadline. Even with Brodgdon being a late scratch for the game, Haliburton finished with just 10 points and seven assists (on four turnovers), while Hield scored nine points but struggled with his shot.
However, their presence opened up opportunities for the likes of Oshae Brissett (team-high 24 points and nine rebounds), Justin Anderson (18 points, six rebounds, and four assists) and both Jalen Smith and Terry Taylor (17 points). Nine players scored at least seven points for the Pacers, with Lance Stephenson’s 11 assists setting the tone for what was a 38-assist night for Indiana. That type of balanced attack could work well for the Pacers moving forward even with all the movement within the rest of the roster.
Players like Brissett and Goga Bitadze have been fine plug-and-play options that not only step up when their numbers are called, but can also take on multiple roles when certain players are out due to injury. Myles Turner has missed nearly half of the season largely due to a stress reaction in his left foot and Bitadze, Brissett, and Smith have taken on the cudgels in various ways. On the perimeter, Stephenson and rookie Chris Duarte have made contributions that have made the losses of Caris LeVert, Aaron Holiday, and Jeremy Lamb more bearable.
On the season, Indiana is actually in the upper half of the league in terms of assists, as they average 24.9 assists per game, which is good for 12th in the NBA. It does, however, come at a cost as the Pacers are the sixth-worst team in terms of turnovers per game (14.5). Despite that and the loss of their marquee big men to injury and trades, Indiana is sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game (11.3) and that has largely come through a team effort on the boards that has resulted in second chances.
That the Indiana Pacers see themselves as better today than yesterday is in itself a victory for them. Other teams are either in “win-now” or “compete-now” mode, and while the Pacers are leaning towards the latter, they are taking a more pragmatic approach that will be more rewarding in the long run.