Entering the season, there were high hopes for the Indiana Pacers following an impressive bubble showing and eruption from T.J. Warren. However, the team finished at a disappointing 34-38 mark, finishing at ninth in the Eastern Conference and getting eliminated in the play-in tournament.
A myriad of factors played into Indiana’s rough season, but no culprit was as crippling as the injury bug. To start, the Pacers lost Warren for the year just four games into the season in what was supposed to be a career year. Then the team got an offer it couldn’t refuse and traded Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert, who had to sit for several weeks.
Further down the stretch, Myles Turner was lost for the season, followed by big injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.
And just like that, the team was forced into playing 10-day contract player Oshae Brissett as a de facto center and giving minutes to players projected to be at the end of the bench. Those players, Brissett especially, fought admirably and scrapped tooth and nail to the NBA’s Play-In Tournament, but ultimately fell short of the playoffs.
As Basketball Insiders’ Matt John wrote, there’s no denying that Indiana’s core of Sabonis, Turner, LeVert, Warren and Brogdon, along with a solid bench, is a good team. However, Indiana has to do something to get out of this rut.
Setting aside the drama in the coaching circle for a second, this season established a dangerous potential precedent for a team that is looking for answers. While injuries certainly prevented this team from being as good as it could’ve, it’s evident that Indiana’s ceiling is a second-round exit.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some teams, especially small-market teams, pride themselves in being consistent playoff teams. As John wrote, Indiana’s 2018 and 2019 playoff teams were admirable, with the former taking the then-dominant Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games.
However, if the team decides big changes are coming, it will need to first look to the coaching staff. Late into the season, rumors circulated that there was dissatisfaction with the way first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren handled things this year. The way in which former Pacers coach Nate McMillan rejuvenated the Atlanta Hawks as interim head coach likely rubbed salt into the wound.
“I pour my heart into every single game and this organization, and especially the players,” Bjorkgren said following the team’s elimination. “And that’s what I’m thinking about the most right now is the players on this team. Man, I’d do anything for them. And it wasn’t the kind of year and results that we wanted. But it’ll be better. It’ll get better. I’ll do everything that I can for this organization.”
President of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard has been non-committal to Bjorkgren in his exit interviews.
“He is our coach as of now and I’ll have a fair discussion with him,” Pritchard told Pacers reporters.
Regardless of who Indiana’s next head coach is, Bjorkgren or otherwise, changes are on the horizon for this roster. The team’s only free agents are Doug McDermott, T.J. McConnell and JaKarr Sampson, which means meaningful change will have to come by way of trade. However, the team should look to re-sign those players at the right price tag, with McDermott and McConnell enjoying career years in 2020-21.
The most popular rumor is the idea that the frontcourt of Sabonis and Turner will need to be separated. There is evidence to support staggering their minutes regardless of roster status, as the two-man lineup of Sabonis and Turner boasts a -2.3 net rating, fourth-worst of the team’s top 15 pairings.
“We like them both,” Pritchard said to J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star and other reporters. “They can definitely play together. You can stagger them.“
On/off ratings also paint a picture of Sabonis as an offensive juggernaut, while Turner is the team’s best defensive cog. If the two are divorced, there isn’t really a wrong answer — it’ll come down to whatever style of play the front office prefers. Of the two, Turner had the closest brush with being moved, when he was reportedly involved in potential sign-and-trade discussions for former Boston Celtics wing Gordon Hayward.
Of Indiana’s projected starting five, Brogdon and LeVert seem like the least likely to be moved. Brogdon was acquired for pennies on the dollar, has a manageable $21.7 million salary next season and played like an MVP candidate at times this year. LeVert was just traded for and averaged 20.7 points per game coming off a potentially life-saving surgery.
“We really try for coach [Bjorkgren]… coach really did his best this year,” Brogdon said after falling in the Play-In Tournament. “Regardless of the reports, regardless of all the distractions and the noise, he continued to communicate with his players, he continued to work extremely hard for us and coach us the best he could. We appreciated that… Personally, I had a career year and I told him that. I said, ‘Man, there’s a lot of stuff that’s come out about you and there’s a lot of guys on this team that still played really well for you and you did a really good job for us.’”
Outside of those two, the team has several potential trade chips if it so chooses to do so. Indiana may change its offseason trajectory depending on where its lottery pick falls. The Pacers’ last two lottery picks were Myles Turner and Paul George, two names who transformed the franchise in one way or another. Even if Indiana ends up with the 13th overall pick, where it is currently slated to fall, recent history with that pick (Tyler Herro, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine and Kelly Olynyk) has been fruitful.
If the team sells players, or pivots into a different kind of playoff contender by swapping rotational players with teams, names like Warren, Jeremy Lamb and Aaron Holiday are potential trade chips.
Maybe the team retains both Turner and Sabonis, re-signs McDermott and McConnell, gets a contributing rookie and shifts its rotation. Maybe Indiana trades one or two of Turner, Sabonis or Warren, gets a top draft pick and focuses on a youth movement while still being competitive.
Whatever path the Pacers choose this offseason, one thing is clear: the franchise cannot afford to stand pat.