All summer long, I warned everyone not to sleep on the Indiana Pacers.
This is a team that could have been on its way to a deep playoff run last year had Victor Oladipo not suffered a ruptured quad tendon midway through the season, and during the offseason, they added big-time pieces such as Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb to an already talented group.
Of course, the Pacers’ success for the 2019-20 campaign has always hinged entirely on the status of Oladipo, who finally made his return late last month.
The results for Oladipo thus far have been less-than-stellar, to say the least, as he is averaging 11.1 points, 2.9 assists and two rebounds over 25 minutes per game in seven contests since returning while shooting 32.9 percent from the floor, 24.4 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line.
What’s more, Indiana has gone just 2-6 since Oladipo came back on Jan. 29 (he missed the club’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 8 due to it being the second night of a back-to-back), an indication that his re-insertion into the lineup may have thrown everyone for a loop.
To be fair, that is to be expected. Not only does Oladipo need to shake off the rust after having not played for a year, but his teammates need to become accustomed to playing with him, and for the first time in the cases of some of them.
But obviously, the biggest question for the Pacers at the All-Star break is whether or not Oladipo will round into form between now and the start of the playoffs.
Currently, Indy is 32-23 and sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, putting it at the bottom of the totem pole of the East contenders as far as records go.
But that could all change if Oladipo begins to rediscover his form.
Keep in mind that Oladipo will likely never get back to 100 percent at any point this season, but if he can just get back in the 75-80 percent range, the Pacers will be very, very dangerous.
Domantas Sabonis has had a breakout year, Warren has been outstanding and role players such as Lamb, Justin Holiday, Aaron Holiday and Doug McDermott have played very well.
Myles Turner and Brogdon have been another story, as Turner has oddly regressed and Brogdon has been a rather big disappointment after his superb 50-40-90 season with the Milwaukee Bucks last year.
But still, Turner remains a fine all-around big man, and Brogdon is a dangerous scorer regardless of the fact that his percentages may not be up to par this season.
I will say, though, that Turner and Brogdon need to play better in the playoffs for Indiana to have a chance to make a serious run, because if they don’t, the Pacers simply won’t have enough to get by the top teams in the conference.
Now, a healthier Oladipo will certainly help in that area and would mitigate any lack of production from Turner and Brogdon.
Clearly, though, the biggest issue for Indy is that it is asking for an awful lot to go well in order for it to make a deep playoff run.
Don’t get me wrong: I fully believe in the talent of this club, and before the season started, I had the Pacers pegged as a sleeper finals contender due to the fact that I thought that when healthy, they had arguably the most balanced roster in the East.
I was one of the first people to sing their praises for the offseason they had, and I am not jumping off of the bandwagon now.
That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that Indiana needs more to fall its way than just about any of the other contenders in the Eastern Conference.
If Oladipo never got hurt last year, this would be an entirely different story. The Pacers would be downright scary, and the entire NBA would be on notice.
But we can’t change Indiana’s circumstances.
Unfortunately, Indy was hit with some hard luck last January, and it has carried over into this season. There is a legitimate possibility that Oladipo never comes close to regaining his former this year. Just ask Gordon Hayward how difficult it is to come back a year after a major injury.
And to tell you the truth, when I made my initial prediction about the Pacers being a finals contender, I thought Oladipo would be back in early-to-mid December rather than the end of January, and that extra month-and-a-half or so certainly makes things more trying for Oladipo in attempting to get himself ready for the playoffs.
I still really like this team. They are talented. They are tough. They are fun. But the only chance Indiana has is if Oladipo progresses rapidly, and that is definitely a whole lot to wish for.