INDIANAPOLIS — “We don’t F with the game.”
It was a comment before training camp that accompanied a quick smile, but carried the most serious intentions.
Indiana Pacers’ Head Coach Nate McMillan not only wants his team to increase its professionalism and maturity with each season he’s there. He also covets his players to take all of the little things seriously this time around. After all, with greater expectations comes a need for stronger preparation — for all opponents.
Just a year ago, waltzing into the 2017-18 season with hardly any pressure to live up to, or outside barometers to meet, the Pacers would’ve internally been satisfied with a fringe-playoff level finish. Anyone in the front office or coaching staff would deny it, but nobody believed a battle for homecourt advantage in April was in the cards. They entered most games at the beginning of the season as underdogs. In that situation, it’s somewhat understandable if players found themselves too relaxed or taking their foot off the accelerator. When you’re not expected to achieve something great, bad habits have a way of creeping back.
This October, the mood in Indianapolis is a polar opposite.
Projections have them slated for 20-plus more wins than last preseason’s numbers. In the wake of the Eastern Conference King packing his bags for a Western journey, teams understand the window has opened. If every win didn’t matter before — because in the back of everyone’s mind, homecourt never mattered versus LeBron James — they do now.
There isn’t time for the same mental mistakes, or a team getting ahead of itself by believing the only obstacle was No. 23. Every win is going to be crucial in the top tier of the East since there’s not a sense of inevitability looming over everyone.
McMillan understands Indiana can’t try to cheat the process. This year, there is no time for a “feeling-out” portion of the schedule. The Pacers have lofty goals that don’t appear unrealistic for the first time since 2014. They aren’t backing down, either.
“Expectations, we know, are going to be higher for us,” McMillan said. “We’re not running from that. There is a buzz about our team and some of the things we did last year, which is good.”
Part of that “buzz” is from winning 48 games in a very top-heavy East. Part of it is how they reached it, ranking in the top 12 of both offensive and defensive rating when the most believable outcome was bottom 10 for both.
But in reality, the primary reason for this excitement surrounding the Pacers is what they did to the four-time reigning East champs in the first round. Taking the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games and outscoring them by 40 total points (in a series loss) was definitely magnified throughout the league. Behind Victor Oladipo spearheading the offensive attack and a physical defensive effort by Thaddeus Young and company, the Pacers developed a game plan that was only usurped by a James buzzer-beater in Game 5.
Although they almost did the unthinkable, this path in 2018-19 will bring new challenges.
“We will quickly understand that we have to do this all over again,” McMillan said. “Last year … we flipped the page on that. It’s over. It’s done. We have to create another team and another identity because we have changed our roster some. It’s a different group, a different year.”
Perhaps McMillan shouldn’t worry too much about complacency, though. Indiana finished 48-34 and 14 games above .500, but that was with Oladipo, their hometown hero, missing seven games due to various injuries. In those seven games, the Pacers went winless and averaged just 97.8 points per game. They were outscored by an average of 14.2 points without him.
That means with Oladipo in the lineup, Indiana played at a 53-win pace. It would’ve had them in third, hosting Miami in the first round. Now, they have to hope for injury luck across the board while integrating three new pieces to the roster.
The main offseason additions included sixth man Tyreke Evans (one year, $12 million), sharpshooter Doug McDermott (three years, $22 million), and Kyle O’Quinn (one year, $4.5 million).
McMillan claims he will orchestrate a nine-man rotation to start the season, while acknowledging that he has too many productive players and not enough minutes. But even he might have understated the Pacers’ overall talent pool because there are 10 players that legitimately deserve a chunk of minutes on the court. The starters from last year will return: Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Myles Turner. Backup point guard Cory Joseph makes six, Domantas Sabonis is seven, and the three new signees bring the rotation to 10.
Evans will have the lion’s share of the playmaking and shot-creation duties off the bench, but Joseph’s role shouldn’t be diminished. He was in the backcourt of two main lineups the Pacers rolled out last season — one playing 330 minutes (Joseph plus the starters) and the other logging 116 minutes (Joseph, Oladipo, Lance Stephenson, Young, Sabonis). Both of those five-man combinations recorded elite defensive ratings and outscored opponents by more than 11 points per 100 possessions, by far the two-best lineups among the most used:
This year, McMillan will certainly use Evans as the ultimate plug-and-play option, installing him into different variations of the starters and bench mob. Depending on how Collison performs in his age 31 season, you could expect to see a closing lineup of Evans and Oladipo sharing the playmaking duties, with Bogdanovic, Young, and Turner.
“We can both play with the ball and off the ball,” Oladipo said of the pairing with Evans. “We’re both versatile. (Evans) has a great way of getting his teammates better and making plays.”
Evans is moving into a smaller role with a much better team than he was a part of last season. As the offensive catalyst for the Grizzlies in their injury-riddled year, Evans surprisingly paired his career-high in usage rating (28.4 percent) with a career-high in true shooting percentage (56.1 percent).
His patience and creativity give him advantages off the pick-and-roll. It should open the floor a little more for Turner and Sabonis, two big men that are trying to stretch their range as shooters. With Evans, defenses have another threat to worry about getting to the rim, or simply pulling up off-the-dribble when he comes around a screen.
Last season, 82 players finished at least 200 possessions as a ball-handler off the pick-and-roll — specifically trying to score. Out of those 82, Evans ranked 11th in points per possession, ranking close to the 86th percentile. Everything, including his turnover and free throw rate, was right on par with Oladipo. Indiana having the luxury of another creator should make things easier for everyone involved, especially Oladipo himself:
“(Tyreke) is going to be big for us,” Turner said. “Especially him coming off the bench and leading that second unit, because he can make consistent plays with the ball. And I think he’s an improved shooter, too. So, it opens up the floor a little more. Then he can also get others involved. He plays at his own pace. I don’t think he ever gets sped up very often and that’s one thing I think is underrated about him.”
The comment about pace is extremely important and underrated. In this context, Turner was pointing to the halfcourt pace. A lot of times, the primary guard in an offense can rush the action and let the defense dictate what happens. Evans is cut from a different cloth. He tends to keep defenders guessing and uses his 6’6” frame to get anywhere he wants, even if it’s simply rising and shooting off a pull-up. There’s a sense of unpredictability with his offensive game that prevents him from just relying on speed or getting to the rim.
Regarding his pull-up shooting relative to the league, first consider that 68 players took at least four pull-up shots (off-the-dribble) per game last season. Evans and Oladipo ranked 20th and 21st, respectively, in total field goal percentage on those looks. However, the majority of Evans’s pull-ups were from three-point range, which means he avoided the contested mid-range area for the most part.
Out of the 42 players to attempt at least two pull-up 3s per game, Evans was third, behind only Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. He nailed 40.5 percent of his triples off-the-dribble. Evans providing anything close to that for the Pacers has the potential to elevate them into the top 8-10 offenses around the league. And it’s important to remember they’re adding Evans after Oladipo just had his most aggressive (and efficient) three-point shooting season, plus Collison led the league in three-point percentage at 46.8 percent (3.0 attempts per game).
Adding someone this experienced and proven to Indiana’s bench might not move the needle in terms of being the East favorites. But, it certainly makes them competitive against Boston, Toronto, and Philadelphia when they don’t have to worry about their offense falling off a cliff when Oladipo rests.
Even the putrid Grizzlies last year had a positive net rating (+0.2) with Evans on the floor. They scored and defended at a league-average level. With him on the bench, that plummeted to -11.2, with Memphis dropping to the worst offense and worst defense. The 11-point swing per 100 possessions for Evans put him in the 94th percentile among all NBA players in on/off impact, per Cleaning The Glass. It was the highest impact he’s made on a team since 2014-15, when he helped Anthony Davis advance to the playoffs for the first time.
One Man’s Push to Change the Culture
When Paul George requested a trade in June 2017, the fear around Indiana was that this franchise would have to hit the reset button. It was unclear how they would compete again in the immediate future without a top 20 or 30 player secured for long-term.
In the last year, the story and franchise outlook have flipped 180 degrees. Not only did Oladipo prevent the Pacers from falling back into the lottery, a place they’ve only been seven times in the last 30 years. Not only did he revitalize the team and win six more games than George’s final year in Indy. Oladipo has also used the last 14 months to instill a different type of culture around the organization.
It stretches beyond the fans’ expectations. Beyond the win totals, or the clichéd “first one in the gym, last one out” mentality.
It’s more about the camaraderie surrounding the team heading into the 2018-19 campaign. The locker room has a sense of amiability that I can’t really equate to any Pacers team of the recent past. The only group that comes close is the one that started the 2013-14 journey, right after losing in the East Finals and returning hungrier than before. Of course, that locker room vibe went south after the trade deadline and no group has been as close since.
For this new chapter, you can thank Oladipo and his offseason goals.
This summer, after the new signings, he invited the entire roster down to Miami for what everyone called a “mini-camp.”
Half of the idea was to get everyone on the court and in the training room, preparing for the season ahead. By having everyone get a closer look at what he went through in the 2017 offseason to transform his body, Oladipo was leading by example and thought some of it would rub off on the younger players.
The other half was to get a head start on developing and furthering the relationships, from top to bottom. Even after the workouts ended for the day, they continued to do everything together. Since it’s Miami and partying had to be involved to some extent, everyone tagged along as a group.
“What stuck out to me the most was when we would go places,” Oladipo said. “We went out to eat, went to Top Golf, did stuff like that. The interaction – it was like guys didn’t miss a beat. It was like we had been together all summer.”
McMillan said Oladipo consulted him about having the players join him in Miami, and the coaching staff wanted to stay away from that experience. It was an extended player-only vacation, with them having a chance to bond and learn more about each other.
“I think Victor understands how important it is for the team to be connected,” McMillan said. “It’s building chemistry, and they started that with the mini-camp in Miami.”
While the obvious priority was to use it as a beneficiary for this season, Oladipo’s leadership and magnetic personality around his teammates have a larger meaning. Maybe without knowing it, he’s becoming the exact type of star a small-market franchise needs. His actions on and off the court result in a positive perception about the team, city, and future outlook of the franchise.
Usually, you could say Indiana, along with all the midwest teams in smaller markets, will never be free agent destinations. Nevertheless, when one of those teams is led by someone that goes the extra mile and has an affable personality, other players notice and at least give it some thought.
Pacers’ President Kevin Pritchard noticed a change in attitude about the team this summer.
“For me, this is the first year in a long time where we went out in the free agent market and people said, ‘this is a place I’d want to be,'” Pritchard said. “I think it starts with the culture. It starts with them knowing that guys played really unselfish last year. At the end of the day, what I care about is us playing hard, play smart, and unselfish. Not only do we recognize that, I think the whole league recognizes.”
J.J. Redick has mentioned twice this summer just how close he was to joining the Pacers in free agency. It was down to Indiana or returning to Philadelphia, which is a huge surprise considering the success the 76ers had in their first year together.
It also matters on the back end of the roster, with lower-minute role players. When Kyle O’Quinn was going through his options for 2018-19, he was willing to put aside playing time aspirations to join what the Pacers are quickly building.
“You need a guy like that,” O’Quinn said of Oladipo. “Indiana is unique as far as NBA cities – you come in for a reason. “But a guy like Victor can pull people in.”
Pritchard laid out a perfect example of what the vibe around Indiana is doing for their free agency efforts:
Entering this season with so many unknowns in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers are looking to crack the 50-win mark behind one of the deepest teams in the league. They may not have the same top-tier talent as the Celtics, Raptors, or 76ers, but they are banking on the collective chemistry and improved bench play to lift them into the conversation.
They believe they deserve a seat at the table with those three squads, even if it seems unrealistic from afar. McMillan labeled the East as “faceless” with James out of the equation. He believes there’s an opportunity hanging in the air for this team, and it’s up to them to grab it.
If they do, it will be behind the guidance of their cornerstone, who doesn’t want the sour taste of defeat in his mouth again.
“I don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Oladipo said. “I don’t want to go back and look on this year and think to myself, ‘man, I could’ve done this better, or I could’ve done that to help us.”
At age 26, Oladipo is now up against the critics that believe he’ll struggle against preparation, or that he’s reached his peak as a player. His own dissatisfaction pushes him to new limits, though.
“I had that feeling last year and I don’t plan on having it this time.”