The Indiana Pacers are a team on the rise. Tyrese Haliburton was named to his first All-Star game in 2023 after posting a career-high 20.7 points per game and 10.4 assists per game. The Pacers had a 29-27 record in the 56 games Haliburton played in. On January 11th, the last game Haliburton played before missing roughly a month, the Pacers had a Net Rating of -0.2, a mark much better than the -3.5 Net Rating they finished the season with.
The Pacers offered a glimpse of their potential last season and spent their entire offseason making themselves better. Their offseason was one of the better ones any NBA team had. It started in the draft when they not only drafted Jarace Walker out of the University of Houston eighth overall in the 2023 NBA Draft, but they got a couple of second-round picks from the Washington Wizards and still got their guy in the process. They also drafted Belmont's Ben Sheppard with the 26th overall pick in the draft, a pick they acquired from the Boston Celtics when they traded them Malcolm Brogdon.
The Pacers not only added through the draft, but also did so in free agency. They threw a hefty two-year $45 million bag at Bruce Brown to snag him away from the champion Denver Nuggets and also traded a couple of second-round picks to the New York Knicks for Obi Toppin. A good team acquiring two more quality players without giving up much in return.
These acquisitions are exciting and add to an already very bright 2023-24 outlook for the Pacers, but they also bring some questions. Most notably: who is going to start? Can Indiana find room for both Brown and Toppin in their starting lineup? Whose spot on Indiana's starting lineup from a year ago is the most tenuous?
The player most likely to get axed from the starting lineup would be Aaron Nesmith. Nesmith is a nice player who found himself a niche on the Pacers after being stuck on the bench in his first two seasons with the Boston Celtics. The Pacers also acquired Nesmith in the Malcolm Brogdon trade a year ago and Nesmith played the best ball of his career. He shot 36.6% from three on a career-high 4.3 three-point attempts per game. His 10.1 points per game and 14.3 points per 36 minutes were career-highs as well. At 6-5 215 pounds, Nesmith provides some defensive versatility too.
But Indiana was short on power forwards a year ago which forced them to go small with that spot often. As a result, they turned to Nesmith to fill that role. According to Nesmith's Basketball-Reference page, Nesmith played 63% of his minutes at power forward last season, by far a career-high. Before last season, his previous career-high for percentage of minutes spent at power forward was 18%.
It seems safe to assume that Obi Toppin will get the first shot at being Indiana's starting power forward. At 6-9 220 pounds, Toppin provides much more size than Nesmith does there. Nesmith is a better shooter than Toppin; Toppin shot 34.4% from deep last season, which was a career-high for him. But Toppin brings much more juice as a roller than Nesmith. Toppin was never really able to showcase this skill with the Knicks while frequently playing alongside another rolling big man like Mitchell Robinson or Nerlens Noel. But it's arguably Toppin's best skill. With stretch five in Myles Turner and one of the best playmakers in the NBA in Tyrese Haliburton, Toppin should be able to terrorize rims more often with the Pacers.
3/10) Activity for sure, but also desperately needed spontaneity for a team whose offense gets extremely predictable.
Here, they are going to a standard drag screen for IQ – Obi will pop, Mitch will roll. But Toppin senses that CHA knows it’s coming too, and just cuts behind. pic.twitter.com/223Kg3ZrXv
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSkool) April 1, 2022
Obi Toppin's defense likely held Tom Thibodeau from deploying him as a center. 99% of his career minutes have come at power forward and not center. In college, he wasn't known for his rim protection by any means.
I'm very concerned about Obi Toppin's pick-and-roll defense. High center of gravity, slow hips/change of direction: pic.twitter.com/jtSpCM2waj
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 16, 2020
But that shouldn't matter much in Indiana playing alongside one of the best rim protectors in the NBA in Myles Turner. Toppin can spend most of his time on defense in the perimeter where he is the most comfortable. But he can also roll to the rim more often than he did in New York. Only 2.9% of Toppin's possessions saw him roll out of pick and roll last season according to NBA.com. That number should skyrocket.
But if Toppin is going to start, someone's spot has to get taken. It looks like that will be Aaron Nesmith. Nesmith had a nice season a year ago, but Toppin should help the Pacers' offense become more dynamic. That's something to monitor as training camp gets underway soon.