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Victor Oladipo, Pacers, Eastern Conference

Victor Oladipo: Pacers guard’s health the biggest wild card in the Eastern Conference

The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are the only teams in the Eastern Conference who pose a threat to win the NBA Finals this season. Concurrently, there’s a player whose presence on the floor could help his team challenge the top dogs in the conference: Victor Oladipo.

Oladpio suffered a gruesome knee injury back in January, forcing him to miss the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season. His absence severely dampened the Indiana Pacers offense and, bigger than that, their aspirations of winning the East. While they willed their way to the five seed, they were swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

Their offense was stagnant, devoid of go-to scorers, and they didn’t have anyone they could consistently rely on to carry the scoring load. This offseason they made moves to put a bit of a band-aid on that liability. Bringing in guards Malcolm Brogdon (four-year, $85 million deal) and Jeremy Lamb (three-year, $31.5 million deal) and forward TJ Warren (acquired in a trade with the Phoenix Suns), they added three players with multi-dimensional skill sets to head coach Nate McMillan’s rotation.

Brogdon is a versatile playmaker. He moves the ball, corrals rebounds and starts fastbreaks, can attack off the dribble, and is a reliable outside shooter who plays at a high level defensively. Brogdon is a career 40.8 percent shooter from beyond the arc, takes care of the ball, and is coming off averaging a career-high 15.6 points per game.

Lamb has come a long way. Once viewed as just a physical specimen, he has grown into a well-versed scorer who shoots off the dribble and hoists more outside jump shots. In a career-high 28.5 minutes per game, Lamb averaged 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game (two more career-highs) with the Charlotte Hornets last season.

Warren is an accomplished two-way player. He’s a lockdown defender, plays with physicality, and is a gritty scorer. He attacks the rack, finishes through contact, has averaged 18-plus points per game in each of the last two seasons, and shot a career-best 42.8 percent from beyond the arc last season with the Suns.

This trio beefs up Indiana’s offense, but they’re still going to be one of the worst offensive units in the sport from the outset of the regular season. While having the ball in Brogdon’s hands will benefit everyone else on the floor, he hasn’t been a go-to scorer at any point of his career. Meanwhile, Lamb hasn’t played a prominent role in an offense on a contending team.

Having Warren as the number one source of offense isn’t going to make the Pacers a conference threat, no matter how well they play defensively. On the other hand, if they can get Oladipo back near January, it severely changes their fortunes in all aspects of the game.

Before his injury Oladipo was one of the best scorers in the NBA. He was playing with an infectious energy on both ends of the floor, taking crunch time shots, finding his teammates in the right spots, and playing elite defense. In his first full season with the Pacers (2017-18), Oladipo averaged an astonishing 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 steals per game.

He was also an All-Star that season. He has improved through every stage of his NBA career and quickly became the face of the Pacers after being the focal point of the team’s return on Paul George — which leads to the trickle-down effect of Oladipo being on the floor.

Oladipo is a bonafide go-to scorer. He plays in isolation and has the ability to hit jump shots off the dribble and get inside. When you have this type of a playmaker in your offense, it makes everyone better. Others play to their strengths, and no one has to try to contribute in uncharacteristic ways — which the Pacers were forced to do in the second half of last season.

An offense with Oladipo and Brogdon as its backcourt, wings like Tucker and Lamb, a well-rounded big man in Domantas Sabonis, and an outside shooting big man in Myles Turner can be difficult to prepare for. Everyone brings something different to the table.

Let’s also not undermine how great this team is defensively. Oladipo is an elite defender, Turner is an intimidating rim protector who averaged an NBA-best 2.7 blocks per game last season, and all three of their big-impact offseason additions are, at the very least, respectable on that end of the floor. Last season the Pacers were first in the NBA in opponent points per game (104.7), sixth in opponent field goal percentage (45.0), and fifth in forced turnovers (14.9).

Couple an improved offense with an elite defense, and the Pacers could be a top-three team in the East, especially considering the disparity between the Bucks and 76ers and everyone else in the conference.

The Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to free agency; the Celtics are adjusting to life post Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in the form of Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter; the Brooklyn Nets likely won’t have Kevin Durant this season; the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and Miami Heat are respectable teams, but they’ll be eventual first-round exits with repeats or minuscule improvements from last season.

Without Oladipo, the Pacers are still a respectable team that should be able to crack the playoffs, but they won’t do anything more. All they need is the dynamic guard to be healthy for the second half of the season, giving them enough time to get him back on track and playing like his All-Star self. If they do, they can compete with the Bucks and 76ers.

The Pacers took the LeBron James-led and future Eastern Conference-champion Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. They did so with defense, Oladipo, and a well-rounded offensive attack.

The 2019-20 Pacers at full force will be even better. It’s a matter of getting a healthy Oladipo on the floor. He’s the wild card to their season and the Eastern Conference.