May 6, 2020, 1:23 pm
For a small market general manager, making drastic, franchise-altering offseason trades can be a yearly maneuver. During the summer of 2017, Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard made a big move when the team’s all-time leading scorer, Paul George, was jettisoned to Oklahoma City for a return package headlined by two recent lottery selections: Victor Oladipo (second overall, 2013) and Domantas Sabonis (the 11th overall selection in 2016).
George, who was nearing free agency, had just re-established himself as a legitimate star after returning from his gruesome leg injury. Oladipo was fresh off a new four-year, $82 million contract he inked with the Thunder, so he had some years of control. Sabonis had club options remaining on his rookie deal so he was solidly in the fold and has since been extended by the Pacers. Both had exhibited some flashes of brilliance in their young careers to that point. Both were also unproven. Even with George’s impending free agency looming, Pritchard’s decision was undoubtedly a gamble.
This season, while once again sporting a middle-of-the-road record, Pritchard and the Pacers can almost assuredly say they received sufficient value from the swap, mostly in the form of Sabonis. Their future now largely rests on the shoulders of the lethal Lithuanian, especially if they don’t lock up Oladipo beyond next season, as well as strong contributions from their sizable long-term financial investments in both Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon.
T.J. Warren IS, In Fact, Dependable
If there was any doubt (which there was) that T.J. Warren, while on a roster that played meaningful games over the course of a full season, would be able sustain the solid numbers he’d posted over the last couple of years with the Suns, he has soundly put those questions to rest.
Pundits reasoned that Warren was only able to have such good numbers with the Suns because he played for a lowly squad that had not participated in many competitive basketball games during Warren’s five-year tenure in downtown Phoenix.
In 2017-18 (19.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and 2018-19 (18.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Warren was quite good for the Suns and, notably, made massive improvements with his 3-point shooting (he knocked down 77 treys in 43 games last season after only hitting 20 the season before in 65 games) while rehabbing for an injury that caused him to miss nearly half of the 2018-19 campaign. The Suns had rewarded his efforts with a four-year, $50 million contract extension in the summer of 2018.
The Pacers acquired Warren (still only 25 last offseason), along with the rights to the 32nd overall pick in the draft, for cash considerations. It was an obvious salary dump for cap reasons by the Suns (three years, $35 million was left on Warren’s deal) but they hardly got breadcrumbs in return for a player they had extended just one year prior; a guy who was a proven contributor for multiple seasons for the team. We know, it doesn’t make much sense to us either.
While Warren predictably hasn’t been able to sustain the level of production from deep that he showed in his final season with the Suns (.428 in limited action), he has still shot a very respectable .375 from beyond the arc this year with the Pacers. The main takeaway from the Warren deal for the Pacers, however, is that Warren is simply an above-average basketball player.
That may seem overly simplified but, for years now, basketball fans and people around the league have seemingly tried to avoid admitting that Warren might just be a good player. So far this season Warren has averaged 18.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 3-pointers per game in 32.5 minutes (61 games), numbers nearly identical to those he put up in his last two years with the Suns.
Warren has just about matched the per-game fantasy production he put together last season with the Suns when he finished ranked 44th in categories formats (75th in 2017-18 and 66th in 2016-17). This year, he slots in right inside the top-60 in 8- and 9-cat leagues, once again outperforming his ADP in Yahoo (99) and ESPN (123). Remarkably steady. A good basketball player who can help a team in multiple capacities. Both would accurately describe Warren and the Pacers have to be delighted with their offseason acquisition/gift from the Suns.
Replacing Bojan Bogdanovic’s Production
The Pacers had big shoes to fill at the small forward position when incumbent starter Bojan Bogdanovic (18.0 PTS, 4.1 REB, 2.0 AST and 2.0 3PT in 31.8 minutes per game) departed in the offseason, signing a lucrative contract with the Jazz in free agency. And seeing that the Pacers had just committed four years and $85 million to Brogdon in a sign-and-trade with the Bucks, there was no easy answer as to how they were going to fill those shoes. It was most certainly going to come from a combination of different sources, likely from outside the organization.
After learning of the Brogdon deal, swingman Jeremy Lamb also decided to agree to sign on with the Pacers at the very reasonable price of $31.5 million over three seasons. That was a huge help. Lamb was coming off two very solid seasons with the Hornets and had proven to be a productive scorer and is versatile on the defensive end.
Lamb had been having a really nice year for the Pacers in 46 games (42 starts) to begin the season, ranking inside the top 100 in categories leagues. In late February, unfortunately, Lamb went down with a torn ACL that ended his season prematurely. Losing their starting wing was a big blow for a Pacers squad that was solidly in playoff contention. Fantasy owners were also none too pleased with the news, as Lamb had been deployable all season in every format (12.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 threes, and 1.2 steals per game in 28 minutes).
Heading into the year, there was no guarantee any Pacer, beyond Turner, Sabonis, Brogdon and Oladipo (when he returned), would provide must-own fantasy value. Prior to the injury, Lamb provided that. In reality, the aforementioned Warren has been the real savior this season in Bogdanovic’s absence. He has picked up most, if not all, of the slack left behind by the Croatian small forward, with some help from Lamb until his injury.
In addition to Lamb, Pritchard signed two other options for production at small forward during the offseason. Doug McDermott ($22 million over three years) and Justin Holiday ($9 million for one year) were brought aboard in case Lamb, who would logically be given the first crack at starting, underwhelmed with his new team.
At this point, the Pacers are probably wishing those contracts were switched. Holiday has impressed in his role as a bench piece but he didn’t really push Lamb for minutes while Lamb was healthy. McDermott has been pretty much as advertised as far as his track record is concerned; that is, a 3-point specialist off the bench more deserving of a deal the size of Holiday’s rather than the one he was able to get with Indiana. He has done little besides make 3s (1.9 per contest on .445 shooting from deep) in 62 games off the bench.
The Pacers will now have to re-sign Holiday during the offseason if they want to bring him back, while McDermott is on the books for two more seasons.
The Victor Oladipo Situation
When the Pacers traded away George and acquired Sabonis and Oladipo, the primary piece was pretty obviously Oladipo. This was especially true given that his four-year contract extension, which he signed with the Thunder, would all occur in Indiana. Well, as can be the case for small market franchises building from the ground up, things took a little longer to come together than originally anticipated.
The first two seasons in the post-Paul George era went similarly. They ended with fifth place finishes in the Eastern Conference and identical records of 48-34, both times ending in first-round playoff exits (the Pacers have lost in the first round each of the last four seasons). In 2017-18, Oladipo was a beast, both for fantasy purposes and on the court. He finished that season, his first with the Pacers, ranked tenth among all players on a per game basis in categories leagues. Tenth.
On the floor, he was an All-Star and took home the Most Improved Player award (75 games, 23.1 points, 4.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals per game), leading the Pacers into the playoffs where they took the LeBron James-led Cavs to a full seven games in a first-round loss. There were plenty of reasons for optimism in Indiana.
The Pacers’ ascension was abruptly put on hold early in the 2019 calendar year when Oladipo went down with a long-term injury, rupturing his right quad. The timing could not have been worse for the Pacers and their budding star, both for the outlook the rest of the season and contractually. Just like that Oladipo’s second season with the Pacers was cut in half (he was notably named an All-Star again, despite the injury) and he wound up missing much of this season as well.
Now, with the coronavirus stoppage, the conclusion of the third year of Oladipo’s extension could have come a lot sooner than anticipated, especially if the NBA is unable to resume play. And if that’s the case, Oladipo will have checked-in to a measly 13 games in 2019-20 (and the past calendar year, for that matter), and the Pacers have only gone 9-9 in games since he made his season debut on against the Bulls on January 29. Seeing that next season will be his last before free agency, Oladipo’s contract extension with Indiana will not be culminating the way the team envisioned it would.
Small market franchises in almost any American professional sport are in a difficult position if they allow their stars to enter the final year of a contract without an extension, whether you think it’s fair or not. Teams in these situations then have to decide whether to let them walk in free agency or trade their superstars before the end of their deals in order to net some sort value from losing the player. In what probably seems like the snap of a finger, Pritchard has found himself facing that exact predicament with Oladipo.
There simply has not been enough time, games played, or opportunities for Oladipo to rebuild his play in a manner that would justify a massive contract extension or give the Pacers the ability find a suitable trade partner willing to take the risk for a one-year rental. Recent reports have indicated that, after trying to work out an extension before the season (while Oladipo was injured, no less), negotiations have since stopped. Oladipo seems likely to want to try to rebuild some of his value in 2020-2021 and then test the open market. Yikes, Pacers fans.
Domantas the Destroyer
After their hard-fought 2018 playoff exit, the Pacers were in an exciting position. They had drawn an unlucky matchup in the Cavs, Oladipo had had a monster season, and both of their young big-men, Sabonis and Myles Turner, were displaying promising ability. Sabonis looked like he would end up being better than anticipated at the time he was dealt from the Thunder and Turner had just finished up a second consecutive productive season.
Turner seemed to be the more intriguing of the two and he was a steady fantasy contributor, ranking 24th in 2016-17 and 55th in 2017-18 on a per game basis. The Pacers rewarded him with a four-year rookie contract extension just before the next season kicked off, guaranteeing Turner $72 million and paying him up to $80 million with incentives.
Sabonis had taken a step forward in his first season with the Pacers, averaging 11.6 points and 7.7 boards in 24.5 minutes in 74 contests in 2017-18. But even still, he was viewed as a likely rotational player who could potentially be a decent starter for someone down the road. Sabonis, still only 22 at the time, took another step forward last season by showing increased aggressiveness, nearly averaging a double-double (14.1 points, 9.4 boards) but he started fewer games than he had the previous season. Sabonis’ ceiling seemed like it might be a little bit higher than the Pacers had expected, but not much.
This season Sabonis put it all together. Heading into the year, the Pacers were coming off being swept out of the first round of the 2019 playoffs and were in dire need of someone besides Turner to provide consistency with Oladipo potentially out of action until sometime midseason. They also wanted to empower Sabonis, choosing to let dependable starter Thad Young leave as a free agent to let their young duo start. Sabonis evidently heard the cry for help.
Named an All-Star for his efforts, Sabonis has been one of the league’s best in 2019-20 as of the league stoppage in March due to the pandemic. Thus far in 34.8 minutes per game, Sabonis is averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and has upped his assists all the way to 5.0 per game (2.9 last season). He looks like a piece to build around and the Pacers realized that, wasting no time by locking up Sabonis to a four-year rookie extension that could be worth up to $85 million with incentives when all is said and done.
Fantasy GMs who drafted Sabonis anywhere near his ADP (74 Yahoo, 66 ESPN) in drafts last fall have to be thoroughly pleased with what they’ve received from him. Beyond just his production, Sabonis has shown massive strides in the leadership department and solid chemistry with the variety of guards the Pacers have deployed this season after they added an influx of backcourt options in the offseason.
The Potential of the Holiday Brothers
While Justin Holiday, the elder of the Brothers Holiday, is only signed to a one-year pact that will expire after this season (which, as you know, could very well already be over), he has been reliable and, more importantly, healthy all season long. He ranks in at 110 in 8- and 9-cat leagues, averaging modest yet productive numbers (8.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.9 threes per game) while maintaining his effectiveness on the defensive perimeter. The Pacers had a hole to fill at the forward spot last offseason and not much money to do it with and Justin has helped in an important way. The Pacers will likely try to re-sign him in some capacity after the season, depending on how the market takes shape.
Aaron Holiday, a point guard and Justin’s younger brother, has done a lot of good things in a reserve point guard role during his second season in the league. At first glance, Aaron’s raw numbers make it seem as though he may not have improved much from his rookie season. However, given the fluidity, depth and new faces at the point guard position for the Pacers this season, he has done a solid job playing meaningful minutes off the bench behind Brogdon. T.J. McConnell, who also gets minutes at point guard with the backups, got a two-year deal in the offseason and has carved out a little role for himself, but obviously nobody expects him (or Holiday) to suddenly overtake Brogdon as the starter.
The Pacers, who have a whopping eleven players from their current roster on the books for next year, could be running it back with a very similar group of guys whenever the 2020-2021 (only 2021?) season begins. Pritchard’s three noteworthy offseason additions (Brogdon, Warren, and Lamb), McDermott, and the extensions of Sabonis and Turner fill a large portion of their cap space for the next couple of seasons. Oh and, it shouldn’t go unstated, the Pacers will still somehow be paying Monta Ellis about $2.25 million next season.
Even sitting comfortably in playoff position as the standings look right now (yep, you guessed it, fifth place), the Pacers seem like they’re definitely going to need another piece to make any sort of championship push in the near future – a feat they likely can’t pull off given their current salary commitments…and the fact that they are the Pacers; convincing high-profile free agents to move to Indiana is not easy.
Maybe it’s circumstances like Monta Ellis that leave the Pacers franchise steeped in good-but-not-great. Maybe it’s their uncanny ability, no matter the roster, to avoid drama at all costs, thus gaining next to no air time, season after season. Maybe it’s the state of Indiana. Who knows? If the regular season is not resumed, they will finish in fifth place in the East. For the third consecutive season. They are, astoundingly, consistently okay. All Pacers fans can hope for is more enormous strides from Sabonis, more cap space, and maybe a surprising hit on draft pick or two.