Can the Indiana Pacers make it out of round 1 of playoffs with this team?

Indiana Pacers (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)
Indiana Pacers (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Indiana Pacers have had trouble advancing in the playoffs recently. Can this new-look roster get the job done this upcoming season?

Let’s begin with good news. The Indiana Pacers should be a fine NBA team. Every projected starter had an above average 2018-2019 season by PER standards. They are a collectively competent squad. New acquisitions Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, and T.J. Warren should help keep the offense from falling flat in Victor Oladipo’s absence, as it did in last season’s playoffs. The defense will likely be as staunch as always. They’ll surely punch their ticket to the playoffs for a 5th straight season.

Now, let’s dig into some not as great news. Although the Pacers have made 4 straight post season appearances, they have failed to advance to the second round in each opportunity. A massive step towards bucking this trend would be to grab a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference and secure critical home court advantage in the first round, something they haven’t achieved since 2013-2014.

To generate that degree of regular season success, one of their starters will likely have to shoulder an increased offensive load until Oladipo is back in action. Myles Turner and Warren in particular are interesting candidates to do so, but that will require significant (and difficult to project) growth. Oladipo will eventually return, but given the degree of his injury, it could take some time for him to return to his typical elite 2-way production. While the Pacers spend the season trying to develop an optimal pecking order, several rivals in the east face far fewer questions.

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The Bucks and 76ers seem like safe picks for the first and second playoff spots. Barring injury, both teams should see their young superstars grow. Milwaukee wisely added veterans Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, and Robin Lopez to complement their largely unchanged roster (losing Brogdon wasn’t ideal, but Matthews is a serviceable replacement).

The 76ers made a big splash by signing Al Horford away from Boston, and did well by getting Josh Richardson from Miami in the Jimmy Butler trade. Richardson should fit more comfortably in Philadelphia as a wing spacer than he did as a high volume option in Miami.

The Raptors, Nets, and Celtics occupy a tier just below Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Even without Kahwi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors are really, really good. Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol serve as a (literally) strong foundation, and Pascal Siakam isn’t too far away from an all-star nod. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and new Raptor Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are all extremely useful bench pieces.

The Nets will benefit from upgrading from all-star D’Angelo Russell to super star Kyrie Irving. Brooklyn quietly added Taurean Prince, who shot 39% on 5.7 attempts from deep per game for the Hawks last season. They’ll face a challenge similar to that of the Pacers as they alter their identity to accommodate Irving, Prince, and new starting center DeAndre Jordan. Having Irving at the center of their metamorphosis should help them find their way quicker than Oladipo-less Indiana, however.

The Celtics are still young and talented. Boston has to hope that parting ways with Irving and adding Kemba Walker will correct their chemistry and allow them to maximize their colossal potential. Gordon Hayward should display more consistency this year, even if he does not return to his pre-injury form. Al Horford’s mastery of team defense will be seriously missed though, and even if the Celtics finally gel, his departure will keep Boston from the Milwaukee and Philadelphia tier.

The Pacers will likely qualify for the post season with the 6th seed, just behind Toronto, Brooklyn, and Boston. The Raptors have a more established core than Indiana, the Nets boast more star power, and Boston is brimming with talent. Toronto’s skilled veterans should make them the top team in this trio, earning them the 3rd seed in the East and matching them up with the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs.

In all likelihood, the Pacers first round woes will be exacerbated at the hands of the Raptors this upcoming post season. Toronto holds some key positional advantages over Indiana. Unless Father Time begins to slow Kyle Lowry, he should have more impact over a 7 game series than Brogdon.

If healthy, Oladipo will handily outplay Raptors’ projected starting 2-guard Norman Powell. Oladipo will also cause problems for Fred VanVleet when Toronto plays VanVleet alongside Lowry. OG Anunoby is long, strong, stubborn defender. He and Warren could battle to a draw.

The matchups begin to favor the Raptors heavily with Siakam and Gasol squaring off against Turner and Domantas Sabonis. If the Pacers assign the more agile Turner to Siakam, they lose his impact as an elite rim protector. Tasking Turner with Gasol isn’t a great solution either, as Gasol made 44% of his 3-point attempts last year and can still pull Turner away from the basket. Failing to effectively game plan for either Siakam or Gasol is enough to swing the result of a series.

Head coach Nate McMillan can try to stagger Turner and Sabonis’ minutes and use small ball lineups with Warren defending Siakam for stretches. At this point, however, it’s clear the Pacers are altering their game plan to counter the Raptors. To make matters worse, Indiana is trying to make significant adjustments in a series which Toronto holds home court advantage.

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As dismal as this playoff outlook is, there is much to look forward to in the 2019-2020 season. This young, mostly under contract squad should develop considerably and become comfortable playing together. With growth and an eventual healthy roster, the Indiana Pacers will have a real opportunity to push further into the playoffs in 2020-2021!