The Not-So-Hidden Factor Behind the Indiana Pacers’ Regression

Indiana Pacers - Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Indiana Pacers - Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

After impressive regular season runs in the past three seasons, the Indiana Pacers have been touted as perennial wildcards in the Eastern Conference. Despite being hounded by adversity in previous campaigns, the Blue and Gold have managed to persevere in the top-heavy East and eke out a stronghold as a yearly tough out in the postseason.

That has been the case until this year, which has seen a complete 180 on the Pacers’ part. While expectations were lofty heading into the season with healthier bodies and a new coach, Indiana has found itself tumbling down the standings, finding themselves at 9th in the East, only good for a play-in spot despite finishing no worse than 5th in the past three campaigns.

On paper, this team should easily be jockeying position for homecourt advantage, even in a crowded Eastern Conference. Sadly, Indiana has not been able to shake off the cold preseason takes about them missing the postseason entirely which, at this juncture, is very possible.

Death, taxes, and another injury-riddled season for the Indiana Pacers

As usual, waves of injuries are marring the Pacers once more. T.J. Warren, last season’s leading scorer, has only played five games before being held out for the season. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Turner is out indefinitely with a toe injury.

In addition, Caris LeVert was notably out for more than a month after a scary tussle with cancer. Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon have both battled intermittent injuries all season long. Even critical bench pieces Jeremy Lamb and Doug McDermott have been absent for multiple occasions de to nagging injuries.

There is also the whole adjustment thing for Indiana with Nate Bjorkgren’s arrival and his shifty possession-by-possession schemes. And perhaps the most peculiar of all is the team’s losing record at home, fueled by the lack of fans in home arenas.

While the Pacers stand still, the East have new key players

Pundits have always defined the Indiana Pacers as overachievers in the past three seasons. However, that is no longer the case, and the main culprit behind their regression can be easily pinpointed. It is the improvement of the teams that they used to easily deal with.

This season, they are only 4-8 combined against Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Charlotte, and New York – five teams that have largely improved this season after being cellar-dwellers or mediocre at best in the East. In comparison, last year saw Indiana tally a great 13-4 combined against them. As a whole, they have a middling 16-18 record against the Eastern Conference, a stark contrast to last campaign’s 28-19 tally.

The Brooklyn Nets’ rise is not unprecedented with its frightening trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving bannering the team towards a likely top finish in the East. With this level of star power in addition to heavyweights Philadelphia and Milwaukee jockeying for conference supremacy, the teams below them can only aspire so much.

Even the Atlanta Hawks were reckoned to improve with Trae Young and John Collins joined by Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who have all proven to be wonderful fits next to their young crops. After a rocky start with Lloyd Pierce which led to his firing, they are now playing more fluidly and a lot better with former Pacers coach Nate McMillan manning the sidelines and instilling sound defense to a high-octane offense.

After a seemingly never-ending bout with irrelevancy, the New York Knicks have been one of, if not the most surprising storyline this season. Under the tutelage of Tom Thibodeau, as well as the breakout campaigns for All-Star Julius Randle and sophomore RJ Barrett, the Knickerbockers are back to playoff contention, riding their suffocating defense and physical play to enter the postseason for the first time since 2013.

The Charlotte Hornets, though still in possession of a losing record, are on track to record their best finish since 2015-16, which was also the last time they qualified for the playoffs. Drafting rookie superstar Lonzo Ball and signing Gordon Hayward in the offseason, in addition to Terry Rozier’s scoring outbursts, have paid dividends well for Buzz City. Currently 8th in the East, Charlotte is a team that is above Indiana as the season flirts to the finish.

While once again hovering in lottery position, the Chicago Bulls’ core is rounding into form, spearheaded by Zach LaVine, who is a legitimate superstar in the league, possessing both hops and flare as one of the association’s most explosive scorers. The addition of Nikola Vucevic provides a steady backbone to the franchise, even though immediate returns have not been good. Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, and Patrick Williams are great young talents who may anchor the Windy City’s rise to the East’s pecking order.

Indiana’s decline may carve out significant changes

With the across-the-board improvement in the Eastern Conference, its once-massive gap with the brutal Western Conference is slowly dissipating. Though still top-heavy, the rise of its previous bottom feeders into legitimate playoff teams have contributed to the regression of the Indiana Pacers, in contrast to previous campaigns where facing these teams were more relief than anguish.

Clearly, the Pacers cannot be satisfied just watching the teams around them improve as they stand still. When healthy and at its best, the Blue and Gold is a team that can push everyone to their limits and swipe wins away from their firm grasps. Sure, a lot of factors have chipped into their decline, but no one is going to feel sorry for them.

For the Indiana Pacers to regain their standing as a borderline contender in the East, the demand for improvement, both in-house and with outside help, is looming larger as other teams they used to dominate continue to rack up wins.

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