The Indiana Pacers are in the midst of an unforeseen retool to their roster, as they trade away three starting-caliber players before the deadline. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the NBA is all about imitation.
There are plenty of examples of one team going far in the postseason by doing something unique, whether in play style or roster construction, then the rest of the league spending years and assets trying to mimic that with the hope that they can mimic the success as well.
Most of the time though, it just isn’t possible. There’s no way to duplicate teams built around some of the greatest players of all time, and trying to recreate a recipe with the wrong ingredients can end in disaster.
The general blueprint that these teams follow is something to pay attention to, and that’s why I believe the Indiana Pacers should be watching the Phoenix Suns very closely.
The teams could not be more different this season. The Suns have the best record in the NBA by 6.5 games, while the Pacers are 6.5 games away from the second-worst record in the entire league.
The Suns did not get to this point without significant and well-documented pain for years, while the Pacers have a proven track record of organizational competency that the Suns have found only recently.
The Suns have had a lottery pick in eight of the last ten years, including five straight lottery picks before their Finals appearance last year, ranging from 11th all the way up to the first overall pick in 2018. In that stretch, the Suns drafted an All-Star in Devin Booker, two above-average starters in Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and a solid rotation-level wing in Cameron Johnson.
Even while missing on Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender at 4, and Skal Labissiere at 13, the Suns built through the draft. It’s easy to say that good things happen when the right draft pick is made, but the Suns ended with only the 10th seed even after making those right selections and signing players like Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre. What’s much harder is how a team transitions from a collection of good draft picks to a title contender.
The Suns took advantage of having two starters and three other rotation-level players on rookie-scale deals and surprised the league by trading for Chris Paul and his $41million contract without sacrificing any of their core pieces. This is where I believe the Pacers should consider imitating the Suns.
Kevin Pritchard has been very vocal about how much he believes in Tyrese Haliburton, and how much he believes that this new direction is not a rebuild. He thinks there are too many good players on this team to tear it all down, and I agree, even if the comparisons to the Suns are a bit of a stretch at the moment.
The Indiana Pacers have a two-way floor general in Haliburton, but comparing him to Chris “Point God” Paul is setting the bar extremely high (even if the stats say it’s surprisingly close!).
They have a shooting guard capable of creating his own shot in the clutch with Chris Duarte, but Booker was in the NBA for six years and made two All-Star teams by the time he was the same age that Duarte was on draft night.
Myles Turner is one of the best defending big men in the league and may have a potentially expanded offensive role, but Ayton could be getting a max contract this summer thanks to his versatility on both ends. And as much as we love Oshae Brissett, the Indiana Pacers don’t have a single wing on the team that matches what Mikal Bridges can do as one of the best 3&D wings in the NBA.
Compounding the differences between each player listed is the difference between a contender and whatever the new-look Pacers project to be next year. The above list leaves out players like Malcolm Brogdon, Buddy Hield, Isaiah Jackson, what looks to be a top-5 pick in this year’s draft, plus two other picks in the late first/early second.
On top of that, there is the potential of bringing back Ricky Rubio and/or T.J. Warren this summer or letting them walk and using the approximately $20million in cap space to bolster the roster in a variety of ways.
If any of the Pacers’ 2022 draft picks can turn into immediate contributors, they would join two starters and an additional rotation player currently on rookie contracts.
That malleability unlocks options, where capitalizing on players with extreme value contracts means putting that money elsewhere on the roster, and that could finally get this team out of the first round and beyond.
We have no idea if there is a player available to the Indiana Pacers that can change their immediate future, nor do we know if it will make more sense to pursue a change during the loaded 2023 free agency class rather than immediately after the draft. Plenty of teams have tried to skip steps in the short term, only to still fall short and be stuck with the long-term consequences.
But we also had no idea that Tyrese Haliburton would be an option at this deadline. We had no idea the Suns would make the Finals after also having no idea they would surprise the league with the CP3 acquisition.
With how strongly the front office believes in the talent on the roster, plus the abundance of moves they can make if they want to, the Pacers could end up as more than just another failed copycat if they choose to accelerate the timeline.