The evolution of the Indiana Pacers: From no direction to bright future

With the Pacers making the playoffs, now is as good a time as ever to see how they got here.
Sacramento Kings v Indiana Pacers
Sacramento Kings v Indiana Pacers / Dylan Buell/GettyImages
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2020-22: The Nate Bjorkgren Experiment and final Sabonis days

On October 20, 2020, the Pacers hired new head coach Nate Bjorkgren to lead the post-McMillan era. The hope was, that with a young coach leading the charge, Indiana could modernize their offense and play a faster-paced, more team-oriented game.

For reference, the 2019-20 Indiana Pacers had only the 21st fastest pace in the league, shot the least amount of threes, and got to the free throw line the least amount of times. Bjorkgren was brought in to change that style and looked like the man for the job in the preseason and the first 20 or so games of the season, with Sabonis and Brogdon being MVP candidates along the way and Myles Turner making a case for Defensive Player of the Year.

On January 13, with the Pacers having a 7-4 record and Oladipo playing some of the best basketball of recent years, averaging 20 points on increased efficiency, the plug was finally pulled on the Victor Oladipo era. After months of trade rumors and reports of Oladipo himself even going up to other teams asking to play with them, Victor was traded to the Houston Rockets in a four-team deal with Indiana receiving Caris LeVert and some second-round picks.

With the Oladipo burden off their shoulder, Indiana seemed poised for a breakout season and newfound life for LeVert, who spent a few years as a spark plug energy scorer in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, before Levert could play a single game for the Pacers, he had to tend to more important matters. Following the post-trade physical, a mass was discovered on LeVert's kidney that could have been cancerous if not treated at the right time.

In a sense, the trade saved LeVert's life, as the mass apparently went undetected in prior tests and was only found after LeVert touched down in Indiana. Because of this issue, and some other nagging injuries, LeVert would miss the first 24 games of his Pacers tenure, sitting out two full months before he made his debut on March 13 against Phoenix. During his absence, Indiana went 10-16 and their record plummeted to 16-20, out of the playoffs as a result.

With LeVert, the Pacers showed some improvement but not too much, as they went 18-18 the rest of the season and finished at 34-48, their worst record in over a decade but just enough to crack the Play-In tournament as the ninth seed.

After dispatching the 10th-seeded Hornets thanks in part to late-season success story Oshae Brissett, Indiana lost in the second game to Washington, thus ending their season and giving them their first lottery pick since 2010, when they took Paul George with the 10th pick.

On June 9, after a disastrous season full of drama, losing the locker room, and players almost fighting assistant coaches, the Pacers parted ways with Nate Bjorkgren after just one season and a losing record, switching to their third coach in three years.

Only 15 days later, on June 24, the Pacers made their move, hiring title-winning and former Pacers coach Rick Carlisle as their new head coach, ending the hunt before it could get started. With Carlisle at the helm, the expectation was that the Pacers would continue to remain competitive, make some moves to fix holes in their team, and come back in the 2021-22 season ready to compete, and this showed with the free agency signing of Torrey Craig and their draft haul a month later.

In the 2021 NBA Draft, the Pacers made a peculiar move at pick 13, selecting Oregon's Chris Duarte, a 24-year-old rookie who was not even projected to go in the lottery, and trading for Isaiah Jackson, a 19-year-old big man out of Kentucky later in the first round, two seemingly opposite picks with different directions.

The hope was that, with LeVert back for a full season and Oladipo gone, Duarte could slide right in as the starter or backup shooting guard and provide an extra scoring punch akin to that of a veteran.

Unfortunately, while Duarte certainly showed his scoring prowess in the first part of the season, averaging 17 points in his first nine games, the Pacers did not see any of the success they were anticipating. Nearing the trade deadline, Indiana posted an abysmal 19-37 record which ranked 13th in the East and looked to be in deeper purgatory than before, with Brogdon, Sabonis, and LeVert all having solid seasons but nothing translating to wins.

The Pacers were in a tough position nearing the 2022 trade deadline, as most players were in trade talks and a full rebuild seemed to be on the horizon, especially after LeVert was traded to Cleveland for essentially a protected first-round pick and a second-round pick.