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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2023-present: Haliburton-led success and Pascal Siakam's arrival

In terms of immediate success, the 2023 NBA draft didn't provide a whole lot at first, with highly touted lottery pick Jarace Walker not receiving much playing time as a rookie, much to the frustration of many Pacers fans.

Instead, Indiana's immediate gratification came in the form of the protected first-round pick given to them by Cleveland the prior year in the Caris LeVert trade, which finally translated to Belmont swingman Ben Sheppard, who provided plenty of help with shooting and defense, especially in the second half of the season, where he was given a more prominent role.

Either way, Indiana's biggest moves were not made in the draft, but rather in free agency. Indiana's first priority was to lock in Tyrese Haliburton long-term, as they did not want to take any chances for the future. Indeed, the deal was done before long, with Haliburton and Indiana agreeing to a five-year $260 million max extension, the largest contract in Pacers history, and insurance that Haliburton will remain in blue and gold at least until he turns 29 years old.

Following this, Indiana got to work in the free agency and trade market. Five days after the draft, Indiana traded Duarte, who struggled to get playing time following the Haliburton trade, and especially with Mathurin and Nesmith showing up.

Due to Duarte's playing time decreasing and his value being lower due to his age, the Pacers were only able to get two second-round picks for him, which they would flip the following day to New York for Obi Toppin, a freakishly athletic forward who seemed to get lost in the shuffle plenty in the Knicks rotation.

Indiana also signed Bruce Brown to a two-year contract but kept things flexible with the second season being a team option, allowing them to opt-out after a single season, although they would wait less than that. After these trades, the 2023-24 Indiana Pacers roster was complete, at least for the time being.

Indiana's first half of the season was full of exciting moments, historic stats, and surprises all around. After another offseason of gelling and getting to know each other, along with the new additions fitting in rather nicely, the Pacers got off to a fantastic start, going 9-6 to start the season.

They had a historically efficient offense by Haliburton and Rick Carlisle that involved frantic pace, plenty of threes, and fast break opportunities galore, three things which were foreign to Indiana's dictionary only three years prior.

Indiana carried this momentum to a surprisingly fantastic In-Season Tournament run, where they went undefeated in group play before upsetting the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks on back-to-back games to make it to the IST finals, where they would ultimately fall short to the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite this, Indiana put their team on the map, and for the first time since the Paul George days, the Pacers had a young, marketable star for the mainstream NBA world to see in Tyrese Haliburton.

Unfortunately, on January 8, this would be cut short for a while, as Haliburton suffered a hamstring tear against the Boston Celtics which would rule him out for a while. Thankfully, the Pacers avoided completely bottoming out following the injury going 2-2 in the following four games before they were handed a lifeline from the Toronto Raptors.

Pascal Siakam had been in trade rumors for months at that point, and the Pacers were slowly edging out every other team to make a bid for him. It got so desperate in fact, that negotiations slowly stopped including Mathurin and Jarace Walker, as Toronto became more and more desperate to dump Siakam rather than lose him for nothing.

Sure enough, on January 17, the deal was made official, and Pascal Siakam was traded to the Indiana Pacers for Bruce Brown, Jordan Nwora, and three first-round picks, with Indiana keeping all of their young pieces in the process.

Despite a rocky start following the trade, with Indiana going 7-8 in Siakam's first 15 games with the team and Tyrese Haliburton either being out or on a minutes restriction for each game, the Pacers were optimistic for the post-All-Star break run, which was punctuated with Haliburton scoring 32 points in the All-Star game itself, which was hosted in Indiana.

Unfortunately, the post-All-Star run was not kind to Haliburton at all, as he only averaged 15.8 points on 41% from the field and 21% from deep after 13 post-All-Star break games. Indiana thankfully didn't go under during this time, going 7-6 thanks to the ever-consistent play of Siakam and the improvement of TJ McConnell, who arguably played better than Tyrese during this stretch and for the second half of the season in general.

Still, Haliburton's poor play was a point of concern, especially since he was a clear negative and detriment to the team in some games, including in the March 1 game against New Orleans, where he posted his first scoreless game as a Pacer and played some of the worst basketball of his career.

Thankfully, Haliburton picked it up in the final 12 games of the season, averaging close to 19 points and 9 assists while shooting an improved 46% from the field and 39% from deep while helping lead Indiana to an 8-4 record to close the season.

Despite struggling against inferior teams and playing down to competition at times, Indiana improved immensely as a team in the second half of the season, raising their defense from all-time worst to slightly above average while keeping their historically great offense, thanks to Pascal Siakam.

Although they would have to play the final 19 games of the season without Bennedict Mathurin, a key part of their offense, the Pacers still managed to make the playoffs as the sixth seed, winning two crucial games at the end of the season, one against Miami to win the season series and control their destiny for the playoffs, and the other against Atlanta in the final game of the regular season to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup against Milwaukee.