When Victor Oladipo collapsed to the floor — succumbing to the toll of a ruptured quad tendon — against the Raptors two weeks ago, it cast Indiana’s entire season into uncertainty. The Pacers were 32-15, the third-best mark in the Eastern Conference, with a chance to bolster their roster ahead of the trade deadline and tighten their grip on homecourt advantage in a first-round playoff series. Now the Pacers don’t know where they’ll end up, or how to even proceed from here. Indiana has lost four of its last six games, dropping into a three-way tie for third place in the East. The trade deadline will be a reflection of what confidence the team has in this group to win without its star.
Before Oladipo’s injury, a deal for a high-end starter seemed a strong possibility. Having a second All-Star-caliber guard to pair with Oladipo could have strengthened Indiana’s backcourt while alleviating some of the weight from Oladipo’s shoulders on both ends of the floor. But losing a star player can change a team’s calculus in an instant. Rather than boldly declaring their intent to make the Eastern Conference Finals — or, with luck, the NBA Finals — it now appears more likely the Pacers will swing smaller, touch up the margins of their roster and hold fast to a top-six playoff seed.
What the Pacers will struggle to compensate for is Oladipo’s playmaking on both sides of the ball. Even with Oladipo on the court, the Pacers were not an elite offense. Part of that was due to scheme — Indiana takes the fewest 3s in the league — but it also reflects what little offensive creation it has beyond its star. Oladipo has blossomed as an offensive initiator during his time in Indiana, with the off-the-dribble verve to get to the rim at will and the vision to set up teammates when opponents overplayed his drives. He was averaging a career-high 5.2 assists and despite below-average scoring efficiency, was one of the only Pacers capable of consistently creating his own shot.
Indiana doesn’t need to trade for a star, only someone dynamic enough to prevent its other guards from being overextended. Darren Collison can capably run NBA offense; Domantas Sabonis is skilled enough to facilitate sets from the high post; Tyreke Evans’ playmaking comes in spurts. But none are quite the workhorse Oladipo was — an every-possession threat who could work with the ball or away from it. Injecting the rotation with another solid primary ball-handler, if one is readily available on the trade market — would help keep the Pacers’ offense afloat for the remainder of the season.
Indiana is also thin on wing defense, especially with Oladipo missing from the fold. Bojan Bogdanović does what he can, but a player with his physical limitations can only be so effective against the league’s best perimeter scorers. Thad Young is a wonderful help defender who can stymie some wings, but like Bogdanović, lacks the lateral quickness to keep up with the best in the East (though, incidentally, could be a relatively effective antidote to Giannis Antetokounmpo, should those two teams meet in the playoffs). The defensive brilliance of Myles Turner has helped cover for some Indiana’s perimeter limitations and playing two bigs in tandem generally translate to regular-season success on that end. But playoff opponents will make concerted efforts to mitigate the impact of Turner’s rim protection with faster, stretchier lineups, and the Pacers must find a way to slow wing scorers at the point of attack rather than at the last line of defense.
That doesn’t rule out the possibility that the Pacers could acquire a bigger name anyway, salvage what they can of this season and hope to make a run next year when Oladipo returns. Any player available to Indiana on the trade market likely won’t move the needle for the team this year, but combined with a two-time All-Star, could be a viable threat in an Eastern Conference that may look drastically different next season. The Pacers, for the time being, must find a way to keep moving.