For decades, the Indiana Pacers were the NBA’s model franchise in terms of projecting a steady and constant level of competence. In 1989, the team drafted George McLeod with the seventh overall pick. That was the last time, prior to the team’s selection of Bennedict Mathurin in 2022, that Indiana’s first-round draft slot was in the single digits. They’d win a lot of regular season games, make the playoffs a lot, and occasionally go on some sort of run.
All of this is to say that it’s a little odd that the Pacers haven’t made the postseason since 2020. If you’re going back to when they took McLeod, this is the second-longest playoff drought the team has experienced — they missed out four years in a row, from 2006-09. But the good news for the Pacers is that they have legitimate, and reasonable, playoff aspirations this year. Whether or not they reach those lofty goals in the ultra-competitive Eastern Confernece, though, remains to be seen.
Biggest Question: Can They Get Enough Stops?
The Pacers are going to be fun. Any team with Tyrese Haliburton is going to be a joy to watch on offense, as he’s high on the list of the most instinctive and creative playmakers in the world. He missed 26 games last season and had the fourth-most assists in all of basketball. He led the NBA, by some margin, in potential assists per game in 2022-23. Only Nikola Jokic made more passes per game than him. And on top of all that, Haliburton averaged a team and career-best 20.7 points per game. If you give the keys to him and let him go, Haliburton is going to give you a potent offense.
Add in that he is surrounded by plenty of talent on that end of the floor and the Pacers are going to be a nightmare to guard. Myles Turner had his best season as a pro alongside him, and while Buddy Hield requested a trade, Haliburton knows how to get him good looks from deep. Bennedict Mathurin has plenty of room to grow, but his eagerness to attack is, quite frankly, a little jarring. Obi Toppin and Bruce Brown are a pair of interesting offseason acquisitions who fit well — Toppin’s energy and relentlessness are a great fit, as is Brown’s basketball IQ and willingness to be a connecting piece.
The questions are going to come on the defensive end of the floor. Turner’s a good rim protector and Brown’s malleability are both major assets, Haliburton is great at reading passing lanes, and you can see Mathurin’s length and athleticism leading to him being a good defender as he becomes a more seasoned pro. Guys like Aaron Nesmith and Jordan Nwora are younger, athletic wings, while heady veterans like Daniel Theis and the extremely annoying (this is a compliment) T.J. McConnell are here.
They’re not going to be a good defensive team in all likelihood, but with how good Indiana’s offense is going to be, just getting to a point where they’re ok is enough.
X-Factor: Obi Toppin
Toppin was such a weird player in New York because he always seemed to provide a major spark, and despite that, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau just never fully trusted him. He’s not exactly the most defensively stout player in the league — see the Biggest Question section! — but Toppin is an impactful offensive player whose athleticism and willingness to hustle should make him a wonderful fit on this Indiana team.
Carlisle threw a ton of bodies at the 4 spot last year. Nesmith generally started alongside Turner in the frontcourt, Oshae Brissett was a frequent option in that spot off the bench, and Carlisle just pieced things together from there. Toppin, one would assume, is here to take the starting gig and inject a little more size into that group, while Nesmith can come off the bench as a 3-and-D wing option or small-ball 4. Plus having someone with NBA experience in that role who simultaneously fits on the team’s timeline lets them be patient with rookie forward Jarace Walker, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.
Ultimately, the big question with Toppin is whether he’s able to scale up the good stuff he did in New York (hustle, athleticism, shooting) in a role where he’s asked to play significant minutes. If he can, it stands to reason that Indiana is going to give him a nice payday next summer, and the team’s already exciting offense will be able to climb yet another level.