They didn’t win the NBA title, nor did they get a high draft pick. They didn’t win their division, heck, they didn’t even win a round in the postseason. But despite all that, the Indiana Pacers had perhaps the most successful season of any single team in the NBA.
“Passion. Pride. Pacers.” That slogan from the 2012 playoffs was applicable back then, but it is perhaps more germane now. Indiana took LeBron to seven games, something that has never been done before in the first round, and that is just the precipice of their accomplishments.
It started back on June 30th, 2017. A date cannot be a setting in the literal sense, but it was for the Pacers. The setting of the Paul George trade lived in infamy. Nobody considered Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis enough of a trade haul for the Pacers all-star at the time. It wasn’t even close. People flamed new President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard for making the deal in the first place. Free agency hadn’t even started yet. What was he thinking?
Flash forward 10 months, and we can see what he was thinking. He took a calculated risk that Oladipo and Sabonis could be more than the sum of their parts in Oklahoma City, and he hit a bullseye. Oladipo made his first All-Star game. Sabonis was perhaps the best backup Center in the league. The results were incredible, and it re-shaped the narrative. The Paul George trade became the Victor Oladipo trade.
The season started with low expectations. The over/under in Vegas was just 31.5 wins for the whole season. They passed that number on February 11. The Indiana Pacers passed .500 on March 23. They passed their win total from last season two days later. They swept the Warriors. They swept the Spurs. They smoked the Cavaliers thrice. They were not just an overachieving team. They were a really good team.
Victor Oladipo is going to win the NBA’s most improved player award. He improved his shooting percentages from all over the court on higher usage. He hiked up his assists rate. He led the league in steals. Oladipo went from just a guy to a stud basketball player, and he made Indianapolis fall in love with him when he proclaimed “This is my City!”:
The dude can flat out play. His improvement is one of the craziest stories in the league this year. But the coolest part of his story is that he did it while not exiling himself from the team, but instead being a leader and active member.
This team had more chemistry than any other team in the league, and any other Indiana Pacers team from the past. It made Oladipo better, and it made everyone better.
The already discussed Sabonis doubled his points, rebounds, and assists per game. Darren Collison went from a below average backup point guard to the best three-point shooter in the league. Bojan Bogdanovic used to be a backup, and he shut down LeBron James in the playoffs on two separate occasions.
That is not all. Thaddeus Young proved himself in the postseason. Cory Joseph continued to be one of the most reliable players in the NBA. Myles Turner finished tied for 5th in blocked per game at just age 21. Everyone was contributing in support of their leader in Oladipo. Everyone was playing to their fortes.
And then there was Lance Stephenson.
This goofy guy couldn’t even land on an NBA roster for nearly an entire season before returning to Indiana, but this man was a crowd favorite. The loudest roar you would hear during a game in Bankers Life Fieldhouse was when Stephenson would check into a guy. Indiana embraced Stephenson with open arms.
His goofy antics made him easily the most polarizing player in the league, but that is part of what made him so lovable by his beloved hometown fans. Sometimes he made moves just to make moves, with no intention of doing anything. They still somehow worked:
Other times, he played air guitar:
To most teams, these antics were just that: antics. To the Indiana Pacers, they were energizing sequences that morphed the entire complexity of the game. With tons of talented and improving players around him, Lance Stephenson had an impact simply by having fun.
And that is what made this Pacers team so great. They had fun AND they were really good. 48 wins would have given them homecourt advantage in the Western Conference. Taking LeBron to seven games in the first round has never been done before. The Pacers were good, and it is all thanks to the players. From Oladipo to Stephenson, and everyone in between. They were good, and they proved everyone wrong.
They may already be done playing this season, but this is just year one of the Victor Oladipo era. They’re gone now, but watch out for these Indiana Pacers for the next half-decade. They are a force to be reckoned with.
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