It’s a devastating follow-up to Oladipo’s dream rise. Last year, the Silver Spring, Md., native and former All-Met from DeMatha averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and Player Efficiency Rating, earning the 2018 most improved player award, all-defensive first-team and all-NBA third-team honors. Perhaps more importantly, he led the Pacers to 48 wins and a playoff berth in the first year after Paul George forced his way out of Indiana. Instead of being stuck in a prolonged rebuild following an embarrassing superstar defection, the spunky small-market Pacers charted a rosy future around Oladipo, an Indiana University product who clearly relished being the face of the franchise.
Their path forward was relatively simple: Let recent lottery picks such as Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis develop at their own pace, while avoiding long-term financial commitments that might backfire. If a difference-maker became available in trade or in free agency, Pacers President Kevin Pritchard had the requisite expiring contracts and cap flexibility to be proactive. But there was no real rush, because Oladipo is under contract through 2020-21 and just entering his prime, and Indiana was playing with house money after its unexpectedly successful campaign.
Clearly, Oladipo’s injury will have significant short- and long-term consequences.
The most immediate impact concerns Oladipo’s all-star status, given that starters and captains are set to be announced Thursday. Despite missing 11 games, Oladipo was on track to earn his second consecutive selection, though likely not as a starter. His numbers — 18.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and an 18 Player Efficiency Rating — were largely off his 2017-18 marks, but he remained Indiana’s top scorer and lead playmaker. With the Pacers occupying the East’s third seed, he was a no-brainer pick.
Indiana performed admirably when Oladipo missed those 11 games earlier this season with previous right knee problems. Last year, he posted a career-high 30.1 usage rate, delivering countless big shots in the clutch, and swung Indiana’s net efficiency by more than 13 points per 100 possessions when he took the court. Whenever Oladipo was sidelined, though, the 2017-18 Pacers looked hopeless — compiling an 0-7 record and a ghastly minus-14 point differential without him.
This year, the Pacers (32-15) have fared far better without their franchise player thanks to a balanced offensive attack, an ego-free approach and steady progress from the likes of Sabonis, a 2019 sixth man of the year candidate, Turner, and Bojan Bogdanovic. Collectively, they managed to weather Oladipo’s absence, posting a 7-4 mark without him during late-November and December. Wednesday provided another good example of their resolve, as they bounced back from the scary injury to put away the Raptors. This year, the Pacers’ net efficiency rating with Oladipo (+5.1) has been virtually identical to their net rating without him (+5.6), strong evidence that they won’t collapse during the stretch run to the playoffs.
Even so, the Pacers are headed for regression, because they have played the NBA’s second-easiest schedule to date. Plunging forward without Oladipo into a closing stretch that includes two games against the Golden State Warriors, two against the Milwaukee Bucks, two against the Boston Celtics, two against the Denver Nuggets, two against the Oklahoma City Thunder and one each against the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers sounds like a recipe for meaningful slippage. A betting man should feel confident projecting Indiana to fall out of the East’s top four, thereby ceding home-court advantage and setting up a potential fourth straight first-round exit.
The situation gets more demoralizing once one considers Indiana’s position of strength heading into the Feb. 7 trade deadline. As noted last week, Pritchard and the Pacers possess a host of expiring contracts — Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Kyle O’Quinn — to utilize in pursuit of a second star. If the Pacers wanted to trade for Indianapolis-area product Mike Conley to solidify a strong starting backcourt, they were in position to put together a compelling package. If they wanted to make targeted rotation additions with an eye toward playoff matchups, there was nothing to stop them.
Now the calculus and timeline changes. Taking on significant salary in pursuit of a 2019 postseason run seems like a foolhardy proposition. Committing to pay a player such as Conley is much riskier without knowing exactly when Oladipo will return to the court and whether he can reclaim his form from 2017-18. And their flexibility will be compromised this summer, when Bogdanovic will be due a raise, the point guard rotation will need to be reevaluated, and Sabonis will be eligible for what is sure to be a high-level rookie extension. The Pacers won’t be boxed in, but their ability to appeal to free agents and to transform this roster from good to great have taken unequivocal hits with Oladipo’s injury.
Perhaps the best reason for Pacers fans to keep the faith is that Pritchard has plenty of experience managing around medical crises. As GM of the Portland Trail Blazers, he navigated through multiple season-ending knee injuries to 2007 top overall pick Greg Oden. And before he was named Pacers president in 2017, he served as GM under Larry Bird throughout the aftermath of George’s gruesome 2014 leg injury.
That might seem like small consolation with this terrible news so fresh, but the Pacers — with their world inverted — need everything they can get.