The Paul George trade was one of the most lopsided deals in NBA history — or so we thought.
As it turns out, basketball games have to be played before meaningful analysis can be ushered out. Most, including us here at SB Nation, ridiculed the Pacers for procuring a journeyman swingman and an uninspiring, yet young big man for a multi-time All-Star. No draft picks. No obvious assets. Just that.
Yet as we sit in the middle of December, the Pacers are fifth in a tough Eastern Conference, largely on the back of the centerpiece of that trade. Meanwhile the Thunder are struggling to beat the worst teams out West with George playing a supporting role.
By the time George makes his return to Indiana on Wednesday, he will be a footnote in the story of Victor Oladipo’s Pacers. It’s still too early to say who actually “won” this trade, but the Pacers are in the drivers’ seat.
Victor Oladipo looks special
Ever since he was drafted by Orlando in 2013, we thought Oladipo was nothing more than a secondary role player who had potential to be a decent starter in his career. We were wrong. In Indiana, Oladipo looks like a straight-up star. He’s been the best shooting guard in the Eastern Conference this season and has carried his team to a 15-11 record.
Was it a change of scenery that did the trick? Is it the free reign he has over the Pacers’ offense? Is it him being in amazing shape this season? The answer is a mixture of all those things, plus a return to health after a wrist injury last year, plus perhaps escaping Russell Westbrook’s shadow.
The combination has led to the most productive season of Oladipo’s career. His PER jumped from 13.6 last year in Oklahoma City to 22.6 this year with the Pacers. His 59 percent true shooting percentage is a career high. And he’s been a fourth-quarter assassin that’s hit as many clutch shots in two months as George did in his Pacers career.
At age 25 and on his third team, Oladipo jumped from role player to star, which no one expected. If they did, he’d still be on the Thunder.
The conversation around Oladipo’s improvement must start with increased opportunity. His usage rate has skyrocketed from 21.4 percent last season to 30.9 this season. His touches have also increased to 62.5 per game from 46.7 last season with the Thunder.
The circumstances in Indiana are perfect. The Pacers don’t have a proven elite scorer and someone has to shoot the ball. Their best bet turned out to be Oladipo.
He has liberty to take shots like this against the Bulls.
Victor Oladipo gets a steal and hits a game-winning three!! pic.twitter.com/qEVNsPtUcF— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) December 7, 2017
He even had the opportunity to create buckets off the bounce like this clutch sequence against the Nuggets.
Victor Oladipo with a career-high 47 PTS (15-28 FG, 6-12 3PT, 11-13 FT), 7 REBS, 6 ASTS in the Pacers 4th win in a row.— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 11, 2017
He's averaging 31.8 PTS (.546 FG%), 7 REBS, 4.6 ASTS over his last 5 games. pic.twitter.com/KbxL6YMzQu
These are shots he’s never had the opportunity to create in the NBA before. His role was all over the place in Orlando, and he was immediately slotted into a 3-and-D role that didn’t suit him with the Thunder. He’d always shown potential that he could be the player he’s been this season, but it was never actualized.
He’s also putting up torrid numbers from three this season. He’s shooting a career-high 44 percent from three this season without having shot higher than 36 percent from deep in any season prior to this one.
His overall improvement from deep is impressive, but what’s especially impressive is what he’s been able to do off the dribble. Most of his attempts are coming from above the break, which shows that a large number of his attempts have been created by his own offense.
Here’s the kicker: Nearly 48 percent of those threes are unassisted makes. That’s even higher than Stephen Curry in his landmark 2014-15 season — Curry finished the season with 44 percent of his threes being unassisted.
Bottom line: Oladipo is showing unprecedented improvement given that he’s never been considered an shooter in his career.
Domantas Sabonis looks like a player, too
Oladipo was the bigger name in the trade and, rightfully, gets most of the praise, but Sabonis has been nothing to scoff at. He’s only 21 years old, but the second-year big man plays well beyond his years.
He shot just under 40 percent from the field last season in limited minutes for the Thunder as a rookie. This season, he’s improved across the board because he’s getting his shots in better places.
Here’s Sabonis’ shot chart from 2016-17.
And here’s what it looks like this season.
That’s a huge difference, and it’s because his role is completely different. In Oklahoma City, he was looked to as a spot-up shooter if Russell Westbrook ever saw him open. That wasn’t his game in Gonzaga.
Now the Pacers rely on Sabonis as an offensive fulcrum for the Pacers when he’s on the floor. Let Caitlin Cooper from Indy Cornrows tell it.
The value he adds as an intuitive screener and polished passer means he’s still capable of making an impact when his shot doesn’t fall.
On the season, he’s assisted on more three-pointers (30) than every player on Indiana’s roster not named Darren Collison (51) or Victor Oladipo (34).
Those assists come from plays like this where Sabonis keeps his head on a swivel in the middle of the floor after setting a screen.
Or when the Pacers’ wings slash and screen around him and find themselves at the rim.
He’s not just a developing shooter with the Pacers like he was in Oklahoma City, and that makes him a lot more productive.
And they both work well together
No one knew the Pacers hauled in a dynamic duo when they made this deal, but they certainly did. Their role shifts have allowed them both to flourish individually and together.
Oladipo is a great slasher and Sabonis finds him with great passes. Oladipo has become a great shooter and it’s Sabonis’ screens that are freeing him up. Though Sabonis doesn’t start for Indiana anymore, good things still happen when he’s on the floor with Oladipo. The Pacers are nearly 10 points better per 100 possessions when they play together, per NBA.com’s stats tool.
Sabonis can shoot a bit and finish, but more importantly, he isn’t a black hole. When he catches the ball he moves it well. When Oladipo is trapped, Sabonis is a reliable pressure release who makes quick decisions.
He’s great in handoff plays, creating plenty of space between Oladipo and his man with solid screens.
Overplay the handoff, and they’ll burn you backdoor.
They even go off-script well together. Watch Sabonis find him on a cut after an offensive rebound.
Oladipo’s development as a scorer has caused teams to pressure him on and off the ball, but Sabonis makes that difficult beause he’s so good passing the ball and screening to get Oladipo free.
The Pacers are good right now and their Oklahoma City duo is fueling most of it. Can they keep it up? We have a big enough sample so far that says they can.
And while they’re doing, it Pacers fans can forget about their past with George and start thinking about their future with these two.