Few expected the Indiana Pacers to be a playoff team in 2018. After the team traded Paul George and lost C.J. Miles and Jeff Teague in free agency, a rebuild looked to be on the table. Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Pacers’ over-under at 31.5 wins for the 2017-18 campaign. The brilliant Kevin Pelton had Indiana at 32. Zach Lowe predicted they’d win “around 30 games.” I wrote that the Pacers would give the Knicks a run for their money as the worst team in the league.
The Pacers are 14-11 near the trimester mark. Indiana sits pretty at No. 7 in the East, just a half game out of the No. 4 spot. The idea that the Pacers could — after an offseason that looked like one long series of roster downgrades — challenge for a playoff spot, let alone home-court advantage in the first round, seemed absurd not too long ago. But here we are.
Indiana is clearly the surprise team of the season, turning what could have been a tankfest into a shockingly enjoyable campaign for fans and casual observers alike. The offense has been quite good despite the lack of traditional star power. Victor Oladipo, the high-priced centerpiece of the George trade, has played like an All-Star. Lance Stephenson rediscovered his magic. Nate McMillan, who has coached some extraordinary offenses in the past, has updated his system to fit his roster and the new league norms. Indiana’s offense is No. 6 in the league.
In the short term, this is unequivocally good. Having a competitive, fun team sells tickets, sells merchandise, keeps fans engaged, and builds a good team culture. (It also pleases the Basketball Gods, for those of you who believe.) McMillan won’t be on the hot seat, no one will complain about Oladipo’s contract, and fans won’t be flipping between bittersweet Paul George highlights and hopeful Luka Doncic clips all season. They will be engaged in the Pacers fandom.
That’s now. What about later?
What if this is fool’s gold? What if the Pacers were actually meant to be bad? What if success now leads Indiana to believe it has a sustainably good roster for the future?
What if these Indiana Pacers are actually the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns?
Those Suns were built to be bad. There remain rumors that it was their general manager — Ryan McDonough — who wrote the infamous ESPN-published anonymous essay giving a rationale for tanking. (I still don’t buy it was him, but the rumors persist.) Against all odds, the Suns succeeded, winning 48 games. McDonough and the front office believed the hype. They leaned into it. It was a mirage. Phoenix went four games under .500 the next season, and didn’t win 48 games in the following two seasons combined. They are headed for the lottery again this season.
The Suns reasonably expected to be bad, were good, believed they had cracked something and build a good team, and became bad. It destroyed the team’s rebuild blueprint. The franchise still hasn’t come close to recovering.
Indiana is good. The team is on pace for 46 wins. The Pacers are in great position to grab a playoff spot and face someone like the Cavaliers, Wizards, Raptors, Bucks, or Pistons. If everything continues to break right, the Pacers might even win a playoff series. That means that Doncic, Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter, or DeAndre Ayton are not in the cards.
If Indiana comes out next season as we thought it would this season, will it have been worth it? If the Pacers followed the path of the 2014 Suns — shockingly good, only to be bad for years longer — will it have been worth it? Is one fun season now worth a rebuild that eventually stretches into the 2020s?
The Suns aren’t the only example — this happened on a smaller scale with the 2015-16 Charlotte Hornets. After a 33-win season, the Hornets put everything together and won 48 games. They looked to be on the rise and made roster moves to push harder. But the 48 games were fool’s good. Charlotte won just 36 games last season and missed the playoffs. The Hornets are in 12th place in the East this season, where many folks expected Indiana to be.
Of course, there’s nothing the Pacers can do right now to allay these fears. You don’t tear down a team that is playing better than expected. And, of course, Pacers fans should enjoy every minute! But the potential mirage that is this season must be at front of mind when general manager Kevin Pritchard considers the future of the roster, whether that be in-season trade reinforcements to bolster a playoff run or offseason decisions on free agents.
It’s too easy to get caught up in your own hype and miss the wider reality that, in the long run, this Pacers roster may not be competitive with the upper tier of the Eastern Conference. It’s too easy to embrace the dopamine that wins provide and live off that high a little too long.
In a few years, we’ll look back and assess whether these Pacers were the real deal. Until then, caution is advised.