Let’s get this out of the way: the Indiana Pacers are not the most entertaining team in the NBA. They don’t even rank as the most entertaining team in the Eastern Conference. There is a 100 percent guarantee at least one of the Pacers’ playoff games will be aired on NBA TV. There is a non-zero chance that all of the Pacers’ first-round games (save the weekend ones) are on NBA TV (Game 1s and other weekend games are always on a major network in the opening weekend of the playoffs.)
The broad basketball fandom paid attention to the Pacers early this season because they were — and still are — the most shocking good team in the league. As surprise has worn off due to the time elapsed, interest has waned. There are moments when those of us outside Pacers fandom take serious notice again of what Indiana has accomplished — such as when Victor Oladipo was named to the all-star team, and when the Pacers recently passed the three-time defending East champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the standings. But, by and large, we’re spending much more energy and attention on everyone else in the Eastern bracket.
This is not because Indiana is unworthy of our attention and time. They very much are! What keeps us from more vigorously appreciating the Pacers is that there is no drama, no controversy, no subtext behind what the team has built. It’s just a simple, happy narrative about growth, fundamentals, and how traditional small-market teams survive in the high-stakes NBA.
Consider Oladipo. He’s an absolute joy who doesn’t really dip into the NBA’s petty personality culture — a culture with immense charm of its own, of course. You’re not following Oladipo on Twitter to see who he’ll subtweet, or watching his highlights closely to discover the subtle shade. There’s none of that. He’s just a (seemingly) nice dude who has finally found a real NBA home on a team that allows him to play like he ought to, all for a coach, Nate McMillan, willing to give him freedom.
The glory of Oladipo for me is that this rocket-ship rise in status isn’t his first! He did this in Bloomington, too. If you didn’t know Oladipo’s backstory, you might assume that he was a livewire athlete who dominated high school basketball, made the McDonald’s All-America team, was heavily recruited, and became a high draft pick based entirely on his potential. Wrong. He wasn’t even a top-100 recruit coming out of the preps, and didn’t emerge until his junior year at Indiana.
Consider this: in 2012-13, Oladipo’s teammate Cody Zeller, a sophomore who had been a top-15 recruit, was a unanimous preseason All-American. But by the end of the season, it was Oladipo who led the team to being ranked No. 1 in the country most of the season. It was Oladipo who made the All-American team. Over three years in Bloomington, Oladipo transformed himself from a three-star guard to the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft.
Should we really be surprised that in one year in Indianapolis, he’s turned himself from someone considered a contract albatross into one of the league’s best two-way guards, an all-star, and the leader of a damn good team? This is what Oladipo does: he meets challenges with tenacious hard work, a strong belief in his own capabilities, and, eventually, success. This is his blueprint.
Did the Pacers know what they were getting when they swung the franchise-defining Paul George trade? The front office would probably tell you that while they knew Oladipo had something special within him, he has exceeded expectations. But consider that facing a scenario in which most NBA teams in a position to trade George would rebuild from near-scratch, the Pacers instead went after undervalued talent.
This is the Pacers’ typical path. Indiana never stripped the franchise down to the studs after the Jermaine O’Neal-Ron Artest era blew up. They attempted (in vain, for a while) to remain competitive while looking for talent where they could find it. That’s what got them Paul George late in the lottery in the first place. That’s what got them Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, George Hill, and that amazing, all-too-brief run at the Miami Heat earlier this decade. The front office has changed, but the Pacers haven’t. The Pacers don’t tank.
That the Pacers do not tank is less interesting to talk about than Philadelphia’s process, to be sure. The fact that a team in Indianapolis can’t afford to alienate any fans by bottoming out for a couple of seasons is simply accepted. What is there to debate? With blueprints like that which the 76ers followed, there are layers to peel back and nooks galore to explore. Indiana’s process is more simply, despite heretofore being more successful. (We’ll need to check back in a couple of years as to whether that remains the case. Philadelphia has immense promise.)
In a way, the Pacers’ success is like that of Oladipo. It’s not particularly flashy. There’s no mystery or catchphrase or cult status surrounding it. It’s just hard work and a belief in the potential for growth.
That might be boring, that might be pat, that might be too optimistic for our era of cynics and nihilists. But it’s a story that could help every kid, organization, and team improve. The glory of Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers is simple: Believe in what you may be capable of, and work hard to achieve it. If you accept that maxim, the world’s a lot brighter every morning.