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The Pacers got better while everyone else was chasing superstars

Indiana has been busy improving.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers - Game Six Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I’m irrationally excited about the Indiana Pacers, who haven’t done anything more than what they were supposed to do this summer. With a savvy late first-round draft pick and a couple of low-key veteran signings, general manager Kevin Pritchard has turned a good team into a better one, at least on paper.

That’s how the offseason is supposed to work, especially for a young team on the way up, like Pritchard’s Pacers. What’s weird about this offseason is that virtually no one else has bothered to go out and improve themselves this summer.

Oh sure, the Lakers signed LeBron James. That’s an obvious improvement. The Warriors added Boogie Cousins. That’s just overkill. But look beyond them and the free agent landscape has been exceptionally chill.

The Rockets lost a key piece in Trevor Ariza, but have kept their signings mostly in-house. Utah and Oklahoma City did well to bring their own guys back, with the latter assuming a huge luxury tax bill in the process. The Celtics did nothing more than draft a project big man and re-sign their own veteran center.

The Sixers’ biggest move was to absorb the contract of Wilson Chandler, who will help, but isn’t exactly the bright shining star that coach/acting GM Brett Brown covets. The Mavericks brought on DeAndre Jordan, but even that is a one-year engagement. Kudos to the Wizards for the desperation daily double of Dwight Howard and Jeff Green, I guess.

This could change if Kawhi Leonard ever gets traded, but even then, there isn’t a huge line of free agents ready to sign deals. With the exception of LeBron — granted, a major exception — this summer has been fairly sedate.

Much of that has to do with the lack of teams with cap space money to spend. Only a handful of teams with space even wanted to do anything to upgrade their teams.

One of those was the Pacers, who have always existed in their own dimension. While other franchises ebb and flow with the times, the Pacers have been churning out reliably consistent winning teams for almost three decades.

They’ve missed the playoffs only six times since 1990, a span that includes eight trips to the conference finals and one berth in the FInals where they gave the Kobe/Shaq Lakers a solid six games. Even when they were out of contention, such as the post-Malice era, they never failed to win fewer than 32 games.

For better and worse, and it has been mostly for the better, the Pacers have steadfastly refused to tank. Following that painful postseason drought from 2006-10, the Pacers have been a playoff participant for seven of the past eight seasons, a streak that was only interrupted by the devastating injury to Paul George.

In his first meaningful act as general manager, Pritchard traded PG last June to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The move was roundly mocked and excoriated for bearing the marks of a quick-trigger reaction to George’s passive aggressive determination to get out of town.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Utah Jazz - Game Three Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Those reactions were obviously wrong. Oladipo, in particular, and Sabonis, as well, turned out to be much better than previously assumed. Rather than fall apart without their star, the Pacers thrived.

Given a clear runway and a mandate to lead, Oladipo became a two-way force earning an all-star nod to go along with a berth on the All-NBA third-team, and a Most Improved Player Award. The 21-year-old Sabonis posted a 12-and-8 line off the bench with rate metrics indicating a bigger role is in his immediate future.

The duo is joined in future promise by center Myles Turner. A 6’11 center with range, Turner took a lateral step in his development trajectory last season, but he remains a freakish almost 7-footer.

Around those three young talents, Pritchard assembled an array of vets, including hard-working Thaddeus Young, sweet-shooting Bojan Bogdanovic, and capable ball handlers in Darren Collison and Cory Joseph. Under coach Nate McMillan, the Pacers played slow but efficiently in the halfcourt, generating turnovers on the defensive end and valuing possessions on the offensive side of the ball.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There was absolutely nothing revolutionary about any of this, except the Pacers won 48 games and came within a game of dethroning LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs. With Oladipo under contract for the next three seasons, and LeBron headed West, Pritchard decided to continue building momentum armed with a decent amount of cap space.

He added a shooter in Doug McDermott on a modest three-year deal and a shot-creator in Tyreke Evans on a one-year contract. He also added big man Kyle O’Quinn on another low-risk, high reward contract. In the draft, Pritchard snatched up Aaron Holiday, Jrue’s younger brother, who brings many of the same qualities that have made his brother such an excellent player.

As things stand in the first week of July, the Pacers 2-deep looks fairly set. They return seven of their eight rotation players — pour one out for Indiana Lance — while Evans and McDermott should help shore up some of their second unit scoring deficiencies. And Kyle O’Quinn fills their need for a veteran big man. They need another big man after waiving veteran Al Jefferson, but they have an option in T.J. Leaf, last year’s first rounder.

UPDATE: The Pacers signed veteran big man Kyle O’Quinn, an undersized center with a nose for the ball, who is basically perfect for this role.

If Oladipo proves last season wasn’t a fluke and Turner gets his career pointed back in the right direction, the Pacers have the tools to become a top-four fixture for the next several years. Good work, Indiana. Way to make use of the summer.