After opening the 2019-20 season with three straight losses, the Indiana Pacers have won seven of their last eight games.
The Pacers are playing well despite various injuries to key players such as Myles Turner, Jeremy Lamb, Edmond Sumner and Goga Bitadze on top of All-Star guard Victor Oladipo’s absence.
Coach Nate McMillan believes the team is figuring each other out. That makes plenty of sense given how they experienced the third most roster turnover in the NBA during the offseason. The team has been able to begin personalizing their half-court offense more, which has translated to improved results.
“We’re 11 games into the season. It’s a new group. Part of it is figuring these guys out, where they like the ball, what they can do with the basketball,” McMillan said, via the team’s official website. “Not only for me, but for the team. We’re starting to personalize some of the sets in the offense, spotting where guys can be effective and productive.”
Last season, the Pacers struggled mightily to produce sufficient scoring results after Oladipo’s season-ending injury. So far, the 2019-20 Pacers are averaging 109.5 points per game and have Malcolm Brogdon (20.7), Domantas Sabonis (19.8), T.J. Warren (18.5), Lamb (17) and Turner (14.8) all averaging in double figures. With Brogdon, Warren and Lamb all new to the team, there is clearly more offensive firepower than last season.
There still room for growth from the Pacers on the offensive end of the floor. They currently rank 25th in the league in pace and last in free throw attempt rate. They’ve had the fewest percentage of their shot attempts come from beyond the arc by a considerable margin.
Where they have thrived has been through mid-range as they have attempted the second-highest rate of these shots.
It has been clear that the style of play within the Pacers’ half-court offense is likely going to stick closer to how they have operated in recent seasons under McMillan. It will be interesting to see if that ends up being a viable plan against tougher competition and in bigger moments because they have underachieved on this side of the ball under his watch come playoff time.
The defensive side of the ball has been a strength lately as they rank third in defensive rating since the 0-3 start. They need to prove they can achieve similar results when playing against more skilled teams. Having Sabonis slide back to the power forward spot when Turner returns to the lineup will naturally cause a decline in their execution on that end of the floor.
Something that should help the Pacers’ defense when they revert back to their bigger frontcourt duo is the team’s growth from an individual’s standpoint. Players like Warren who were atrocious defensively to start the season have displayed steady improvement, but it remains to be soon just yet if that will sustain.
“We’re learning our identity on the defensive end,” Brogdon said. “Coming out of the gate, playing a strong 48 minutes, that’s what the Pacers do and that’s what we want to do this season.”
Once the team gets some of its injured players back into the lineup, the expectation should be that the veterans will receive playing time over young players. Players like T.J. McConnell, Doug McDermott and Justin Holiday likely will stick in the rotation unless there has been a change of plans from what McMillan told most of the team’s young players following the Pacers’ opening night loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The ultimate factor for the Pacers will be when Oladipo returns and how effective he will be when he does. He is not going to allow himself to be rushed back early into the lineup, so there shouldn’t be an expectation of a potential return ahead of schedule. In the meantime, the rest of the roster will have ample opportunity to learn each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.
It is certainly worth noting that the Pacers have played the easiest schedule by a considerable margin to start the season. Of course, teams don’t control who and when they play and it’s better to succeed during winnable stretches than not, but it’s still important to take into consideration. Not a single team they have played so far is currently above .500.
Things are going to become more challenging for the Pacers as they have the fourth most difficult remaining strength of schedule. Needless to say, that doesn’t mean a suggestion is being made that they can’t succeed when facing more difficult circumstances. Rather, they will be tested as the season progresses.
The Pacers are currently coming off a blowout victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and have a 7-4 record. With momentum on their side, they will need to continue to build as much separation as they can from other playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference.