Coming off an injury-plagued season that ended without a playoff berth, the Indiana Pacers enter the 2021-22 regular season short-handed but with aspirations for success.
The Pacers will have both starting bigs — Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner — in the starting lineup for Wednesday's matchup against the Charlotte Hornets. Point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who missed time to end the preseason, also will be returning to the lineup. However, shooting guard Caris LeVert and small forward T.J. Warren remain sidelined.
It was discovered during training camp that LeVert was dealing with a stress fracture in his back, causing him to be sidelined ever since. The Pacers recently announced that LeVert is ruled out for the team’s first four games of the regular season and will be re-evaluated on Oct. 25.
While LeVert remains sidelined, the Pacers have leaned more on rookie Chris Duarte, who was selected with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. The 24-year-old rookie has hit the ground running in the preseason, averaging 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in four appearances.
Duarte experienced inconsistency in his execution from the perimeter (31.6%) and on free throws (71.4%) in addition to still having fine-tuning as an initiator within the half-court during the preseason. However, he showed he can make tough plays off the catch and that will be pivotal with Brogdon returning in time for the opener.
“I’m a huge fan of Chris,” Brogdon told BasketballNews.com. “I’m a huge fan of how he carries himself, his poise, his maturity and then his versatility. Offensively, defensively — he plays both ends. The most impressive thing about him is he’s a top lottery pick — a guy with a lot of clout, a lot of attention coming in — but he wants to learn. He’s soaking everything up, he’s asking questions, he listens. He’s gonna be really, really good.”
There isn’t much clarity in regards to a potential timetable for return for Warren. He was shut down early last season due to stress fractures in his foot and the injury still hasn’t healed after a full offseason to the point where he can participate in live-action settings.
What’s clear with Warren’s situation is the Pacers will take a long-term approach to his recovery and ultimate return to game action — even with him having one-year remaining on his current contract.
"We want to do what's best for T.J.," President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard said in a statement. "We never take a short-term view of this. ... Everybody knows he's on his last year of a contract and that's really sort of irrelevant. We try to treat the player long-term and we listen to the doctors and whatever's best for him we try to do."
For now, the Pacers must solve for potential ways of overcoming Warren’s absence. The team already is limited in terms of perimeter scoring capability, especially when it comes to getting downhill and converting tough shots. Not having Warren in the lineup to apply rim pressure as a lane penetrator puts all the more pressure on Brogdon, who already has a high bar in this area with LeVert also sidelined.
The departure of Doug McDermott to the San Antonio Spurs in free agency places extra strain on the Pacers’ ability to overcome Warren’s absence. McDermott isn’t a threat to break a defender down off the bounce or to use a high ball screen, but his presence as a cutter and as a motion shooter in the two-man game with Domantas Sabonis at least provided various options.
When he’s healthy, the Pacers likely will involve Justin Holiday in the starting lineup to help fill some of the motion shooting and cutting void left behind by McDermott’s departure. However, he’s not going to be the type of player to provide much help off the dribble. Jeremy Lamb will be needed to take pull-ups and attempt to get into the paint.
Adding further complication for the season opener, the Pacers have recently listed both Holiday (sore left ankle) and Lamb (sore right wrist) as questionable to play. The next man up? Torrey Craig, who doesn’t offer much impact as a scoring threat and is a decent-at-best, low-volume perimeter shooter, but does bring somewhat of a defensive edge.
What adds further weight to the injuries to key players the Pacers are dealing to start the season is the fact the strength-of-schedule is challenging early on. In a more competitive Eastern Conference landscape, there is a real risk of falling behind early on and requiring a rallying effort late in the season.
The clear goal for the Pacers is to win now with a familiar face in Rick Carlisle returning to the organization to serve as its head coach. It will be fascinating to see if there is more of a willingness to make changes to the roster midseason if the circumstances result in a slower than expected start.
For now, the focus remains as it was to close the season for the Pacers — get key players healthy to have a lineup at full-strength. Brogdon and LeVert shared the floor for just 21 games together while Warren was limited to four appearances altogether.
"Over the past two years I haven't gotten a sense of what the team can look like," Brogdon said on ESPN’s “The Woj Pod” during the summer. "Because when Victor [Oladipo] was here, he was out. He was out for [all of 2019-20] and then came back last season just for a little bit before he was traded. And then Caris [LeVert] came towards the end of the season. Myles [Turner] was injured when Caris came back. I mean, we've had injuries to the big-minute guys on this team and it's just happened at [inopportune] times, so I haven't gotten a feel of what this team can become or be."