The 2019-20 season didn’t begin well for the Pacers. They started without star Victor Oladipo, defensive anchor Myles Turner got hurt soon after, and Indiana lost its first three games -– one to the lowly Cavaliers. After a dramatic summer makeover, the Pacers were a pedestrian 7-6 three weeks into the season.
Then Indiana started winning, and winning a lot, with few noticing. But after beating the red-hot Lakers this week, the Pacers (19-9) are a game out of the No. 2 seed in the East. They’re still in sixth place because of how tightly packed the non-Bucks contenders are, keeping the Pacers further under the radar. But they have virtually the same record as the much more ballyhooed 76ers and Celtics. If the winning continues, and Oladipo makes it back from a knee injury (the timetable is unclear), the Pacers will be ignored all the way to the conference finals.
Keep an eye over your shoulders, Bucks.
In the off-season, Indiana was aggressive because several of its players hit free agency. Bojan Bogdanovic left for Utah, Thaddeus Young went to the Bulls, Tyreke Evans got a two-year ban for drug abuse, and Darren Collison retired to commit himself to his Jehovah’s Witness faith. In all, the Pacers had to replace over 60% of last season's minutes, and they did so with a series of bold moves, all of which are starting to pay off.
The biggest move was prying Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter who can play both guard spots, from Milwaukee. He joined the 40-50-90 club last season by shooting 50.5% from the field, 42.6% from three and a league-leading 92.8% from the free-throw line. The Bucks decided they’d rather have a few draft picks than Brogdon, a gritty defender whose 6-foot-11 wingspan lets him switch onto much bigger players and disrupt passes. Maybe they didn’t believe in Brogdon, who recently turned 27, but the more likely reason is that they didn’t want to pay the luxury tax this year, possibly because one of their owners bought a casino.
Brogdon is fantastic in a larger role in Indiana, driving to the basket relentlessly (15.6 times per game, 15th in the league) and getting good shots for his teammates (7.6 assists per game, seventh in the league). He has improved every season since winning Rookie of the Year in 2016-17 as a second-round pick (the lowest draft pick to win ROY since the legendary Woody Sauldsbury in 1958).
Another undervalued guy is his backcourt partner, Jeremy Lamb, who is most famous for being on the wrong side of the lopsided James Harden trade. Then he toiled in obscurity in Charlotte while making himself into a solid complementary player -– he moves without the ball, hits floaters at a high rate, and is good on catch-and-shoot threes. He was a top-15 guard last season in defensive plus/minus, and, like Brogdon, he has long arms (6-foot-10 wingspan) that make him disruptive on D. Plus, he willingly moved to the bench even though he was Charlotte’s second-best player last season, which means he should adjust seamlessly when Oladipo returns from his injury and semifinal run on "The Masked Singer." How appropriate for this invisible team that even when their star is on national television every week, he’s in an elaborate disguise.
Speaking of NBA obscurity, T.J. Warren was one of the least-known scorers in the league in Phoenix, averaging 18 points for a franchise that's usually not relevant around Thanksgiving. Now that he’s on the Pacers, Warren has dropped pounds and added an interest in defense. The Packers also brought in Justin Holiday, who has formed a devastating bench combo with his brother Aaron -– they’re combining for 17.6 points and three three-pointers a game, at a 38% clip. Even Doug McDermott, a disappointment in Chicago and New York, is shooting 47% from behind the arc, and T.J. McConnell, cut loose by the Sixers, is averaging 4.9 assists in under 18 minutes per game. Maybe he feels comfortable among so many other TJs in Indiana (they also have T.J. Leaf).
Even the players who stayed have been underrated! Domantas Sabonis, who signed a controversial extension in the fall, has backed it up by averaging 18 points and a whopping 13.3 rebounds. Myles Turner was fifth in the Defensive Player of the Year vote last season -- he should have been higher -– and has continued his defensive dominance this season. Experts say Sabonis and Turner don’t provide enough spacing to play together, but Sabonis-Turner lineups are outscoring opponents by six points per 100 possessions. Indiana is even getting solid, limited minutes from rookie center Goga Bitadze, the greatest (and only) Georgian NBA player since Zaza Pachulia!
On a 56-win pace, the Pacers have won 12 of their past 15. They’re seventh in defensive rating and 13th in offensive rating, though that second number should rise with Oladipo. Lamb is comfortable coming off the bench, and he and Brogdon can both easily play next to the unmasked Thingamjig. It’s an ideal situation for Oladipo to come back to, because Brogdon, Lamb, and Holiday the Younger can take over ball-handling duties and defending the other team’s best guard. Meanwhile, Victor can focus on easing his way back, getting his body right, and nailing the high harmonies on his next R&B album.
None of the Pacers' additions were nearly as flashy as adding Kyrie Irving, or Jimmy Butler, or Kemba Walker, or even Al Horford, but Brogdon is arguably as valuable as any of them. And many of the things Indiana is very good at don’t show up in the box score: They don’t get a lot of steals, and they’re only 11th in blocks, but they’re great at limiting three-point attempts (fourth in the league) and harassing opponents into low-percentage shots (teams only shoot 43.6% from the field). They don’t have a 20-point scorer, but they have seven guys averaging more than nine points. The Pacers don’t make a lot of threes –- Reggie Miller is shaking his head right now -- but they make the second-most two-pointers.
Look, Indiana can’t compete with Milwaukee when it comes to top-end talent, and this season's Bucks are a juggernaut. But the Pacers can match up with any other Eastern contender, and it’s doubtful that the Bucks would look forward to playing them in May. Indiana has the big to contain Giannis as much as anyone can and the perimeter defenders to throttle Milwaukee’s three-point-crazy offense.
The Pacers are ready to make playoff games very difficult, and with Oladipo, they’ll also have a closer who can get his own shots in tough spots. That guy might also be Brogdon. He’s certainly not going to miss any clutch free throws.
Boston is more popular, Philly has more stars, Toronto is the defending champions, and Miami is the best soap opera (thank you, Dion Waiters!). But when all is said and done, the biggest threat to the Bucks may well be the NBA’s most anonymous contender, the Pacers. Because the most dangerous opponent is the one you don’t see coming.