Checking in on the Pacers’ Looming Heartache

Photo by Madison Quisenberry/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s an old play that’s been running through my head lately. It was 2013, and top-ranked Indiana (University, that is—we’re back to college for this one) was locked in a duel with third-ranked Michigan at home. Up by four late in the game, Indiana got a three-on-two opportunity in transition with Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo flanking Jordan Hulls. Hulls saw Oladipo lurking behind both defenders and threw him an alley-oop.

It was an awful pass—a running, one-handed flip from the wing that, had Oladipo not caught it, would have landed in the corner and bounced straight into the tunnel. But Oladipo, who had done some Optimus Prime shit that year, caught it anyway, and because Oladipo had done some Optimus Prime shit that year, the world braced for the impact of Oladipo throwing down a tomahawk on the fabric of reality.

Except, well, Oladipo didn’t.

There are hundreds of missed dunks every year, but that one’s stuck with me more than most (most). I thought about it when my dear, sweet Cleveland Cavaliers passed on Oladipo for Anthony Bennett. I thought about it when the Oklahoma City Thunder sent Oladipo back to the scene of his near asteroid-landing in exchange for Paul George. I thought about it when Oladipo’s knee exploded early in 2019. And I thought about it when the news broke last month that Oladipo wants to leave the Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers have lived much of their existence as a thoroughly good professional basketball organization. Since 1990, they’ve missed the playoffs just six times and have never finished lower than 10th in the East. There have been times where they came agonizingly close to blasting through that ceiling—behind Reggie Miller in the 1990s, with Ron Artest and Jermaine O’neal in the 2000s, and most recently, in the early 2010s, on the back of Paul George and vertically outstretched arms of Roy Hibbert. But each time the Pacers threatened, their title aspirations were crushed into dust by superpowers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and WhereverLeBronJameswasinanygivenyear.

Jettisoning George for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the summer of 2017 was supposed to glue the Pacers to the passenger’s seat for another few years. Oladipo and Sabonis looked like solid young pieces, the kind who typically inspire optimism but whose shine rarely escapes the silhouette of an All-NBA wing. A few Pacers of old (Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young, human incarnates of Indiana’s ‘thoroughly good ethos; also Lance Stephenson) and new (Cory Joseph, Bojan Bogdanovic and Myles Turner, young(ish) players who’d flashed with varying brightness), rounded out yet another thoroughly good Pacers rotation.

You’d be forgiven if that’s all you see right now—the Pacers, taking after their namesake and peeling out to retool for another lap in an endless race against monumentally spec’d-out opponents. Maybe that is what’s happening right now. But if this iteration of the Pacers is headed to the scrapyard, it’s not because they lacked the parts—it’s because they blew a gasket before they could ever get going.

Between the established juggernauts up north (Milwaukee, Toronto) and the rising ones (Boston, Philadelphia) along the east coast, it should’ve been impossible for the Pacers to stand out after trading their star. The Pacers did it anyway, winning 48 games in year one post-PG, and earning themselves a duel for the ages on one of this millennium’s most hallowed proving grounds: a playoff series against LeBron James.

Generations of up-and-comers, from Kawhi Leonard to Jayson Tatum to the very man who Indiana traded for Oladipo, have entered the LeGauntlet and emerged a star. He only (“only“) scored 23 per game in his series, but make no mistake: Oladipo eviscerated the Cavs the entire series, never more so than in his Game 6 masterpiece to stave off elimination. A year after hitting the reset button, Indiana had already come back to life.

You know what happened next. Like George, Oladipo followed up a postseason bout with LeBron by suffering a nightmare-fuel leg injury. But these Pacers were never the type to go gentle into the night. With an Oladipo-sized hole in the offense, Bogdanovic showed out as the Pacers’ new primary option, and the rest of the team stepped up. When Bogdanovic leveraged his play into a payday in Utah, the Pacers got themselves another pair of All-Star-level players in Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. And when nearly half of their rotation bounced alongside Bogdanovic, they swapped in Jeremy Lamb, TJ Warren, TJ McConnell, and Justin and Aaron Holiday without missing much of a beat. When Oladipo returned, he’d be coming back to an even better team than the one he left.

But as hard as they fought, the Pacers missed a few punches. Instead of evolving into the prototypical modern three-and-D center Ibaka never became, Turner has somewhat plateaued into the thoroughly good one Ibaka did become and could also be on the move. Stocked with thoroughly good players like Bogdanovic, Sabonis, Brogdon, and Warren, the Pacers have gotten swept in the first round in back-to-back years by teams with qualifier-free stars in Boston and Miami. And of course, although there have been sightings, the Victor Oladipo who rampaged through the King’s court has yet to fully reappear—and may not ever do so in a Hickory jersey.

Every year, young and exciting cores leap toward the stratosphere only to crash and burn during ascent. Such is the nature of the NBA. But these Pacers survived a multi-car pileup and salvaged enough parts to build themselves back up better. They’d done the hard part. And now, when all the pieces should be falling into place, they’re falling apart instead.

Maybe this is all premature. After all Oladipo and Turner are still under contract, and the Pacers have a new coach who Oladipo appears excited about. I’d like to think it is—that thoroughly good is this team’s floor and not its ceiling, that the Oladipo-George parallels diverge after their injuries, and that this isn’t just another lap for the Pacers. Because if it’s not, and there’s one tragic difference between George and Oladipo: Oladipo never took his best shot.

If it is in fact over, though, the Pacers will bounce back. Given their history, they’ll likely be right back in the playoff race sooner rather than later. Maybe the next thoroughly good Pacers team finally, finally blasts through the ceiling into qualifier-free greatness. Until they do, though, and probably even for a while after, I’ll be thinking about Oladipo, soaring through the rafters, unbound, unfulfilled.

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