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Midseason Review: Does it matter if the Pacers are the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns?

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Real or not, this team was built to be enjoyed.

Original image via Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s important to preface this hypothetical question, originally posed by SB Nation’s Tom Ziller, with a quick overview of some of the itchy sweater-like qualities each of the last few seasons have possessed which seemingly made the Pacers an endless loop of tough hang.

Recall, for instance, that the playoff lives of the 2013-14 second-half swoon, “selfish dudes” Pacers hinged, in part, upon whether Atlanta’s Pero Antic (who is no longer in the league) would miss the open threes that Roy Hibbert (also no longer in the league) couldn’t contest.

Then, the 2014-15 Pacers basically had the rug ripped out from underneath them when Paul George sustained a devastating compound fracture to his left leg during a Team USA scrimmage.

The following campaign was fraught with repeated unfathomable collapses in the fourth quarter, which of course could only be outdone by last season’s plague of consistent inconsistency as the vultures swirled around Indiana’s franchise player.

It’s been a hard slog desperately in need of an injection of pure unadulterated fun.

And these Pacers have delivered.

From Lance Stephenson throwing fall-down passes and playing air guitar to Victor Oladipo draining multiple big, late-game shots and starting a post-game interview by charging himself with 10 self-punishing push-ups for a missed free throw, the Pacers have rallied from multiple 20-plus point deficits, they’ve been a viral meme waiting to happen, they’ve completely flipped the script on last summer’s largely panned trade, and they’ve had unexpected star power.

So, the fans have to be allowed to live a little.

Nevertheless, there are some nagging concerns as to whether at least some of this era of good feelings has been an unsustainable mirage like that presumed-to-be-tanking Suns team turned out to be the season after they surprised the league by winning 48 games.

On the season, Indiana is currently the only team in the league that ranks among the bottom five in points allowed in the paint per 100 possessions as well as opponent three point attempts per 100 possessions.

Given their already precarious position in the upper right quadrant of the above chart, it’s hardly any wonder that they went 0-4 when Oladipo was out of the lineup with knee soreness earlier this month.

As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out, Indiana allowed opponents to score 118.0 points per 100 possessions over the four games he missed.

And here’s the thing: He’s rarely, if ever, responsible for locking down the opposing team’s best player. Instead, Bojan Bogdanovic’s length attempts to tread water so that Oladipo’s quick hands can do the work that better correlates with his team’s record, which is suffocating passing lanes and creating easy transition opportunities for himself and his teammates.

The Pacers are 2-12 when they fail to outscore their opponent in points off turnovers, a win percentage that is far worse than their overall record. As such, winning this category doesn’t guarantee victory, but losing it almost always spells trouble.

Another red flag is that they’re scoring a league-leading 18.2 percent of their points from mid-range this season, while ranking among the top five in three-point percentage and bottom five in three-point attempts per 100 possessions.

All of which means that on nights when they’re high-quality, low-quantity threes don’t fall, as was the case when they went 1-of-18 at the midway point of the season against the Miami Heat, they’re forced to outgun opponents with twos while they struggle to limit opposing shots from behind the arc and oftentimes get abused by more physical roll-men.

That’s a math problem.

Still, part of the reason they managed to stay afloat in that particular contest was because Oladipo showcased the newfound control he has over his athleticism off the bounce, as he led all scorers with 26 points while going 9-of-12 in the restricted area and attempting eleven free throws.

Even if the Pacers prove to be fool’s gold, the likely first-time All-Star has compiled quite the dossier of evidence to suggest that he’s legit on what suddenly looks like a discount deal that doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

In that regard, Kevin Pritchard has plenty of flexibility headed into this summer.

Granted, the probability that Thaddeus Young will pick up his $13.7 million player option right before he turns 30 needs to be weighed carefully before the trade deadline, but it’s not as if they risk paying a hefty long-term price for believing in the present day success of their own talent.

Glenn Robinson III is set to hit unrestricted free agency, but he has yet to play a game to leverage the market after undergoing surgery on his left ankle. Meanwhile, Myles Turner is designated rookie extension eligible, but it’s possible that his somewhat stagnant year-over-year growth could result in the front office exercising economical prudence in the immediate.

Otherwise, they’ll only have low cost decisions to make on Joe Young and Lance Stephenson while they wait to see if Cory Joseph plans to test free agency.

Supposing that they happen to turn back into a pumpkin after the trade deadline has come and gone, they can still shop the partially guaranteed contracts of Al Jefferson, Darren Collison, and Bojan Bogdanovic ahead of draft night to teams looking to shed salary.

It may turn out the Pacers are the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns, but they have the options to prevent themselves from becoming the 2014-15 to present Phoenix Suns.

After four seasons of being pestered by various lingering annoyances, this team should be savored for however long they last.