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Indiana Pacers Season Preview: The Pacers need to be themselves, but better

The surprise team of last season is no longer a surprise, so what’s next?

Original image via Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

As part of SB Nation’s preseason coverage, Indy Cornrows looked backward and forward to assess the front office’s understated summer and determine what it will take for the Pacers to prove last season wasn’t a fluke. Be sure to check out the other blogs for previews of each NBA team.

Team Name: Indiana Pacers

Last Year’s Record: 48-34

Key Losses: Flying under the radar.

Key Additions: Shooting, secondary playmaking, depth, heightened expectations, and a slew of one-year/expiring contracts.

What significant moves were made during the offseason?

By hitting the upgrade button on Lance Stephenson (Tyreke Evans), Al Jefferson (Kyle O’Quinn), injured Glenn Robinson III (Doug McDermott) and Joe Young (Aaron Holiday), Indiana’s front office conservatively addressed pressing needs without entirely remaking the group that so quickly learned how and leaned into playing together last season.

Nothing the Pacers did was particularly glitzy, but they retained their top seven players in terms of minutes played while scooping up less sought-after talent capable of easing some of the pressure on Victor Oladipo.

“We kind of embrace the guys who are overlooked and unloved,” Kevin Pritchard said of the franchise’s approach to team-building. “We are not about splashy. We are about doing the right things at the right time and then working our butt off.”

In that regard, adding Evans to manipulate the pick-and-roll with McDermott creating space for him and/or Indiana’s first-time All-Star to maneuver couldn’t have been more timely.

The Pacers got outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Oladipo went to the bench last season, and the team’s heavy reliance on mid-range jumpers came back to bite in their seven-game series against the Cavaliers when their field goal percentage on open twos dropped from 47 percent in the regular season to 41 percent.

With the new acquisitions at his disposal, Nate McMillan has the luxury to always keep at least one dynamic shot-creator on the floor (ensuring the bench is never without a driving force as a fulcrum), and he should (emphasis on should) be ready to willingly hand over the scepter and crown to the next league-leader in percentage of shots taken from between the paint and the three-point line.

What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Like a Spirograph, a geometric drawing toy that uses an array of wheels and rings to create intricate designs of various shapes and forms, the Pacers have the adaptable floor balance to generate numerous arrangements of player spacing.

Whenever they want to be contrarian, for instance, they can lift Myles Turner to the opposite slot with Domantas Sabonis setting the ball screen and react to the decision made by the tagger while swapping Collison for Oladipo or Evans as the ball-handler and dotting both corners with shooters.

Alternatively, when either Oladipo or Evans attacks the basket without a screen, they can keep Thaddeus Young in the dunker spot to manufacture angles for drop-off passes when his man goes to trap the box.

Young also comes in handy to run side pick-and-roll with Sabonis, given that the action forces one or more of three defenders to have to stunt at the ball at the risk of leaving open an off-ball threat.

Or, by doubling the centers and dynamic playmakers, they can put undue stress on the nail defender by firing the ball behind the pick-and-roll action on one side of the floor into a step-up screen on the other.

With each shift in alignment, the Pacers have the potential to single out a different help defender from a distinct area of the floor without bumping into one another.

Assuming the team-first concept carries over from last season with nine free agents on the roster, the improved spacing around Oladipo should be plug and chug — allowing them to be who they are, but better.

What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

In addition to needing to find out if Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis can play together, the rest of the teams expected to be near the top of the Eastern Conference feature multi-talented wings with size (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward in Boston, Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, and Kawhi Leonard in Toronto) that are capable of testing the Pacers where they are thinnest.

Last season, slotting Bojan Bogdanovic’s improved footwork and admirable effort against the opposing team’s top wing threat facilitated Oladipo’s ability to roam, and the Croatian National Team star definitely had his moments — from making it tough on DeMar DeRozan to holding LeBron to 2-of-7 shooting when he was his primary defender in Game 3 while exploding for 30 points.

Nevertheless, outside of that memorable performance, LeBron shot above 50 percent from the field when defended by Bogdanovic. Worse still, since — let’s face it — stopping the generational talent probably wasn’t a real option, was that the 29-year-old sharpshooter went 10-of-36 from three over those games.

McDermott is on board to bear some of that burden in terms of mitigating fatigue and supplementing dry spells, but it remains to be seen whether the duo’s ability to tag team defending the wing will be a sustainable strategy in the playoffs against versatile spread lineups that have the tools to stretch Thaddeus Young’s elastic defense in multiple directions (i.e. Lowry-Green-Leonard-Anunoby-Siakam in Toronto, Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Horford in Boston).

“Lately, I’ve been working a lot with the staff on defensive mechanics,” McDermott said at the Pacers Foundation Golf Outing.

“It’s tough to guard guys one-on-one in this league, regardless” he explained, while advocating that his defense is better than his reputation suggests. “I feel like I’m a great team defender, and I can definitely hold my own — so I’m excited.”

As was the case with Bogdanovic last season, however, the true test of the wing defense as well as the viability of the Turner-Sabonis pairing won’t come until after the regular season.

What are the goals for the team?

Having lost the surprise factor after wildly exceeding expectations, the Pacers must stay hungry while steering clear of regression to build on their momentum from last season. Oladipo, for instance, isn’t starting out as the largely panned return in the Paul George trade; he’s an All-Star, who should expect to be treated as such by opposing defenses. No longer flying under the radar, the Pacers need to ensure that their palpable desire to outwork opponents remains firmly rooted at the core of their identity.

As such, they’re staying focused on living in the moment rather than resting on the past or projecting into the future.

“To sit here and say, ‘We’re winning the championship this year.’ I’ve never got into that,” Nate McMillan said in an interview with Pat Boylan and Mark Boyle. “There are a lot of people who like to talk that way, and for the fan base that’s a good conversation. But as far as the team and our approach is to be better than we were yesterday.”

Oladipo doubled-down on the idea of dialing-in on incremental gains, “Win. Simple as that, just win. I believe if you take it one day at a time and try to win today and win one day at time that everything will take care of itself.

“I think that is why we were so good last year,” he went on to explain. “We didn’t look too far ahead and we didn’t look behind, we just focused on the there and now.”

Thaddeus Young likewise made clear his preference that the team avoid making any assumptions while keeping both eyes fixed squarely on the present.

“What we do have to discuss is that we haven’t done anything,” said the lefty power forward. “We didn’t win the series. It’s a new year and we have to focus-in on the task at hand, which is going out there and starting a new season and rebuilding ourselves back up.”

In order to do that, they’re going to have to find a way to keep last season’s magic alive while simultaneously leaving the past in the past.