Haliburton’s Pacers are too good to tank, and that’s okay too

When the Indiana Pacers received the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, it was the franchise’s highest pick in 34 years. With a fifth-worst record last season (25-57), the Pacers have recorded only their third 50-loss season in the last 36 seasons.

Despite Indiana’s reluctance to bottom out under owner Herb Simon, the Pacers have always managed to retool on the fly before eventually finding their way to a competitive core.

There’s no championship to show, but teams led by Reggie Miller in the ’90s, Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest in the early days, and then Paul George in the first half of the 2010s all achieved true contender status. Indiana often built better teams than many of its competitors who were consistently at the top of the draft.

That was The Pacers Way.

When Kevin Pritchard took over from Larry Bird as Indiana’s President of Basketball Operations in 2017, he reinforced that franchise ethos. “I don’t believe in tearing it down, because then you can tear down your culture,” Pritchard said at a press conference five and a half years ago. “You can’t teach guys how to win. Some teams are seven, eight, nine years out of the playoffs. We do not do that.”

So it’s ironic that after accidentally building a team created for last place last season, the Pacers are topping this year with a team built on purpose for tanking for the first time since the ’80s. A team that was widely expected to finish with a record top-five went into the Thanksgiving break with a top-five mark (10-7) in the Eastern Conference and a points difference in the top-10 .

The main reason for that surprise at the start of the season and the development that should make this season a success, no matter how negatively it affects the team’s lottery chances: Tyrese Haliburton is too good to fight with.

With more offensive responsibility in Indiana than Sacramento, Haliburton’s production surged after last year’s midseason trade that sent Domantas Sabonis to the Kings. But the Pacers went 6-20 with Haliburton last year. What the young guard accomplished in five weeks of his first full season as a pacer was far more impressive.

Haliburton keeps the Pacers offense busy while keeping his opponents’ heads spinning. He’s fueled the league’s eighth best offense by perfectly balancing his abilities as a super-efficient goalscorer and game-changing playmaker.

He drives more often and gets to the edge more often while still harnessing the power of his passing game when piercing defenses. He shoots the leather off the ball while enjoying an analytically savvy shooting diet with 71% of his attempts coming from either behind the arc or on the edge.

Though Haliburton’s individual offensive performance was a revelation, his stunning play was somehow better.

Haliburton leads the seventh-fastest team in the league (in terms of both overall pace and average offensive possession time) and needs opponents who tremble when switching. Exaggerate your hand to stop him, and he’ll find an open teammate – often in spectacular fashion – for an easy bucket. Give Haliburton too much room and you’re basically green-lighting one of the NBA’s most devastating pull-up threats.

He’s also developed a symphonic pick-and-roll partnership with Myles Turner and leads the league with an assist percentage of 48.9%, which means nearly half of every non-Haliburton basket the Pacers make , when he’s on the pitch, is assisted by Haliburton.

He averages 19.8 points and league-leading 10.8 assists while shooting 57.1% from 2-point range, 38.8% on 7.1 3-point attempts per game and 86.3% from the free throw line shoots. Among qualifying 3-pointers, James Harden and Magic Johnson are the only other players to average at least 19 points and 10 assists on 60% correct shooting in a season. So this is a good time to remind you that Haliburton is 22 years old and only about a quarter of his third pro season through.

In Haliburton, the Pacers have already found the kind of essential Star Teams tank. If that ends up costing them ping-pong balls in this year’s lottery — where even the worst team only has a 14% chance of winning — so be it.

Dylan Buell/NBA/Getty Images

There’s more: Indiana may have found another one of those founding stars during their rare appearance in the draft top 6 last summer, as Bennedict Mathurin looked like a steal.

The 20-year-old Canadian averages 19.4 points with a 60.7% batting average when shooting off the bench, putting him in the early competition of being the first rookie since Ben Gordon in 2004-05 to shoot the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award wins.

A great shooting guard, Mathurin possesses a rare combination of shooting range and brute force as a driver, which has led to him parading to the free throw line. With just 17 games into his career, Mathurin is in the 97th percentile among wingers when it comes to penalties, according to Cleaning The Glass. Among frequently used rookie guards in the 21st century, only Chris Paul and Keyon Dooling recorded a higher rate of free throws.

That rim pressure, foul baiting and shooting make Mathurin a perfect complement to Haliburton in the backcourt of the Pacers of the future.

Behind them, Turner is quietly enjoying a career year.

The Pacers have underperformed on defense (they rank No. 18), but the fact that Indiana doesn’t flirt with last place in that department is a testament to Turner. The big man’s impressive 2.8 blocks per game doesn’t do justice to his defensive power. The difference between Turner’s league-leading 9.6 rim shots defended per game and Sabonis’ second-place 7.7 tally equals the difference between Sabonis and Ivica Zubac in 17th place.

Zubac, Brook Lopez and Isaiah Hartenstein are among the 25 players most frequently challenged at the edge, also the only three players who edge opponents at a lower field goal percentage than Turner.

However, the most promising aspect of Turner’s preseason success was his offensive development. He won’t continue to shoot 45% from deep and he can still improve when it comes to bullying mismatches at the post, but Turner’s willingness to ground the ball and attack closeouts so far this season gives him a boost a more complete offensive arsenal. It’s also one of the reasons he’s averaging a career-high 18.6 points, along with a career-high 8.4 rebounds.

Turner’s ability to protect the rim on one end while clearing the ground on the other makes him a coveted big man in modern times, especially now that he’s also a bigger threat as a reel man in pick-and-roll actions . Its development begs the question: why are so many pundits eager to dismiss it as the centerpiece of Indiana’s rebuilding?

Playing on an expiring contract for a team that went into the season on lottery odds, Turner seemed an obvious trade candidate. The Pacers could reclaim draft capital while sending him to a team trying to win now. But at just 26, Turner can still be a part of the next big Pacers team. Though it feels like he’s been around – and on the trading bloc – forever, his timeline can still match that of Haliburton and Mathurin.

Unless Indiana is blown away by a trade offer or Turner leaves no doubt that he plans to leave on a free hand, the Pacers should consider how to keep the two-time big man in Hoosier State.

Jeff Haynes/NBA/Getty Images

The cute Buddy Hield would be a more sensible trade chip if the Pacers want to balance playing this season and planning for the future. The same goes for TJ McConnell if the veteran guard is able to resume play by deadline day.

As good as Haliburton, Turner, Mathurin and Hield have been, the Pacers need to remain realistic about their 2022-23 prospects. Your fifth best player might be Isaiah Jackson. They have played one of the softest schedules in the league so far, taking advantage of some injury-plagued teams; Indiana’s last four wins have come against Magic, Rockets, and Hornets. After hosting Brooklyn on Friday, the Pacers will embark on a tough seven-game road trip through Los Angeles, Sacramento, Utah, Portland, Golden State and Minnesota.

Most projection models are estimating their final winning total to be in the mid to late 30’s, which should see them contend for the East’s last play-in spot. It’s good. As daunting as the middle of the field may be, there’s a big difference between a 35-for-40 winning team fueled by young players who will serve as your foundation for years to come, and a mediocre team that already is has mortgaged the future just to get there (like divisional rivals Bulls). Keep in mind that the Pacers’ preseason over/under wins were set at just 24.5.

Not only do the Pacers own all of their future first-round picks, but they’re also on track to have two additional first-rounders (from Boston and Cleveland) this season, leaving plenty of draft capital available.

The Pacers would have liked to have used some of that near the top of the 2023 draft, and they may still be able to do so if the season goes off track and the lottery goes its way. But the presence of Haliburton, Mathurin and possibly even Turner has them in good shape regardless of how this season or the lottery turns out.

It’s a fun place for a recovery team, and Indiana only had to endure one really miserable season to get here.

Whether intentional or not, it just seems to be the Pacers way.

Joseph Casciaro is the Senior Content Producer of theScore.