I came to the Indiana Pacers’ tank job and a really good season ensued.
Didn’t the Pacers get the memo that also got lost in the mail en route to Utah and Oklahoma City? This entire season has been designed for Indiana to hit rock bottom, earn ping-pong balls and take a chance to draw Victor Wembanyama.
With the Pacers’ two-game win at the Orlando Magic on Saturday and Monday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the Pacers — the non-tanking Pacers — moved up to 10-6 and ranked fourth in the Eastern Conference. It’s their best start since 2019, when they finished with 45 wins. Their leader, Tyrese Haliburton, has just been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week. All goes well. And when the Pacers are having fun, free-flowing, hungry three-point basketball with a team made up of eight rotational under-23s, who’s arguing?
With Monday’s 123-102 win, the Pacers have now won five straight games and nine of 11. They’ve taken advantage of the soft schedule to be sure, and things will harden after this current homestand with a protracted West Coast trip taking them to LA to play the Clippers and then the Lakers, followed by games in Sacramento, Utah, Portland, Golden State and Minnesota. It’s getting real fast.
“Tyrese is a big reason,” coach Rick Carlisle said of Haliburton, who is the leader of the line averaging 10.7 assists per game. “He was a big influence and I also think Myles Turner and Buddy Hield were real connections in the dressing room. These guys are often overlooked for what they bring to the chemistry of this team. Tyrese is easy because he has the ball; he has big assist numbers; He’s a great young player. But Myles and Buddy also really have a unique vibe on this team. It’s important to have veterans who can help set the tone for a young team.
The Pacers’ unspoken plan was to reload with a slew of young players who would take their competitive clumps this season, all in hopes of being able to pick near the top of a loaded draft for 2023 that would take the cross-generational Wembanyama.
After years of wallowing in mediocrity and hitting bottom last season with a 25-57 record, team president Kevin Pritchard received owner Herb Simon’s blessing to tear it all down and rebuild with young players and draft assets (the Pacers will be next have three first-round picks this season).
It was the right decision, an overdue decision, but after going just 6-20 after Haliburton and Domantas Sabonis traded late last year, it was believed the Pacers would be a bottom-feeder for at least another season.
It was a glorious revelation and Commissioner Adam Silver, who said he’ll be watching the race down closely, needn’t focus on Indiana. Good news for people who enjoy some of the most immersive basketball games we’ve seen here in years. Bad news for the tanking effort.
The culture has changed. Completely.
TJ McConnell put together his best game of the season, finishing last night’s win over Orlando with 19 points (3:3 a.m.), 10 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals.
“The way they played me, just let it fly.” pic.twitter.com/2tz9j3bW5C
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 22, 2022
“We just have good guys,” said TJ McConnell, who hit 3 3s (oh, wonder!) and hooked a left-handed over the 7-foot Mo Bamba on Monday night. “Great teammates and they want the next one to be successful. And we do it at a high level, make the extra pass, cover each other in defence. And we have a lot of young people coming out and running away and I think we just surprise people. By the time they realize how good we are, it’s a little late in the game.”
Indiana had outscored opponents with 2.7 points per game while averaging 116.8 points per game (fifth best in the league), 46.2% from the field and 36.9% from 3 shots. They also showed unusual resilience, having come back from 10 plus point deficits to win six of those games; A year ago they only came back five times all season. They play with pace and freedom and an eye for 3-pointers, where they rank third in the league for the highest number of 3-pointers per game (15.0).
And they’re young, the ninth youngest team in the league after 10th-oldest last season. The future is bright, but the present is pretty compelling, not to mention unexpected. And locals — and even some national dudes — are taking notice of this flyover franchise.
It all starts with Haliburton.
Tyrese Haliburton tore it up.
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 22, 2022
Carlisle related the story the other night: Haliburton had badly sprained his ankle in Houston the previous Friday night and was in doubt if he would return to Indianapolis to play the Magic on Saturday. There would be stress tests, other modalities used to determine his worthiness for that night’s game.
And then he played – well, really well, with 22 points and 14 assists.
“In an NBA world where sitting out games these days is pretty cool, he (Haliburton) didn’t want to hear about the sitting out,” Carlisle said. “When he watched the piece in the film and flew 2 1/2 hours against the time zones, it just didn’t seem like he was acting at all. But he felt good, did all the pre-game tests and he insisted while playing. We asked him several times, “Are you sure, are you sure, are you sure?” There were no red flags for him, but on the second night of a back-to-back, many players in this league would have willingly taken the night off, and he didn’t.
“It’s another indicator of the culture we’re building here. It’s not just the staff, it’s the best players, so that’s very positive.”
It starts with Haliburton — that trade with Sacramento has worked for both teams — but he’s had plenty of help en route to that surprisingly quick start.
• Bennedict Mathurin – There is so much to admire about the play and approach of the No. 6 pick in the draft as he faces Paolo Banchero for early Rookie of the Year honors. The 20-year-old is relentless, a player in constant attacking mode who consistently hits the line with his speed and physicality. He’s averaging 19.2 points per game while coming off the bench and playing 27.6 minutes per game. “He could always go for 30,” said teammate Oshae Brissett.
• Turner – He’s constantly on the trading bloc and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be dealt by this year’s February close, but he’s past the most consistently effective streak of his career. He recently had a career-best four straight double-doubles and is averaging career-highs in points (17.5 ppg) and rebounds (8.5 rpg) while continuing to be one of the league’s elite shot blockers (3rd place). .0 blocks per game is the first among players). with at least 10 games played). Last but not least, his trade value grows as he shows what he can do in a Sabonis-free zone by playing full-time in the 5th place.
• Hield – He’s also been mentioned in trade talks as a pairing with Turner, but he was so good and such a good teammate the Pacers might be inclined to stick with him. The contract is a bit onerous, but he’s averaging 17.4 points per game and remains Indiana’s most prolific 3-point shooter.
• Another rookie, Andrew Nembhard, brought his savvy old-man game straight to the starting lineup.
• Aaron Nesmith, a former No. 14 pick in the 2020 draft traded with Malcolm Brogdon, had defensive presence and posted a career-high 15 points against Orlando on Saturday.
• Jalen Smith was solid in fourth and did a lot of dirty work.
• McConnell, who had 19 points and 10 assists on Monday, inspired Carlisle to come up with a new term that is very apt. “We needed his thrill.” Right. Exactly. He’s a nuisance, and we say that with respect.
• Isaiah Jackson, a sophomore from Kentucky, is a jumping jack who plays both ends of the parquet. Brissett was effective in limited play. Chris Duarte had his moments before he got hurt.
Carlisle came to Indiana to coach an established team that seemed poised on the cusp of playoff contenders. Then injuries and other problems ruined all those plans. Now he finds himself part of an exciting, fun young team that has taken some of the heat out of a miserable Colts season. And he seems to be having a great time.
“New culture, man,” Brissett said. “We traded a lot of people away and brought in new people. We have a phenomenal locker room, a couple of guys who really care about each other and that carries over to the pitch.”
The Pacers’ tank made a wrong turn. But nobody in Indiana is complaining.
(Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)