INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers were full of surprises this season.
They won more games than expected. They proved more competitive than projected. Heck, they even forced the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game, all while receiving the stamp of approval from the world’s best player.
Not bad for a team that was supposed to be sitting home and plotting draft strategy long ago.
“This was one of the most amazing seasons of my career,” forward Thaddeus Young said. “We played for one another, not as individuals. It’s tough (being eliminated), but this is a great group of guys. We all gave our blood and sweat to the game and each other.”
And it could be just the start.
The Pacers’ future looks far brighter than it did 12 months ago after they were swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Back then, questions about Paul George‘s future in Indiana loomed heavily over the franchise. By late June, new general manager Kevin Pritchard was forced into a difficult choice when George’s camp made his plans public: Take one more shot at winning a title with George and risk losing him in free agency, or start rebuilding immediately.
Pritchard opted for a widely panned trade that netted Victor Oladipo and Domas Sabonis.
It all turned out just fine for Pritchard and the Pacers.
Oladipo emerged as the leader of this young group, earned his first All-Star trip, won the league’s steals title and eventually figured out how to deal with constant double teams, a familiar treatment for superstars.
“They obviously have the snake in Vic, unbelievable jump from last year to this year,” LeBron James said after scoring 45 points in a Game 7 victory. “I mean, we all saw the improvement and why he is a franchise-caliber player. And everybody on down, they just got a well-rounded team and they definitely pushed us, pushed us to the brink.”
Sabonis, a lottery pick in 2016, became a key contributor off the bench. Point guard Darren Collison was the NBA’s most accurate 3-point shooter. Young and Bojan Bogdanovic thrived in their roles, too.
Four of the starting five and Sabonis are already under contract for next season, the lone exception being Young. He and backup point guard Cory Joseph have player options, and Pritchard likely will exercise the team option on Lance Stephenson.
If Young and Joseph opt in, the Pacers would have their top eight players back from a team that won 48 games, fell just short of finishing in the top four in the Eastern Conference and was within four points late in their final playoff game at Cleveland.
“We did an amazing job this year sticking together,” Stephenson said. “This is one of the funnest teams I’ve been on. We left it on the floor every night, every game. Each and every one of us had a goal. Now, everyone in the world knows who we are.”
Now, they’re out to prove they can be dramatically better next season.
The key may be the continued development of Myles Turner, Indiana’s 22-year-old center and one of the league’s leaders in blocks. The Pacers need him to get stronger and become a better rebounder.
At times this season, he showed how dominant he could be. Now the Pacers are asking him to stay healthy, become a more consistent scorer and help Oladipo lead this team to greater success.
“I wouldn’t trade this year or the men in that locker room for anyone. It’s been phenomenal,” Oladipo said. “It’s the best locker room I’ve been a part of. It’s been an honor playing with those men and I look forward to growing with them in the future.”
.@VicOladipo on what he considers the best locker room he’s known: “We left it all out there. … It was an honor to play alongside those gentlemen.” pic.twitter.com/r4HPEcmPHs
— FOX Sports Indiana (@FSIndiana) April 29, 2018