The Indiana Pacers lost at home to the Toronto Raptors Saturday night, in an ugly low-scoring game, to drop to 1–6 on the season, tied for the worst record in the NBA. They host the Spurs and Knicks Monday and Wednesday, and then go on the road for a four-game trip out West, where they will be tired underdogs for a solid week. There’s a very good chance Pacers fans will look up on November 12 to find their team at something like 2–11 or 1–12, still early in the year but not too early for 23 weeks of hibernation to start to look mighty appealing as an alternative to sticking through the rest of this season.
The Pacers are supposed to be better than this, and in fact their injury-fueled slide to the pits is mucking up the feng shui of an otherwise delightful first couple weeks of the regular season. The top of the Eastern Conference, on November 1, is chaotic and weird and fun, in the way that the standings often are very early in a long season. The Knicks, Wizards, and Bulls are a combined 15-3, the fast and fun Hornets are in playoff position, and the Raptors, Nets, Hawks, and Bucks are mired in play-in territory. The Celtics are down in hell, where they belong. A person could almost call for the season to be stopped today and the playoffs to commence, except that their conscience would ache for those poor damned Pacers, who would be deprived of even the first encouraging glance of what life might look like with a remotely healthy roster.
It’s unclear when that opportunity might finally come around. Caris LeVert played his first minutes of the season Saturday, following a stress fracture in his back suffered during training camp, and after missing two months last season following a frightening cancer diagnosis. LeVert’s non-triumphant return came just in time to overlap with the absence of Malcolm Brogdon, who’s dealing with a bum hamstring and hasn’t played a full season of healthy basketball in his five-year career. T.J. Warren, who broke out during the bubble season and is supposed to round out Indiana’s starting five, played four total games last season due to a stress fracture in his foot, and remains out indefinitely. Brogdon, LeVert, and Warren are the team’s three primary ball-handlers, without whom a whole lot of playmaking responsibility falls to T.J. McConnell, rookie Chris Duarte, and Brad Wanamaker, and far too many shot-creation duties fall to Jeremy Lamb. There are worse backcourt situations in the NBA (looking at you, Pistons), but not by much. There’s some ugly-ass basketball being played in Indiana these days.
Caitlin Cooper has a cool blog over at Indy Cornrows about some of the tactical stuff and execution troubles the Pacers are running into with a rotation thrown together out of spare parts. Spacing is an issue, as you’d expect of a team running out two traditional bigs in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner alongside a point guard in McConnell who can’t shoot. Duarte, like all rookies, struggles with timing and positioning. New head coach Rick Carlisle has ideas about working variations into familiar Pacers sets, but has the wrong personnel on the floor to make the project sing. There are gains to be mined in cleaning this stuff up, and the Pacers, in their current shape, need to scrounge for every possible edge.
Noting the available marginal gains really drives home, though, how shitty and unfair this start to the season has been for the Pacers. Despite the ruin of their roster, the Pacers are a perfectly respectable 17th in offensive rating; despite their miserable record, they have a better net rating (minus-4.0) than the 4–2 Dallas Mavericks (minus-4.4). They’ve already lost twice in overtime, and twice in regulation in one-possession games. Like last season’s plucky play-in Pacers, these guys are in constant motion, contest everything on defense, and in general battle their asses off. And unlike the Detroit Pistons, who also battle their asses off, their roster has not been built to lose. A starting lineup with Turner, Sabonis, Brogdon, LeVert, and Warren should be very solid, and possibly excellent! A bench with McConnell, Duarte, Lamb, Justin Holiday, Oshae Brissett, and Torrey Craig ought to be perfectly capable. The Pacers should be a good or very good NBA team. Instead they are crud.
The Pacers have been steadfastly stalking basketball respectability for decades. It’s one of the real heroic ongoing traditions across North American professional sports that they haven’t gone for a multiyear tanking project despite never rising much higher than fringe contention, and despite having all the same market disadvantages that inspire other organizations to treat all but the most cynical of roster-building avenues as the exclusive domain of the haves. For a certain type of observer, this has made the Pacers the ultimate exemplar of the so-called treadmill of mediocrity, a theory of team-building that posits that the effort to rise from below-average to average can become a kind of trap—that due to the draft lottery, the salary cap, rookie-scale contracts, restricted free agency, and designated veteran player extensions, there is a more direct route to the top of the standings from the bottom than from the middle.
This was probably not going to be the year when the Pacers and their dogged annual pursuit of relevance dealt a fatal blow to that whole concept, but at least on paper the Pacers had a very good chance of being very good in an Eastern Conference that due to vaccine hesitancy and an overwhelming general loathing of the people of Philadelphia seems to be reasonably open to upstart incursions. I for one would very much like to see what a fully healthy Pacers team could do this year, freed from the madness of the Nate Bjorkgren era and under the capable and steady stewardship of Carlisle.
On the other hand, the NBA’s draft lottery system delivers some tasty rewards for teams who finish the regular season at the bottom of the standings. The Pacers deserve something to break their way. If it doesn’t come in the form of a healthy roster and a chance to chase the top of the East, maybe it will come in the form of lottery gold. Or maybe they will get healthy just in time to miss out on both.