Exceeding expectations isn’t always a good thing. In the short term, it’s great. You get to bask in the glow of a job well done, or at least done better than expected — though I guess people not expecting you to do that well in the first place is kind of a rough thing to deal with — but the downside is that moving forward, you have to exceed the already exceeded expectations again, which is a much trickier task. The parameters have been redefined and what was once satisfactory no longer is. It’s an odd place to be and it’s where the Indiana Pacers find themselves going into the upcoming season.
Last year, no one really expected the Pacers to do much more than halfheartedly compete for a playoff spot after trading their best player, Paul George, for what appeared like basketball playing flotsam and jetsam in the forms of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis 0- both fine players, but not needle-movers. However, both players exceeded the wildest expectations of even the most optimistic Pacers prognosticators. Oladipo improved in pretty much every way imaginable, winning Most Improved Player while finding himself a much deserved spot on the All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive teams. Sabonis, while improving less dramatically, still raised his shooting percentages by over 11 percent and became a much more proficient rebounder as well.
You can’t expect any player on the Pacers to take an Oladipo-esque leap this season, though really that’s the sort of thing you can never really expect, but just hope for. Myles Turner is entering his fourth season and each of the last two years felt like the year he’d take a leap, but just kind of didn’t. Though his per game averages dropped with the acquisition of Domantas Sabonis last season, his per 36 numbers have been pretty much identical for all three of his seasons in the league, with the only real improvement coming in 3-point shooting.
Watching Turner play, it’s easy to be captivated by his potential. He moves extremely well for his size, has a very good shot, improving his percentages from both mid-range and downtown each year, while also showcasing great potential as a shot-blocker and rim-protector. All of this actually makes his lack of a proverbial leap even more confounding and kind of frustrating. It’s not entirely clear what needs to change. However, Turner is just 22 so acting at all disappointed in his development seems like a bit of an overreaction. The Pacers just need Turner to improve if they are going to move forward and become a Finals contender. Quite simply, if any player on this roster is going to be a future All-Star alongside Oladipo someday, it’s going to be him.
The Pacers opted to not shake things up too much this offseason, with their biggest move being the signing of Tyreke Evans to a one year deal. Last year, Evans had the best season since his 2009-10 rookie campaign, while displaying a newfound ability to shoot 3’s. Even if Evans is unable to replicate his performance from last season, he should supply some much needed playmaking for a team that is fairly weak at point guard and lacks other playmakers apart from Oladipo. Otherwise, this team is pretty much the same one Indiana had last year and the team is counting on getting better through internal development, betting on further growth from young players such as Turner and Sabonis.
While last year was a bit of a free pass for the Pacers, this year expectations are present, which they kind of weren’t last year. And not only are they present, for Pacers fans, they’re relatively high. While not in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference with Philadelphia, Boston, and Toronto, they will battle for the fourth seed with Milwaukee, Washington, and Miami. Unless they’re able to steal a top-three seed and sneak into the Conference Finals, this is a team that will not be able to surprise anyone, but that should not disappoint their fans or neutral observers around the league.
The Pacers will not contend for a championship imminently, but they are still a very good team with a great player in Oladipo and two intriguing players still in their early 20’s in Turner and Sabonis. Depending on how things go this year, the team will have a ton of flexibility moving forward, with just $42 million committed to players for the 2019-20 season, though that’s not including Turner’s near certain new contract. The team is good and should be for years to come, but they aren’t a finished product yet. Even if the Pacers merely repeat what happened last year, no one should be fooled into thinking the Pacers are stuck. The heightened expectations placed upon them this year should not obscure the fact that short of missing the Playoffs entirely, this team is on the right track and exactly where they want to be.