The Indiana Pacers’ best player is back, but how will they reintegrate Victor Oladipo now that he’s got so many new teammates on this new-look roster?
How do you reintegrate a star player who has been out for over a year? How do you even begin to devise the answer to that question when your roster has changed dramatically in the interim, and when another one of your players — who has previously a supplementary piece — has emerged as a star in his own right?
These are the questions the Indiana Pacers will have to find an answer to over the next several weeks as they make their way toward the playoffs. When we last saw Victor Oladipo on the floor, the Pacers had Darren Collison at the point, Bojan Bogdanovic at the 3 and Thaddeus Young at the 4. Domantas Sabonis was a backup playing 25-ish minutes per game.
Oladipo had broken out as a superstar the year earlier but seemed like a slightly diminished version of himself for much of last season, playing as he was through several lower-body injuries. Eventually, the strain became too much and he tore a tendon in his knee.
In the time since then, Collison has retired, Bogdanovic signed with the Utah Jazz and Young signed with the Chicago Bulls. Malcolm Brogdon was acquired in a sign-and-trade deal to start at one backcourt slot, Jeremy Lamb was signed away from the Charlotte Hornets to start at the other, T.J. Warren was practically stolen from the Phoenix Suns as part of a draft-day deal, and Sabonis slid into the starting lineup alongside Myles Turner.
Things went pretty damn well for the Pacers even without Oladipo. They compiled a 30-17 record in his absence, which means they were playing at a 52-win pace. Brogdon began the year absolutely on fire, revealing a level of skill and creativity that had gone untapped during his time in Milwaukee, vaulting himself into All-Star discussions. Sabonis took over the lead role in the team’s offense, began dominating on the glass even more than he already had been and actually did make it to the All-Star Game.
Lamb and Warren proved strong fits on the wing alongside those two. Aaron Holiday and T.J. McConnell played well behind Brogdon and Lamb. Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott slid into useful roles as off-the-bench snipers. Everything fit pretty well. Everything worked. It led to wins. It was comfortable.
Oladipo, though, is clearly the most talented player on the team, and he raises their ceiling significantly. Figuring out a way to reorient around him while not losing what extra things Brogdon and Sabonis in particular have been bringing to the table is a worthwhile goal — largely because it seems like the only way the Pacers will be able to make the kind of noise any team hopes to make when it gets to the playoffs. The question is how to do both of those things at once.
There are no easy answers. The path the Pacers appear to have chosen involves easing Oladipo back into the lineup. Head coach Nate McMillan said prior to the game that through the All-Star break, Oladipo will be limited to 24 minutes a night and will not play in both ends of back-to-backs. He’ll also operate primarily as a reserve.
He came off the bench in his first game back from injury, playing 21 minutes in an overtime win over the Bulls. His game-tying shot late in regulation sent the game into overtime, but also highlighted how he is not quite yet the same guy: a ferocious attacker when at his best, Oladipo took seven of his eight shots during this game from beyond the arc, and only one of those shots went in the basket.
He quickly seemed to re-establish his dribble hand-off chemistry with Sabonis, which is a good sign. That was arguably the single best part of the Pacers’ offense before Oladipo got injured in the first place. Getting that aspect of their game back in groove should be a high priority. It’s notable that neither Myles Turner nor Aaron Holiday appeared in Oladipo’s return game, though, with Turner sitting out due to injury and Holiday appearing to fall behind McConnell in the rotation. Adding Turner back into the mix brings a plus shooter who can spread the floor for the Oladipo-Sabonis two-man game, but also another mouth to feed.
The Bulls also did not provide too much in the way of a challenge for Oladipo defensively, and we’ll have to see how his lateral mobility has been affected when he tries to guard the best perimeter opponents. Oladipo’s stifling multi-positional defense was the base from which he built his stardom, and what he was able to fall back on if and when his shot wasn’t falling or he wasn’t getting calls. Indiana has Brogdon available to take tougher matchups off his hands if need be, but if Oladipo is not wrecking things on defense then he’s not really the same Oladipo.
This is going to be a process, and not necessarily a quick or easy one. It’s going to take some time, perhaps even until next season. The Pacers will be better off for it eventually, but by the time they really get things clicked back into place, they may have to make a decision regarding which pieces of their core to pay, and how much.