Caris LeVert is primed for an outbreak for the Indiana Pacers this season. The 2020-21 season was a letdown for Pacers fans that had high expectations for the franchise. Injuries to key players and overall underperformance haven’t given the team much to be happy about last year. However, a trade the front office was all but forced to make may prove to be the centerpiece of a big turnaround in the east.
The Emergence of Caris LeVert
Revisiting the Harden Trade
Early in the 2020-2021 season, the Rockets were looking for trade partners. Houston was forced to trade their disgruntled franchise player James Harden and they were desperate to get the best possible package in return for him. The Rockets eventually cut a deal with the Nets that included LeVert, three first-round picks, and four future pick swaps. The Rockets decided against keeping LeVert, choosing instead to involve the Cleveland Cavaliers and Pacers in the trade. Houston sent LeVert to the Pacers for Victor Oladipo, a disgruntled two-time all-star with an unfortunate injury history and an expiring contract.
With the Rockets struggling mightily throughout the season, Oladipo refused to re-sign with the team and was eventually shipped to the Miami Heat for Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and a future draft pick swap.
Trading Oladipo for LeVert was a near no-brainer for the Pacers. Oladipo had made it no secret that he wanted a max contract if he were to stay in Indiana. Due to his injuries, the Pacers were hesitant to give him the contract that he wanted. Instead, they shipped the unhappy all-star in return for LeVert, whose stats rivaled Oladipo’s in the previous season.
Shortly after the trade, LeVert flew to Indianapolis to complete his team physical before joining his new teammates in Los Angeles. Unlike most teams, the Pacers included a lower back MRI as a part of their physical. This MRI revealed a cancerous mass on his kidney. Luckily for LeVert, this mass was successfully removed and he would finally join his teammates on the court a mere three months after surgery.
Setting the Pace
It didn’t take long for LeVert to prove himself in Indiana. Former Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren had faced LeVert in the 2020 Orlando Bubble and was well aware of the potential star power of the young guard/forward. In both the 2019 and 2020 playoffs, LeVert averaged 20.6 points per game for the Nets. He matched this output in his 35 starts for the Pacers, filling the void left by the injured TJ Warren as the team’s leading wing scorer. LeVert averaged a career-high 20.7 points per game for the Pacers. He also set career highs in rebounds, blocks, and steals per game.
Surprisingly, LeVert’s stats for the Pacers were nearly identical to Oladipo’s. In fact, the Ohio native narrowly outscored his predecessor on a per game average. LeVert also put up better averages in blocks, assists, and steals last season. Because LeVert is under contract through the 2022-23 season, this trade looks like a steal for Indiana in retrospect.
The Next Step For LeVert and the Pacers
The Pacers took a major step back last season, falling from the fourth seed the year prior to the ninth seed. A play-in tournament loss to the Washington Wizards kept them out of the playoffs. The front office made a critical mistake in firing former coach Nate McMillan, who led the Atlanta Hawks on a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Bjorkgren was fired amidst rumors that the key players on the team did not gel with his coaching philosophy. Rick Carlisle has been brought back and fans hope to see a repeat of the success he brought to the club in the early 2000s. With a talented core of LeVert, Malcolm Brogdon, all-star Domantas Sabonis, and two-time NBA block leader Myles Turner, the Pacers should find themselves back in the thick of the playoff race this season.
The recent past might be murky, but the future looks bright with the emergence of LeVert.
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