The 2020-21 season was a letdown for the Indiana Pacers. Fans that had high expectations for the franchise saw injuries to key players and overall underperformance take a talented roster from the fourth seed in the East to out of the playoffs in just one year. The franchise hopes that reuniting with Rick Carlisle will bring the team back to playoff relevance right away. With so many moves being made this offseason, will the Pacers roster be enough to contend in the eastern conference this year?
After getting swept in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, the Pacers decided that big changes were needed. Indiana fired head coach Nate McMillan and replaced him with Nate Bjorkgren. This proved to be a major mistake as the Pacers struggled under Bjorkgren, while McMillan led the Atlanta Hawks on an unexpected conference finals run.
Domantas Sabonis led the way for the Pacers last year. The five-year veteran averaged 20.3 points per game last season and earned his second trip to the NBA All-Star game. Doug McDermott stepped up big for Indiana, taking full advantage of his additional playing time. McDermott started 29 of his 66 games and averaged a career-high 13.6 points per game last year. Malcolm Brogdon had a great season as well, averaging 21.2 points per game. Despite the new career-high, Brogdon missed 16 games, making fans nervous about his future. He wasn’t the only Pacers playmaker to miss significant time.
Injuries to key players played a big factor in the Pacers’ downfall last season. T.J. Warren, the team’s leading scorer with 19.8 points per game in 2018-19, played in only four games last year due to a foot injury. Myles Turner was injured during the stretch as well. The two-time NBA blocks leader went down in April and only managed to play in 47 games last season. Newcomer Caris LeVert was a key contributor when playing, but he also missed 25 games in the regular season and both play-in tournament contests. The Pacers will need these guys to stay healthy if they are going to have a shot at getting back in the playoff picture.
While LeVert thrived under Bjorkgren, few others on the team did and the front office found it best to move on from the coach after one season. Rumors alleged that key players had problems with Bjorkgren and his philosophies. The Pacers are hoping that Carlisle is the right man to get the franchise back on course. His previous success with this organization and his 2011 NBA championship ring should legitimize him in the eyes of his players. At the very least, the Pacers should play better for the veteran coach than they did for Bjrokgren.
The Pacers played it safe this offseason, choosing to add depth through the draft rather than making any major trades. McDermott’s big year raised his value this offseason. The San Antonio Spurs acquired the sharpshooting wingman for a future second-round draft pick and another second-round swap option. The Pacers will certainly miss McDermott’s production, but at least they were able to acquire an asset in return.
Indiana was able to re-sign another key role player when they agreed to terms on a four-year, $35.2 million contract with T.J McConnell. McConnell had a career year last season, earning new bests in points (8.6), assists (6.6), and steals (1.9) per game. Equally important, he played in 69 games last season and is capable of running the offense if Brogdon goes down. McConnell is a key player for the Pacers, setting the tone with his defensive intensity and creativity on offense.
The Pacers have high hopes for their 13th overall draft pick from Oregon. Chris Duarte was a major player for the Ducks and showed his value on both sides of the ball. The 24-year-old is one of the oldest players in the draft, but scouts anticipate that his experience makes him as NBA-ready as any prospect. Duarte has the ability to run an offense and showed his clutch shooting with multiple buzzer-beaters in this year’s summer league. If the hype on Duarte is real, he can eventually fill the void left by McDermott in the rotation.
Torrey Craig is the other significant addition made by Indiana this offseason. Craig saw limited time in the Phoenix Suns NBA Finals run, but the three-and-d forward could be a valuable member of the Pacers rotation. He too can fill the McDermott void, but Craig may find himself starting at the beginning of the year. Pacers’ team doctors warn that Warren may not be ready to go at the start of the season. If this is the case, Craig may have an early opportunity to prove he has earned more minutes in the league.
The Pacers expect to bounce back this season under Carlisle. This is a reasonable expectation, but with so few roster changes, how much can this team actually improve? In theory, they should be able to at least return to their pre-Bjorkgren form. Under McMillan, the Pacers had a top-ten defensive team. Warren returning to the starting lineup will be a huge addition to this team. Indiana is getting back their former leading scorer and a consistent threat to score 20 on any given night. In a sense, getting Warren back is the equivalent of acquiring a new starter in the offseason.
Carlisle is by no means a players coach, but he should do a better job of working with the players, who have had nothing but good things to say so far. Outside of personality, Carlisle can improve the Pacers’ on-court performance in a few ways. Indiana pushed the pace under Bjorkgren. Carlisle’s Pacers won’t grind it out at a snail’s pace but expect them to find a speed of play that fits the personnel better. Pacers fans can expect a better defensive unit this season as well. Carlisle isn’t a defensive guru but adding Duarte and Craig to a unit that will hopefully have a full season of Turner as its anchor will certainly lead to improvement.
The eastern conference is as tough as it has been in recent memory. The Pacers shouldn’t expect to return to a high seed, but if Carlisle can maximize this squad’s potential, we could see Indiana back in the playoffs this year.
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