Optimism around this year’s Indiana Pacers squad is sky-high, and for good reason. The Pacers followed up a promising 2022-23 season with a fantastic offseason. After adding Bruce Brown, Obi Toppin, and Jarace Walker, it’s time for the team to take the next step and assert themselves as a true force to be reckoned with.
Can the Indiana Pacers Be a Top Seed in the East?
The Top of the East
The Pacers have the opportunity to be a top squad in the East this season, but a few teams are operating in a more advanced timeline.
The Boston Celtics, who finished as one of the top seeds in the past two seasons, made waves this offseason. They traded away the heart and soul of their team in Marcus Smart and acquired the talented yet perennially injured Kristaps Porzingis. Boston also added former Pacers forward Oshae Brissett.
The Milwaukee Bucks appear to be at a crossroads with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The “Greek Freak” hinted at wanting out if the team doesn’t take a bigger step towards contention. Nonetheless, the Bucks have not finished lower than the third seed in the East since 2017-18. Expecting otherwise as long as he is on the roster would be foolish.
The Pacers’ Likely Rivals
Looking beyond those three teams is where the landscape gets congested.
Last season’s playoff finalists, the Miami Heat, are the most cryptic of teams. They have proven that a strong regular season is not necessary for them to enjoy postseason success.
James Harden has dominated headlines for the Philadelphia 76ers. He explicitly stated that 76ers president “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be part of an organization that he’s a part of.” Much like Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid also dropped hints that he would seek out a different team should the 76ers not prove fit for contention. Although, it appears both players will start the season in Philadelphia. They should be one of the East’s elite teams yet again, albeit on a much more fragile timeline.
The Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls, two teams that beat out the Pacers for a play-in seed, didn’t make much noise this offseason. They should be a step behind Indiana this time around.
The New York Knicks added a fantastic role player in Donte DiVincenzo. They could be a team Indiana must beat to secure a top-four seed.
The Toronto Raptors added FIBA World Cup champion Dennis Schröder to replace Fred VanVleet. However, like the 76ers, trade speculation around Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby makes it hard to understand the team’s direction.
Lastly, the Orlando Magic are looking to build on the heels of an encouraging season that saw them finish with only one more loss than the Pacers. Their young roster might still be a piece or two away from reaching the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference.
Who Needs to Step Up for Indiana?
Tyrese Haliburton is now a known commodity around the association. Although much of Indiana’s success will hinge on his performance, they need other players to make a leap to contend for a top seed.
Brown signed a two-year, $45 million contract, although the Pacers will have a team option on the second year. He will need to replicate his stellar 2022-23 performance, whether that’s from a starting or bench role.
Myles Turner, who has been involved in trade rumors for years, recently said he would like to be a 50/40/90 player this season. Although that goal may be a tad lofty, anything close to it would be a huge boost to a Pacers offense seeking a viable second option.
The battle for the starting guard spot should go in Bennedict Mathurin’s favor. Especially after the Arizona product enjoyed a successful debut season, averaging 16.7 points per game and finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. However, head coach Rick Carlisle opted to start fellow rookie Andrew Nembhard instead of Mathurin last year. He could look to do the same in the 2023-24 campaign.
Another key battle to watch out for in training camp will be the battle of the number-eight picks. Drafted in 2023, Walker is by far the Pacers’ most intriguing rookie. He will go head-to-head against the recently acquired Toppin, drafted eighth overall by the Knicks in 2020. Toppin didn’t receive the playing time that was expected in New York. However, he appears to be an instant fit alongside Haliburton due to his high-flying athleticism lending itself well to the guard’s passing prowess.
Emulating the World Champs
The 2023-24 Pacers are reminiscent of the 2018-19 Denver Nuggets. Much like Haliburton, the Nuggets were also led by an ascending superstar in Nikola Jokic, with a young and vibrant supporting cast around him.
Denver slowly bided their time and finally made their grand entrance into the world of contenders in the 2018-19 season. Here, they finished second in the Western Conference. A lengthy series ensued against the veteran San Antonio Spurs, with Denver winning Game 7 at home before bowing out to the Portland Trail Blazers in another seven-game series.
Although significant obstacles slowed their trajectory, the Nuggets’ development culminated in winning the 2023 NBA Finals. Can the Pacers follow that same path and become the Eastern Conference version of the Nuggets?