Welcome to the Next Step. Your favorite team was eliminated in the first round and now you’re sitting on your palms. What’s next for them though? Can they improve in the offseason? This series is taking a look at all eight of the teams eliminated in the first round and looking forward past the playoffs to the offseason. Specifically, the following paragraphs will be looking at free agency, draft, and other possibilities for the team to improve.
This edition of The Next Step will be focusing on the Indiana Pacers. They were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round despite never losing by more than 10 points. They had a top 10 net rating during the regular season which is mainly attributed to their #3 defensive rating. Their bottom half offense needs to improve this offseason. They were also tied for first in bench net rating, suggesting not much improvement is needed there. There is one easy opportunity for improvement already on the Pacers’ roster: Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo was lost for the season late in January after suffering a ruptured quad tendon in his right leg. It is an ugly injury but there isn’t much pessimism that Oladipo won’t be able to regain his star status when he returns. He is Indiana’s best player and their top scorer. He alone would help the team’s dismal offense. Let’s look at their draft possibilities.
The Pacers own both their first-round pick (18) and their second rounder (50) heading into the 2019 draft. The Pacers have been solid at drafting in later picks. In last year’s draft, they took Aaron Holiday at 23rd. He hasn’t shown anything other than flashes but looks the part of a solid complete point guard and has people saying he could be the late round steal of that draft. The year before, they took T.J. Leaf at the #18 pick. He is a rock-solid power forward but hasn’t gotten many opportunities with Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis on the roster. Despite solid picks, if the Pacers are looking for immediate roster improvement (they are), they are better off turning to free agency or other options.
The Pacers have eight players hitting free agency, and if they renounce all of their cap holds they can open up more than $40 million in cap space. This decision isn’t as easy as it sounds, however, as many of these free agents are nightly contributors. Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and Thaddeus Young in specific started every single game they played this season. That’s more than half of their starters down should they go that rout.
Cory Joseph and Wesley Matthews both played big roles off the bench for them as well. They could choose to re-sign a handful of these guys and try to keep enough on the table for a max slot. They have been rumored to be very interested in Khris Middleton, who would be a perfect fit for them. Tobias Harris would also scratch the itch they have for two-way forwards. Whether they can convince them to come to a small market team, let alone afford them, is another story. They have also shown a desire to upgrade at point guard. They will be better off pursuing other options to fill this.
The Pacers have a fabulous trade piece: Domantas Sabonis. The big man is a tremendous rebounder and a force to be reckoned with in the paint. He even shot over 50% on the few three-pointers he took. He looks to be an up-and-coming big man who blurs the line between old and new school. After all that you may be asking, why trade him at all then? That’s because they just gave Myles Turner a contract that pays him $20 million a year and they play the same position.
Sabonis is also able to receive an extension this offseason and his price is steadily going up. Instead of doubling down in the frontcourt, they should look to trade him for an upgrade at point guard. They were rumored to be interested in Mike Conley at the trade deadline and could easily open up those talks again. They could also reach out to the Pelicans and look into Jrue Holiday. Getting one of those two would create one of the scariest two-way backcourts in the league. The Pacers were also a surprise landing spot in the buyout market. They were able to pick up Wesley Matthews late last season and he was a very important piece for them down the stretch.
The Pacers have one of the brightest outlooks in the offseason. Expect them to be very aggressive once the playoffs finish. I’m going to predict one draft day trade and a splash either in free agency or the trade market after the draft. They have the benefit of being able to sit back and improve without doing anything (Vic’s return), but I sincerely doubt they do that.