When they woke up on the morning of January 9, they were five games above .500 and holding down sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Then injuries and inexperience began to take over, and while Indiana was still in the race for the play-in tournament as recently as a couple of weeks ago, losses in five of its last six games, and seven of its last nine, clinched the Pacers’ ticket to the lottery.
And while they still have the Knicks (twice) and Detroit on the schedule, the Pacers’ next big game will be June 22nd in Brooklyn at the NBA draft. There, despite being just one of 30 teams (that’s 3.33%) of the league’s teams, they will control 10% of the first-round draft picks. Their own selection could be especially valuable because, depending on how they close out the season and on potential coin flips, the Pacers have as much as a 10.5% chance at the 2023 No. 1 overall pick, with French star Victor Wembanyama on tap.
Indiana also owns first-rounders from Boston (Malcolm Brogdon deal last summer) and Cleveland (Caris LeVert trade at the 2022 deadline).
Part of the latter transaction already paid off in the form of 2022 second-rounder Andrew Nembhard, who, along with first-round pick Ben Mathurin, has given Indy a formidable rookie class.
Pacers Looking to ‘Draft Great’
It can be hard to get to the top from the NBA middle, with one general manager telling Heavy Sports, “You have to be really good and a whole lot of lucky to get from there to the top. If you’re not picking in the top few, you have to hope someone slips. You have to hope you get a Paul Pierce at 10 or a Giannis at 15 — that still kills me.”
Indiana coach Rick Carlisle knows the summit can be hard to reach, but with a number of clubs in a similar situation, it might not be the Everest challenge it used to seem.
“If you look at the standings this year, this is the most parity we’ve seen in probably a number of decades,” Carlisle told Heavy. “So you’ve got to try to create as many situations as you can to get small edges. You’ve got to draft great. You know, our management team drafted Nembhard in the second round, and the guy’s a hell of a player. We’ve got to hit on more guys like that, and we’ve got to do the right things when we have those opportunities.”
Defense Still Lacking for Pacers
It’s no secret where the Pacers need the most improvement. As of Monday, they’re 11th in the NBA in points per game and 28th in points allowed — which is not surprising when you have young players still trying to find their way, as eight of the Pacers’ Top 10 in minute played are 24 years old or younger, including 23-year-old All-Star Tyrese Halliburton. Attention to defense and comfort in a defensive scheme usually lags among young players.
“Big picture, we’re developing young players and trying to win, which are two of the hardest things to combine,” said Carlisle. “But we’ve had some success with it, and we’re not going to skip any steps.
“Overall, it’s fun. It’s a fun group. They’re young and they go hard. We’re trying to preach the right things. That’s kind of it.”