The Indiana Pacers: Surprise Story of the 2017-18 Season

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March beckons casual fans to tune into more basketball than at any other time in the year, in part due to the promise of unlikely underdogs catching fire. In 2018, some of the most astounding Cinderella stories in recent memory emerged: UMBC. Loyola Chicago. The Indiana Pacers.

OK, so the NBA might take a backseat to college basketball this time of year. What’s more, the grind of an 82-game regular season lacks the same inherent possibility for upset the NCAA Tournament’s single-elimination provides. Nevertheless, the Pacers’ 110-100 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday continued on the surprise run comparable to the most remarkable of this March Madness.

Indiana is now 41-30 on the season. The Pacers sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, just a half-game behind Cleveland for the third spot. Did anyone see this coming?

Well…Let’s revisit some preseason previews. First, from Basketball Insiders:

Let’s start by admitting right out in the open that the Oklahoma City Thunder won the Paul George trade by a wide, wide margin, and then let’s use that as fodder to predict that the Pacers probably are due for a step back this season. Bringing Victor Oladipo back to Indiana is a fun narrative, and Myles Turner has the look of an All-Star, but outside of that it’s hard to know who the real players are on this team. I love Lance Stephenson, but it’s horrifying that he’ll be asked to play a leadership role on the team this year, and the rest of the roster is filled mostly with replacement-level guys. They will be worse than last year but perhaps better than many people expect. At least the new uniforms are fire, right?

Now, Yahoo! Sports’ Ball Don’t Lie:

All you have to do is look at the first name on Indiana’s list of subtractions to realize this summer was no help. After George informed the Pacers he was planning to leave the franchise in 2018 free agency, general manager Kevin Pritchard figured Oladipo and Sabonis was the best package he could get in return. Regardless of whether that’s the case, there is no world in which that trade makes them better.

And lest we attribute misconception’s about the Indiana Pacers exclusively to sportswriters, the Las Vegas sportsbooks’ consensus on over/under number of wins was 30.5. Not only have they smashed that number, they’re one win shy of matching last season’s win total.

The eulogies written in the aftermath of Paul George’s trade to Oklahoma City proved premature.

And, while there are no receipts to produce on The Open Man, I certainly would not have pegged this team for the breakthrough season it’s having.

The most positive of the previews I came across in research for this column is via The Indianapolis Star. The hometown publication is often going to have one of the more rose-colored outlooks among reputable outlets, in part because beat writers talk with the players. Few athletes will ever downplay their own chances for success, unless you’re interviewing Derek Bell amid Operation Shutdown.

Still, there’s prescience in Myles Turner’s evaluation, given to Star‘s Clifton Brown:

“Watch out, man,” said Turner. “I know what this team’s capable of. I think everybody in this building, this gym, knows what this team’s capable of. But it’s up to us to go out there and show them. I think we have a young team that’s going to come out and compete this year, going to work a lot of these teams over. We’re going to work hard every night. If they’re going to beat us, they’re going to have to beat us. They ain’t going to just win.”

The supremely athletic Turner, who scored 21 points returning from injury in the win over the Lakers, earned much of the preseason shine. However, it’s the complete transformation of Victor Oladipo into an efficient scoring option and lockdown defender that has headlined the Pacers’ surge.

Oladipo’s shooting 52 percent from the floor for 23.4 points per game, both career-highs, and leads the NBA in steals. The “fun narrative” of the explosive leaping Oladipo returning to Indiana, where he was a promising prospect as a Hoosier, has evolved into one of the game’s fast-rising young stars. Not to open old wounds for Thunder fans, but Oladipo’s immediate metamorphosis upon being traded feels like the most dramatic since James Harden went from OKC to Houston.

At the risk of being dismissive of Paul George’s impact on the Thunder at 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, OKC cannot be declared a definitive “winner” in last offseason’s trade.

The ragtag nature of the rest of the roster, featuring veterans and journeyman either enjoying career rejuvenation (point guard Darren Collison) or contributing to a contender for the first time (Thaddeus Young) makes this Pacers team the closest thing the NBA has to a Cinderella story.

If you’re looking for a team that can bring some March Madness into April and May for the NBA Playoffs, this might be it.