INDIANAPOLIS — General manager Kevin Pritchard convinced himself the Indiana Pacers could contend for an Eastern Conference title by basically keeping the core rotation intact.
Victor Oladipo's season-ending knee injury changed the whole equation.
While the Pacers continued playing hard and won more often than many expected over the final two months, the absence of their All-Star guard prevented the Pacers from retaining one of the top four seeds or reaching the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.
"Vic has been our closer for the last couple of years. To not have him on the court is big," point guard Darren Collison following Sunday's season-ending 110-106 loss to Boston. "Think about the playoffs he had last year and how amazing he was. Now, just imagine if we had that this year."
It's hard not to.
But even before Oladipo was wheeled off the court with a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee on Jan. 23, he struggled with a sore knee and it showed in the stats that were slightly down from his breakout 2017-18 season.
The first step for the Pacers this off-season will be to determine when Oladipo might be fully healthy. He sat behind his teammates Sunday, stood under his own power and waved to the crowd. It was his first public appearance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse since he was wheeled off the court on a stretcher.
If Oladipo returns to his pre-injury form, the foundation could still be pretty solid.
Bojan Bogdanovic thrived when he was asked to play a more prominent scoring role. Thaddeus Young demonstrated his value as both an all-around contributor on the court and a vocal leader off of it. Myles Turner continued his improvement by winning the league's blocks title and putting himself in the conversation as an all-NBA defensive candidate and Domantas Sabonis emerged as a double-double machine off the bench.
The combination kept the Pacers competitive without Oladipo — just not a contender.
"We had a number of injuries this season where we had to have guys step in and play, and we were able to keep our head above water and finish fifth in the East," coach Nate McMillan said. "We talked about leaving everything we had on the floor. I thought we did."
FREE AGENT POOL
The second step for Pritchard and McMillan is figuring out how to handle their own free agents. Bogdanovic, Young, Collison and guards Tyreke Evans, Cory Joseph and Wesley Matthews all have expiring contracts. While the Pacers should have enough cap room to re-sign some of those players, they're not likely to keep them all. Bogdanovic and Young would appear to be the top priorities. But changes also seem likely.
"We very well could look different next season," McMillan said. "We've got some key guys, in our starting unit as well as our second unit that are free agents. Now, the work turns toward signing our guys and building this roster."
The Pacers gave up the fewest points in the league (104.7) and produced their highest scoring average (108.0) since 1991-92. Normally, that's a combination a team could use to make a deep playoff run. The reason it didn't: Indiana missed too many shots at the rim against last season's Eastern Conference runner-ups and the Pacers lost four games by a total of 30 points, swept in the first round for the second time in three years.
"We did enough defensively to win this series," Turner said. "We just had times where our offence wasn't flowing like it needs to, our execution wasn't on point."
ON THE RISE
Rookie Aaron Holiday's minutes increased as the season went along — and not just because of Oladipo's injury. He earned them. The former UCLA star showed promise as both a ball-handler and a shooter and probably played well enough to return next season as the Pacers' backup point guard.
VICTOR THE RECRUITER?
The almost instantaneous response from other NBA stars following Oladipo's injury was an indication of just how well-liked around the league. Kyrie Irving even hugged Oladipo following Sunday's game. As Oladipo continues to recover from surgery, Pacers fans are hoping Oladipo will help recruit free agents to Indianapolis.
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