The Indiana Pacers have the ninth best record in the NBA. From a wins and losses perspective, they are better than the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, and defending champion Golden State Warriors. In head coach Rick Carlisle’s second season, and young star point guard Tyrese Haliburton's first full campaign with the team, they have developed an exciting, under-noticed style—they are near the top of the league in both pace and three-point volume, relying on Halliburton’s control of the machine but also on their considerable armada of shooters.
Beyond Haliburton, Carlisle, and the team’s three veteran mainstays in Buddy Hield, Myles Turner, and T.J. McConnell, the Pacers are made up of faces that few NBA fans could identify in a crowd; Isaiah Jackson, Andrew Nembhard, Aaron Nesmith, Chris Duarte, Jalen Smith, Oshae Brissett, and Rookie of The Year candidate Benedict Mathurin. It’s mid-January, now, so it’s safe to say this probably isn’t just a Mystery Box case of a team of unknowns sneaking up on unprepared foes—unlike the Utah Jazz, who began the season at 10-3 on such terms and have since gone 11-20, the Pacers have gotten to their sixth seed in the Eastern Conference steadily.
They’re playing their best basketball right now, actually. 8-2 over their last ten, they’ve collected high-quality wins against the Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Heat. It hasn’t been an easy stretch. Haliburton has been a 50/40/90 shooter in these games, averaging more than nine assists—a statistic in which he leads the league this season. He has become a no-brainer All-Star in his third season, at 22 years old, and probably most important for the Pacers in this development is his air-tight mind meld with Carlisle, who may have begged the Mavericks front office to trade up for him in the 2020 NBA draft. A coach’s imprint on what actually happens on the floor can be high-variance, depending on a roster’s buy-in or how hegemonic its main players’ styles are, but that is not the case in Indiana. Just look at this.
If there is a lagging understanding of who the Pacers are in the league, there won’t be for much longer. People are going to have to notice; most importantly, advance scouts from rival teams. And with the margins on their victories already narrow (they’ve got a perfectly even, 0.0 point differential), and their schedule the seventh toughest going forward, the team is about to be tested. Out of the Pacers’ next 15 opponents, nearly half of them are title-contenders. By the February 9 trade deadline, they will have a more meaningful body of information to draw from when deciding how to move forward with the roster, a quandary that bears mostly on Turner and Hield.
Turner is a free agent this summer, and has already made conspicuous overtures to other teams. Hield has one more year on his deal, but would fetch a good return from a crowd of stressed teams all in need of more three-point shooting, which he does at a higher volume than almost anyone in the sport, and at 43 percent accuracy. Whether the two would be packaged, sent out separately, or even if the Pacers moved one and not the other—Turner, more likely—there’s certainly an argument that their future, long-term and immediate, is best served with more draft capital or younger talent, given how well they’ve selected and developed players in the Carlisle era. Smith, Nembhard, and Nesmith are all important contributors after being disregarded by most of the league; imagine what they could do with another high-lottery talent or two.
The Pacers’ need for a veteran presence, a cliché about young teams that’s somehow as true as it is hollow, is lessened when you understand that Haliburton is the most mature and deferential of the bunch. A rare type, he is himself reason enough to believe in what’s happening in Indiana, regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, on the floor and in the front office. The Pacers may not remain a top-ten team this season (at the moment, they're ninth best by record) but guided by the continued evolution of Haliburton and their many talented scorers going forward, they will surely become one in a more permanent way. Whether Indiana decides to double down on their youth project or supplement Haliburton's already brilliant floor game with more veteran talent now is not immaterial, but neither choice seems like it could stop this team from its true blossoming.