THIRTY-THREE YEARS IN THE MAKING. The Pacers enter perhaps their most critical offseason in history with something they haven’t had since 1989: a single-digit draft pick. Amazingly, their last such selection was George McCloud, who was taken seventh overall in the 1989 NBA Draft class, ahead of All-Star Shawn Kemp and future Hall of Famer Tim Hardaway. The only other team without a single-digit selection this century is San Antonio, who last drafted in the top nine when they made Tim Duncan the top pick in 1997.
A MUST-HIT SCENARIO. “The draft is the Pacers’ best chance to get a franchise-changing talent,” says Scott Agness, Pacers beat writer for Fieldhouse Files. “We’ve become so used to them drafting in the 20s, but at the top of the draft, Indiana must hit on a future All-Star talent. Since they own the first pick in the second round, too, it’s their most important draft in decades.”
A CHANCE AT A BUILDING BLOCK. This year’s rare, high-end draft selection is exactly what is needed for a franchise looking to build itself back into a contender. While lacking a consensus No. 1 player, this year’s upper crust, which includes Auburn’s do-everything Jabari Smith, Duke star Paolo Banchero, Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren, and Purdue super athlete Jaden Ivey, is well-regarded, and the rest of the top 10 provides intrigue.
THE DRAFT = A REASON FOR HOPE. Most of the best players in the Pacers’ NBA history have been acquired in the draft. Reggie Miller (11th overall, 1987), Rik Smits (second overall, 1988), Danny Granger (17th overall, 2005), and Paul George (10th overall, 2010) were all drafted and developed into All-Stars by the Pacers. Of the franchise’s top eight all-time NBA scorers, only one (Jermaine O’Neal, third with 9,580 points) was not drafted by Indiana.
NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP. A return to relevancy is especially important, because fans have taken notice of the slide. During last season’s 25–57 campaign, Indiana was dead last in attendance, bottoming out at just 14,359 fans per game … and, if we’re being honest, that number is generous. Even taking Gainbridge Fieldhouse’s smaller capacity (24th largest arena) into account, barely 80 percent of the seats were filled on average, topping only the woeful Pistons (79.6 percent) and Wizards (75.4 percent).
FALLING ON HARD TIMES. But last year was just the latest in a string of go-nowhere seasons for the Pacers. They haven’t won a playoff series in eight years, a streak that dates back to eliminating Washington in the 2014 Eastern Conference Semifinals and is the franchise’s longest playoff series win drought since their NBA infancy. The Pacers waited 17 seasons (1977–1993) for their first NBA playoff series win, finally breaking through during 1994’s memorable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
FEELING THE HEAT. Team President Kevin Pritchard is entering his 16th season (12th with the Pacers) as an NBA executive and Rick Carlisle just completed his 20th season as an NBA head coach, so they’ve navigated through turmoil before. The Pacers’ brass finally initiated an overdue rebuild midway through last season by dealing All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis and scorer Caris LeVert. Those two trades garnered a lot of praise in NBA circles, and netted a return of talented point guard Tyrese Haliburton from Sacramento and three draft selections, including a potential 2023 first-round pick (lottery-protected) from Cleveland.
AGAIN, HOPE! If the Pacers can hit on their first pick and find a starting-caliber piece with their early second-round selection this month, coupled with Haliburton and last year’s promising first-round selections, Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson, this franchise can set itself up to get back on course after nearly a decade adrift.