IN ORDER TO start winning and contending again, perhaps the Pacers first needed to lose. To sports purists, that may sound counterproductive, but constant injury issues this past year finally halted the franchise’s seven-season trip spinning around the NBA’s Hamster Wheel of Mediocrity. Jettisoning veterans like All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis and scoring forward Caris LeVert officially commenced the “It’s Gonna Get Worse Before It Gets Better” process, but the first step was losing—and the Pacers had no problem completing that task. Indiana lost … and lost and lost and lost. Hovering around .500 during the holidays, the Blue and Gold plummeted to an 11-38 mark after Christmas last season, closing their worst campaign in over three decades on a 10-game losing streak, finishing a woeful 25-57.
While a 25-win season would result in frantic “fire everyone!” calls on local sports radio shows or expletive-laden Twitter meltdowns under normal circumstances, you’ll find that most Pacers fans have an unfamiliar outlook toward the team’s future: optimism. After repeatedly slamming their heads into a first-round glass ceiling in the playoffs, fans were ready for the franchise’s decision to press the reset button. Last season’s acquisitions of fledgling star Tyrese Haliburton and draftees Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson have shown promise as a new foundation, but most of the encouraging feelings from the fan base stem from having a single-digit pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft (sixth overall), something the franchise hasn’t had since 1989.
The recently completed NBA Finals were littered with high draft selections, from Finals MVP Steph Curry (7th overall, 2009) and key contributor Andrew Wiggins (1st overall, 2017) of the Warriors to virtually Boston’s entire Eastern Conference Champion core of Jayson Tatum (3rd overall, 2017), Jaylen Brown (3rd overall, 2016), Marcus Smart (6th overall, 2014), and veteran Al Horford (3rd overall, 2007). It doesn’t take a genius to suggest that having a single-digit draft pick gives you better odds at a franchise-level player—hard-hitting #analysis, there!—however there’s no guarantee that the Pacers’ first such selection since the opening of the Salesforce Tower nets them that eventual centerpiece. “There’s probably a high chance you get a bust [with any single-digit pick], maybe even more than the chances of actually landing a star,” says heavy.com senior NBA writer Sean Deveney. “Usually, once you get past the first few picks, it’s a mixed bag filled with a lot of risks.”
“Look at Philadelphia,” says Mark Montieth, longtime Pacers journalist and current IBJ columnist. “That’s a team that has used tanking as a long-term strategy (the Sixers picked in the top three of the draft for four consecutive years: 2014–17), and what do they really have to show for it? They were terrible for years to get those high picks, and while a few worked out, it hasn’t guaranteed success.”
Historically, it certainly hasn’t guaranteed success for the Pacers, either, as their previous single-digit draftees—Rick Robey (1978), Clark Kellogg (1982), Steve Stipanovich (1983), Wayman Tisdale (1985), Chuck Person (1986), Rik Smits (1988), and George McCloud (1989)—combined for one All-Star Game appearance (Smits in 1998) in 55 combined NBA seasons. Robey, Tisdale, and McCloud all had their most successful NBA years after leaving Indiana, while Kellogg and Stipanovich had their careers cut short due to debilitating knee issues. Only Smits, taken second overall in his class, ended up as a franchise pillar in Indianapolis.
Although that sample size predates public availability of the internet, the challenge of zeroing in on an eventual star prospect may be even more challenging sorting through this era of draft hopefuls than it was 30 years ago. “I think it’s a lot harder now because you don’t have as much to go on,” claims former Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh, who spent over 20 years (1986–2007) running Indiana’s draft board. “[Prospects are] in college for maybe one year, then, boom, they’re in the draft.” Take Shaedon Sharpe, who the Pacers worked out last week. Regarded in many circles as the top player in the 2021 recruiting class, Sharpe decided to punt on playing basketball last season at Kentucky, declaring for the draft in April after a full year away from the game altogether. While scouts scour his EYBL and high school tape, they’ll be unable to make any determination on Sharpe’s ability against high-level competition, unlike virtually all of his draft peers. “These kids are all terrific athletes, so it feels like every one of them has the possibility to be great as a pro,” Walsh continues, “but there’s more to it than that. How hard does he work? Where can I put him? Will he learn? There are so many things you just don’t know.”
Sure! Arguably, the two best players in the Pacers’ NBA history were both taken several selections later than sixth, as Reggie Miller (1987) and Paul George (2010) went 11th and 10th, respectively. Even six-time Pacers All-Star Jermaine O’Neal, originally drafted by Portland in 1996 and acquired via trade by Indiana in 2000, was taken 17th. All three of those cases, however, required timing, development, and a healthy dose of luck. Knowing what we know now, the general consensus from draftniks is that there’s a three- to four-player first tier in the 2022 draft class, and the Pacers selection will likely come with Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Duke’s Paulo Banchero, and Indiana native and Purdue star Jaden Ivey already gone from the green room. “This does not appear to be a particularly great draft class, especially once you get past the top of the board,” Deveney says. “[Iowa standout] Keegan Murray is maybe the most NBA-ready guy in the draft, but he’s likely just a starter and not a franchise-level player. Sharpe is the upside guy, but we just haven’t seen him play.”
Failing a star, the Pacers could happily live with their No. 6 selection becoming a core piece, with Smits, easily the best single-digit selection in team history, being a great example. It’s important they accomplish at least that, because squandering this once-in-a-generation opportunity on a bust could lead the Pacers to lottery purgatory, a fate far worse than consistently getting bounced in the postseason’s opening round. Falling back into the top-end of the draft is fine in the short term, but a miss or two could turn them into the recent version of the Detroit Pistons, who are about to make their eighth single-digit selection in the last dozen years and haven’t won a playoff game since 2008, or even worse, the plodding Sacramento Kings, one of the most hopeless franchises in major pro sports. That’s a destination that Kevin Pritchard, who has been with the franchise for over a decade and is entering his sixth season as team president, is trying to avoid, not only to bring the Pacers back to respectability, but to potentially save his seat in the team’s front office.
“You don’t want [getting stuck in the NBA draft lottery] to happen, obviously,” Walsh says. “You can’t even let yourself think that way. You’re either going to pull yourself out of this quickly or you’re not. And if you don’t, you don’t have to worry because you’re not going to be around long.”