When the Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, pundits and analysts of the league were confused by the move.
Well, the first emotion felt throughout the league was shock. After hearing various rumors throughout the offseason that the four-time All-Star forward was destined to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics, the Thunder swooped in and acquired George with one of the most underwhelming trade packages (an underwhelming Domantas Sabonis and overpaid Victor Oladipo) for a star player in recent history.
But, once the smoke cleared and the initial shock wore off, a sense of bewilderment grew around the situation. After witnessing the recent success of tanking, the 2013-16 Philadelphia 76ers being the most recent example, and how it can assist in turning around the direction of the franchise, it became fair to question why they chose to avoid this route.
The Indiana franchise has displayed competence in drafting players in recent years. They drafted George, Lance Stephenson, Kawhi Leonard, and Myles Turner since 2010, none of who were picked higher than the 10th selection. At the time, it would’ve been easy and made a lot of sense for the organization to hit the reset button, stockpile on draft picks and moveable assets, tank and rebuild around Turner, who projects to be a star in the league.
However, recently hired Team President Kevin Pritchard made it clear that wasn’t going to be the direction they moved in.
“I never felt [we had to] totally strip away everything and start over,” said Pritchard, according to a July 7 IndyStar article. “I thought that getting Sabonis and getting Victor sort of push you up to the next level. Where that level is, only they’ll be able to tell us, and then we’ll make adjustments next summer.”
Future draft classes project to be very top heavy and the Pacers fit the stereotype of a small market team that struggles to attract free agents that would make a significant impact on an organization. The direction that they chose would’ve left the Pacers stuck in mediocrity for the foreseeable future.
And then the NBA Draft reform, which will go into effect starting with the 2019 NBA Draft, was put into place.
“In the new lottery odds, the three teams with the worst records will share a 14 percent chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick, a change from the descending percentages of 25, 19.9, and 15.6 in the current system,” said ESPN NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski, according to a Sept 29 ESPN article. “Four teams — increased from three — will become part of the lottery draw, which means the No. 1 lottery seed could drop no further than fifth, No. 2 could drop no further than sixth, No. 3 no further than seventh, and No. 4 no further than eighth.”
The refinement in the rules will do more than disincentivize teams at the bottom of the standings to purposely lose more games to give themselves a better chance at winning the number one pick in the draft lottery. It’ll also give teams that aren’t good enough to make the playoffs but aren’t bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league (aka an average NBA team, a dreadful place to be), a significantly better chance to receive a higher pick in the draft. This is great news for the Pacers.
“If you are 10th in the pathetic Eastern Conference with a month to go, three or four games out of a playoff spot, the incentive to pack it in for better lottery odds will — in some places — outweigh the incentive to go all-out for the No. 8 seed,” said ESPN Senior Writer Zach Lowe, according to a Sept 28 ESPN article. “Teams will not tank out of a playoff spot for a lottery ticket. That would alienate fans, and cost precious revenue from playoff home games. But teams might tank out of the back end of the playoff race, like a behind-the-pack runner pulling a hamstring, and teams in the Nos. 4-8 lottery spots will jockey for positioning.”
This is the exact position that the Pacers will be in at the end of the 2017-18 regular season. They added enough solid players to their roster to ensure that they don’t plummet down the standings. According to ESPN and Bleacher Report, the Pacers are projected to barely miss the playoffs, finish somewhere between the 10th and 12th seed in the Eastern Conference and win 30-32 games in the season.
With the team lacking a clear marquee player and not being good enough to sign a star as a free agent any time soon, it’s easy to see their standing in the league remain the same for the foreseeable future. This is why a change to the system was so important for them, and teams like them.
They don’t have to risk alienating fans by throwing away multiple seasons and purposely missing the playoffs to secure top draft picks. They won’t have to worry as much about the repercussions that come with being an average or mediocre team with very little upward mobility. They can continue their current path and allow the system to work in their favor.
“While there’s a mix of small and big markets, and defining the difference can be tricky, it seems to me that using these lottery probabilities would have actually helped small markets more than hurt them in the recent past,” said ESPN Staff Writer Kevin Pelton, according to an Oct 1 ESPN article. “The Lakers and the Celtics [largely via trade] were two of the biggest beneficiaries of the old model, while teams like the [Sacramento] Kings and [New Orleans] Pelicans who might not have felt they could bottom out in their small markets would have better chances of getting a top-three pick.”
Rejoice Pacers. And rejoice Pacers’ fans. For once, the system is going to work in your favor. You already messed up the Paul George trade, but this is the opportunity to justify your decision. Don’t mess it up.