For the first few months of the 2022-23 season, it looked like the Indiana Pacers were arriving in the league’s upper-echelon way ahead of schedule. Buoyed by inspired play from the likes of All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, Myles Turner, and Buddy Hield, the Pacers went off to a solid 23-18 start that put them right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
However, the course of the Pacers’ season drastically changed on January 11, when they lost Haliburton to an ankle injury. The nascent floor general proceeded to miss their next 10 games, and they went 1-9 during that stretch (1-10 including their loss to the New York Knicks during the game Haliburton suffered the injury), effectively knocking them out of the playoff picture entirely.
All in all, from January 11 to February 13, the Pacers went 2-16, and there aren’t many teams in the NBA that can survive that kind of turmoil.
Nonetheless, this rough stretch shouldn’t take away from the fact that the Pacers are very much a capable team that just needs more fine-tuning around the edges to achieve consistency. The Pacers may have overachieved to begin the year (they had a net rating of -0.1 during their 23-18 start), but given time under head coach Rick Carlisle’s tutelage, it shouldn’t take long before Indiana returns to its playoff roots.
At the end of the day, however, the Pacers, beyond internal improvements from members of their young core, such as Bennedict Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard, and Aaron Nesmith, will need to accrue more talent, especially in a certain position in their starting lineup.
Here is the biggest need the Pacers must address, whether via trade or free agency, during the 2023 NBA offseason.
Pacers’ biggest need: A legitimate starting power forward
The Pacers began the year by turning over the keys to their starting power forward spot to third-year forward Jalen Smith, who showed flashes of being a solid floor-spacing rim-protector when he arrived from the Phoenix Suns via trade in 2022. In 22 games for the Pacers last season, Smith averaged 13.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.0 block per game on 53.1 percent shooting from the field and 37.3 percent from deep. And with him being just 22 years old to begin the season, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect the young big man to make a leap.
However, Smith shot the ball poorly to begin the year, struggling in a frontcourt alongside Myles Turner. His three-point shooting, which was supposed to be his bread and butter, fell off, shooting 29.4 percent from beyond the arc until December 10. Since that date, Smith has made just four starts, with two of those coming with the season already lost.
In Smith’s place, the Pacers have turned to Aaron Nesmith; Nesmith batttles hard, and his mobility on the defensive end acts as a solid complement to their starting lineup. However, Nesmith stands at just 6’5; the league may be veering away from nominal positions, but teams still need skilled size across every position. And the Pacers, at the moment, are a very small team.
(Tyrese Haliburton, for reference is 6’5. The Pacers’ floor general is as tall as their power forward. Meanwhile, Andrew Nembhard and Buddy Hield, their 2 and 3, respectively, stand at 6’5 and 6’4.)
Thus, it wasn’t a surprise to see the Pacers’ interest in trading for a power forward. Throughout the course of the busy trade season, the Pacers became linked with the likes of John Collins and Obi Toppin, both of which would have been shrewd acquisitions given the Pacers’ needs.
Collins, in particular, looks like a hand and glove fit for the Pacers; the Atlanta Hawks forward, as versatile as his game may be to accommodate his current team’s needs, is a rim-running interior presence at his best. There’s a reason why Collins put up a career-year when he was the Hawks’ center, as he had carte blanche in the paint on offense. (Never mind the fact that the Hawks barely won any games during that year.)
With Myles Turner as his potential frontcourt partner, John Collins will have an all he can eat buffet inside the paint, especially with Haliburton as the team’s floor general. Collins is only 25 years old, so it’s not like his skills have vanished overnight. Thus, it’s not too unreasonable to believe that he could play up to his contract should he get traded to Indianapolis.
The Pacers are also flush with cap space, which should grease the wheels regarding any potential trade. Should they renounce all cap holds, they will enter free agency with around $40 million in cap space. Therefore, beyond trading for Collins, they could also pursue the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Kristaps Porzingis, and Jerami Grant in free agency to fill their biggest roster need.
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