The fairytale rise of the Indiana Pacers hit a snag on Wednesday night when Victor Oladipo fell to the ground on a non-contact play. As soon as a tending Pacers trainer covered Oladipo’s right knee with a towel, the NBA landscape shifted beneath the former All-Star guard.
The Pacers rallied their spirits and came away with a big win over the top-seeded Toronto Raptors. And then the news hit: Oladipo would miss the rest of the season with a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee, the same problematic joint that caused him to miss 11 games earlier this season.
The injury itself
Talking with team sources, there wasn’t a sense that this was an injury waiting to happen. They won’t deny that Oladipo’s play, especially following his 11-game absence due soreness in the same knee, hadn’t been up to his 2017-18 level.
But the team’s sense is that much of that drop-off had little to do with the knee and more to do with re-integrating with the surging talents of Bojan Bogdanovic (who averaged 19.4 points per game in Oladipo’s absence), Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young, who won Eastern Conference Player of the Week amid Oladipo’s return.
“The sad part is, it was coming along,” said a Pacers official.
Oladipo’s numbers were down over the last month, but the team was just hitting its stride, winning 11 of its previous 14 games with the NBA’s eighth-best offensive rating over that time. Oladipo was finding his way. The team raised their aspirations. And then, his right knee buckled.
Was this preventable? With major injuries to a star like Oladipo, there is an inevitable wave of Monday morning quarterbacking from media, fans and, to be sure, teams themselves. Oladipo’s injury did occur during his third game in four nights, but that chunk of the schedule was part of a long Pacers homestand that saw them play just five games in a two-week span. That’s a cushy vacation at a five-star resort by NBA’s standards.
One trainer for another NBA team, who regularly assesses player load and injury risk based on player-tracking data, told NBCSports.com that Oladipo’s metrics looked consistent and that there weren’t any red flags in his minutes or workload. His outside opinion: “Freak thing.” The Pacers also have a sterling track record in injury prevention. An analysis by Jeff Stotts of Instreetclothes.com found that the Indiana has one of the best-performing medical staffs in the NBA.
It’s also worth noting that, historically, this injury isn’t associated with overloaded players. Tony Parker, who suffered the same injury in 2017, was playing his second game in six days when he got hurt. If you want to go way back, Charles Barkley suffered the same injury during the first quarter of a non-back-to-back set in the 1999-00 season.
The injury ended Barkley’s career and jeopardized Parker’s, but don’t write off Oladipo just yet. Barkley was 36 years old at the time of his injury and Parker was two weeks shy of his 35th birthday. Oladipo, at 26 years old, is about a decade younger and lacks the tons of taxing playoff miles that Barkley and Parker endured. By every indication, he’ll be ready for next season.
Seeing the forest for the trees is no easy thing. The Pacers had real plans to shock the world and win the East. Now, with their leading star sidelined, the Pacers have seen their Finals hopes chopped to pieces. This is why teams play it conservatively in 2019.
If there’s a silver lining to this injury, it’s that it came just before the trade deadline, allowing the team to pivot if need be. The Pacers are just 2.5 games back of the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and 11 games ahead of the ninth-seeded Detroit Pistons. Just about every playoff probability tool pegs the Pacers as a lock to punch their postseason ticket.
Of course, those forecasts are based on a team with Oladipo’s immense talents. The Pacers have the best win percentage (15-6, .714) in clutch situations partly because Oladipo has been a monster in those moments. The All-Star had scored 76 points on top of 63.2 percent shooting in just 50 minutes of clutch time, per NBA.com. With Oladipo leading the way, the Pacers were plus-49 in those 50 minutes. They’ll miss his late-game heroics.
Darren Collison and Bogdanovic figure to shoulder more of the late-game load in his absence. And they’re capable. But so is Mike Conley, an Indianopolis product who went to high school 12 miles from the Pacers’ arena. The Memphis Grizzlies reportedly put Conley and Marc Gasol on the trade block this week, accelerating the Conley-to-Pacers rumor mill into full tilt.
The Pacers are an ideal trade partner for any team looking to unload salary. Collison, Young, Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans all have contracts that expire this summer and make between $8 and $14 million, an appealing carrot for a front office like Memphis looking to tear down their roster around Jaren Jackson Jr.
Memphis, take your pick of three.
A deal like Conley and Omri Casspi for Young, Evans and Collison could hold interest for both sides. The Pacers get a bankable star to lean on as Oladipo eases his way back to the fold. Not only that, they can free up minutes for Sabonis and Turner to flourish. The Grizzlies get a clean slate and relief from Conley’s $32 million annual salary over the next three years. One hitch to that deal: The Grizzlies’ haul might be too good to keep their top-eight protected first-round pick from going to Boston.
What about the East?
The Pacers went 7-4 while Oladipo was sidelined earlier this season, but as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton outlined, they didn’t fare nearly as well in 2017-18 when they lost all seven games without their All-Star. Going forward, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
With Oladipo sidelined and the Pacers likely to slide back to the middle of the pack, the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics could be less thirsty for a blockbuster move at the deadline. Why give up assets if you can move up organically?
The Celtics could float Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown on the trade market, but league sources tell NBCSports.com they are likely to sit sight and hope both bounce back to last season’s levels. With the chances of a midseason Anthony Davis trade lessening by the day, the Celtics have good reason to hold pat.
Philly, on the other hand, might think about this situation differently. Oladipo’s injury could make their path to a top-four seed easier, but wouldn’t you want to ensure home-court advantage in a possible No. 4-vs.-No. 5 matchup against Boston, the team that ousted them last year?
The Markelle Fultz situation remains unresolved, making the former No. 1 overall pick a logical trade target in coming weeks. For Philly, sending Fultz, Justin Patton, Wilson Chandler and a pick to Atlanta for Kent Bazemore, Kevin Huerter and Dewayne Dedmon would fill needs for both sides. The Cavs, with Channing Frye and J.R. Smith, are also an intriguing trade partner for the shooting-starved Sixers if they don’t want to gamble on the buyout market.
Oladipo’s injury clears the path for Philadelphia and Boston to secure home-court in the first round. But if the Pacers strike a deal for a big fish like Conley, don’t expect the Sixers or Celtics to sit in idle. The East is still there for the taking.