With All-Star guard Victor Oladipo out for the season, can the Indiana Pacers still compete in the Eastern Conference?
Oladipo suffered a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee during the second quarter of Wednesday's game against the Toronto Raptors and left the court on a stretcher. He will require season-ending surgery.
After going winless in the seven games Oladipo missed in 2017-18, Indiana went 7-4 earlier this season when he sat out 11 games because of a sore right knee. Is that success sustainable for the Pacers, or will Oladipo's abscence make it impossible for Indiana to maintain a top-four seed in the East?
Let's take a look at the data.
How did the Pacers replace Oladipo?
Although Indiana's 7-4 stretch without Oladipo in November and December came against a relatively easy schedule, including the last seven games against teams that would miss the playoffs if the season ended today, it was impressive nonetheless. Buoyed by a pair of blowout wins over the Utah Jazz (one of them with Utah's starting shooting guard, Donovan Mitchell, on the sideline), the Pacers posted a net rating 4.0 points better than their opponents' season-long averages -- slightly worse than their overall plus-5.7 net rating but better than that of, among others, the Philadelphia 76ers (plus-3.5 points per 100 possessions).
Although Oladipo is a quality perimeter defender, the Pacers defended just as well in the games he missed as they did over the course of the season, when the team was No. 2 in defensive rating. That's a change from 2017-18, when Indiana's defensive rating was 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Oladipo on the bench, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Indiana declined slightly at the offensive end, which is no surprise, given the loss of the team's leading scorer. Again, though, the drop was not nearly as severe as last season, when Oladipo was a far more efficient scorer. (His true shooting percentage had dropped from .577 to .519, far worse than the league average of .558.) In 2017-18, the Pacers managed only 101.5 points per 100 possessions with Oladipo on the bench, 7.9 fewer than when he played. In the 11 games Oladipo missed this season, their offensive rating adjusted for opponent dropped a more modest 0.9 points per 100 possessions.
Remarkably, Indiana managed to stay afloat offensively, despite limited contributions from Oladipo's replacement in the starting lineup, veteran Tyreke Evans. Evans made just 31 percent of his 3-point attempts and 37 percent of his 2s as a starter, posting a dismal .458 true shooting percentage. The Pacers can hope for better production going forward from Evans, who has shot 51 percent on 2s and 39 percent on 3s since undergoing platelet-rich plasma treatment on his right knee in December.
On the plus side, Indiana got more opportunities for its most efficient scorers, small forward Bojan Bogdanovic and backup center Domantas Sabonis. Bogdanovic (from 19 percent to 21 percent) and Sabonis (from 22 percent to 24 percent) both increased their usage rates during Oladipo's absence without any decline in their outstanding true shooting percentages.
Implications of a season-ending Oladipo injury
I suspect the Pacers would be hard-pressed to play quite as well without Oladipo as they did during his 11-game absence earlier this season. Notably, Indiana was otherwise largely at full strength in that span, with Sabonis and starting center Myles Turner missing one game apiece. Inevitably, the Pacers will have other injuries the rest of the season, and that could test their depth.
Still, I'd expect Indiana to be solidly better than league average the rest of the season, and that should be more than enough to maintain a spot among the East's top five seeds. The Pacers have an enormous 6.5-game cushion over the current No. 6 seed, the Brooklyn Nets, and FiveThirtyEight's projections have Indiana finishing a full 11 games ahead of Brooklyn on average.
Holding on to home-court advantage in the opening round would be a substantially bigger challenge. Even before Oladipo went down, FiveThirtyEight's projections gave the Sixers and Boston Celtics the edge for top-four seeds by virtue of their superior preseason ratings. Without Oladipo, the Pacers might have difficulty holding off those more talented squads.
Indiana could look to pursue additional depth at shooting guard before the trade deadline. One possibility is swapping one of its veteran point guards, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph, for a shooting guard. ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported last month that league executives believed the Pacers might trade one of the two players, both in the final years of their contracts, to make room for first-round pick Aaron Holiday.
Making room for Holiday is no longer a concern; he averaged 16.7 minutes per game as Indiana's fourth guard when Oladipo was sidelined previously, so he'll play. Nonetheless, a deal moving Collison or Joseph for a shooting guard on an expiring contract (perhaps Garrett Temple of the Grizzlies or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Lakers in a three-team deal?) would give the Pacers more size in the backcourt.
More trivially, an extended absence for Oladipo potentially open a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star roster. Given Indiana's record, Oladipo was probably a lock to make the roster as a reserve. Now, either coaches will vote for someone else or Oladipo will be replaced in the game.