Sooner or later, Victor Oladipo’s going to need some superstar help
Oladipo is a franchise player, but to maximize his prime, the Pacers can’t wait too long to pursue a star running mate. Victor Oladipo is very good. He’s one of the five best shooting guards in the NBA, and he’s not No. 5. Oladipo was remarkable in the first half of Indiana’s matchup against Philly on Wednesday. He scored 24 of the Pacers’ 50 points, as Philly had no answer for him. He was the best player on the floor, on both ends of the floor. But the Pacers had a problem: they couldn’t count on Oladipo sustaining that kind of night for four quarters. Sure enough, the 76ers keyed in defensively and got physical over screens. After shooting 10-of-16 in the first half, Oladipo shot 4-of-14 in the second. Despite a 36-point effort from their best player, the Pacers lost to a conference rival — and they trailed by as many as 17 in the fourth quarter. Oladipo is an amazing basketball player, better than anyone expected he’d be after he was traded from Oklahoma City for Paul George. But Paul Pierce said it best during ESPN’s halftime report: “[Oladipo’s] the loneliest superstar in the Eastern Conference, and maybe in the league. And what I mean by that is he has no other guys on that team that will probably make All-Star or even maybe have the potential to be an All-Star. So just what you see what he’s doing tonight, if he doesn’t do this each and every night, this team will lose a lot of games if he’s not consistent. “And he’s shown to be consistent last year, able to put up big numbers, and that’s why you’ve got to love him. If they keep winning at this pace, you’ve gotta start talking about him in the MVP conversation.” The Pacers can be good, maybe even very good. They should by no means whatsoever blow anything up. This is a team that took LeBron James’ Cavaliers to Game 7 in the first round of last year’s playoffs, then improved their depth by signing Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn. But Indiana won’t be great until they get Oladipo some star-level help. Their second-best player should be Myles Turner, who signed a four-year, $80 million contract extension this summer. But while he’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game, Turner’s regressed in other areas, including a career-worst 14.3-percent start from downtown. Instead, Indiana’s second man has been Domantas Sabonis — who was dealt along with Oladipo in the Paul George trade — and he comes off the bench. Oladipo and Sabonis make a solid tandem, but the Indy’s guard needs a legitimate co-star; someone who can pick up the slack when he goes cold. The Pacers have options, and there’s no rush. Oladipo’s under contract another two years after this one. He was a star at Indiana in college, he’s happy in the market, and he’s the superstar the Pacers have needed for some time. There’s no immediate pressure on Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, because Indiana has a flexible roster and the potential for cap space this summer. They’ll be a playoff team this year, and could make a second-round appearance. But patience turns into a lack of urgency quickly in this league. The longer Indiana waits, the more it risks a repeat of the George situation, which ended slowly and in ugly fashion as George grew increasingly frustrated by moves on the margins. As Whitney Medworth wrote in 2017: Since he recovered in sparkling fashion from an awful leg injury in the summer of 2014, the Pacers have spent the past three years trying to surround George with talent. But while trying to develop an identity, they’ve continuously failed, putting groups of mismatched players with mismatched styles around George. That’s why the Pacers must do themselves a favor by maximizing Oladipo window. Twenty-six years old becomes 33 in the blink of an eye. Fresh starts can become mismatched parts and styles before you know it. If Pritchard were interested in finding his Batman a Robin, he could do so without too much pressure on the team’s future cap flexibility. He could inquire about Kemba Walker Walker has been one of the more under-appreciated stars of this decade, solely because his Hornets teams have not made a playoff dent year after year. That hasn’t been his fault, because management just hasn’t put the right pieces around him. Walker has also been underpaid, now in the final year of a meager (by NBA standards) four-year, $48 million deal. He’s in line to sign a five-year, $189 million maximum contract in Charlotte, but given his age and the team’s direction, there’s a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the Hornets will give it to him. Should Charlotte want to move on, a trade that includes Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans and two future lottery-protected first-round draft picks could be enough to pry Walker from Charlotte, especially if the Pacers can rope in a third team like Sacramento to take on one of the Hornets’ unfavorable contracts. It should be noted teams cannot trade newly signed free agents until Dec. 15, which means Indiana can’t involve Evans, McDermott or O’Quinn in any trades for a little over a month, even if they wanted. He could reach out about Jimmy Butler Butler wants two things: teammates who work hard and respect the game, and winners. He can get both in Indiana. Oladipo and Butler would be a two-man tandem that gives opponents nightmares. It would take some elite wings with some elite play-calling to get a bucket on those two guys. And with Butler pushing the right buttons to get the most out of his teammates, there’s no telling how far those two could go together. The problem is Tom Thibodeau reportedly wants the kitchen sink, the bathroom, the master bedroom, and the 55-inch 4K HD TV in a Butler trade, and the Timberwolves want to shed Gorgui Dieng’s remaining three years worth $48 million. Butler could also choose to leave Indiana instead of re-signing long-term. His preferred destinations were New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and potentially his home town of Houston. Indiana isn’t on that last. Do the Pacers give up meaningful contributors on one-year deals and take on an unfavorable contract for an All-Star who could leave at the end of the year? Probably not. But the thought of Butler and Oladipo on the same team is incredible. What about John Wall? The Pacers like to run, and Wall is as fast as they come. Things in Washington are not working out. How would Oladipo and Wall fare as a back court in Nate McMillan’s up-tempo offense? There’s always a but, though, and Wall’s situation is no different. Last summer, Wall signed a supermax contract extension worth $169.3 million that doesn’t even kick in until next season. Wall hasn’t been the leader the Wizards have needed him to be. Would his nonchalant demeanor follow him to Indiana, or is a change of scenery enough to light a flame under the All-Star point guard? The other thing: Because Wall has already signed his extension, trading for him virtually eliminates all cap space the Pacers would have to sign free agents next summer. That’s a big chunk of change to commit to a player who just hasn’t been able to take the next step into superstardom, for one reason or another. Indiana could also just wait The Pacers signed both Evans and O’Quinn this summer each to one-year deals. Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, and Bojan Bogdanovic each become free agents next summer, too. With Oladipo, Turner, Sabonis, Doug McDermott, T.J. Leaf, and Aaron Holiday as the only guaranteed contracts on the roster next summer, Indiana projects to have around $40 million in cap space to sign free agents. Barring mid-season contract extensions, Walker and Butler could each be available in free agency. So will guys like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, and Khris Middleton. The options are endless, so long as Indiana preserves its cap space. The Pacers should not burn it down — not even close. They’re a talented team that will make noise in the playoffs. It’s just becoming clear that this Indiana team needs to get its lone superstar some superstar help to get to the next level. There’s no rush, because he’s not going anywhere any time soon. But if the Pacers wait too long, they risk repeating the sad end of the George era.