“I come to praise Mervyn’s, not to bury it.” – William Shakespeare
The Indiana Pacers won 45 games in last year’s abbreviated season and lost in the first round. The year before, they won 48 games and lost in the first round, which is also what they did in 2017-18. In 2016-17, they won 42 games and lost in the first round, a step down from the year before, when they won 45 games and lost in the first round. Even with Paul George missing virtually all of the 2014-15 season with a broken leg, the 38-44 Pacers were a tiebreaker away from leapfrogging the Nets for the eight seed and a chance to lose in the first round. Indiana’s over/under this year is 39.5. Prorated to an 82-game season, that means the Pacers are expected to win 45 games, and lose in the first round.
This sounds depressing, but it’s really not! Sure, everyone wants to win the title and every failure to do so hurts your reputation, legacy, manhood, and social media clout, but let’s be honest: it’s usually going to be the Lakers. Five teams in the NBA have won 70% of the titles. Half of the teams in the NBA have never won a championship, or the titles happened in the distant past in a totally different city. I don’t think Sacramento Kings fans feel particularly proud of the 1951 Rochester Royals crown. Think of rooting for an NBA team as buying lottery scratchers. If your only goal is to win a million-dollar jackpot, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you just want to have some low-cost, low-upside fun, it’s great! Besides, you need a transcendent player to win a title, and those usually arrive because of draft luck or playing your home games in the Staples Center.
That’s why it was appropriate that the Indiana Pacers offseason consisted of…nothing. Despite some quiet trade rumors, they didn’t trade Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner. They didn’t have a first-round pick, and they didn’t sign any free agents. It sounded like they wanted to make a splash and sign Mike D’Antoni, but instead they opted dipping in a toe and easing themselves slowly into the shallow end to hire Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren. The only trade they made was to dump T.J. Leaf, barely a player, for Jalen Leque, who played 32 minutes last year. Yes, that left the Pacers one Caucasian player short, but they got the closest thing to it with the 51st pick, a four-year senior from Duke. (Cassius Stanley, who won’t play this year either.)
Winning 55% of your games and always making the playoffs? Frankly, it rules. Analytics people would urge them to tank, to purge, reduce themselves to an austerity program of team options, non-guaranteed contracts, and the mindless accumulation of second-round draft picks. Where does that get you? One of the best possible outcomes of that multi-year process is you’d end up 4th in the conference and in the playoffs every season.
It’s fitting that the Pacers are owned by an aging mall tycoon. They’re old-fashioned: they don’t really shoot threes or draw fouls. They’re bigger than they need to be, playing Myles Turner and Sabonis Junior, two big-ass centers, together all the time, and still picking a giant Georgian man named Goga in the first round last year. T.J. Warren is fun, but feels like a three-time Eastern Conference All-Star from the late ‘90s. Their starting point guard went to college for four years. Doug McDermott is the NBA player version of a Miller’s Outpost. The Pacers have a set of brothers playing for the team, both thoroughly unexceptional basketball players, so it feels like Aaron Holiday convinced his manager to give Justin a job.
Even their old coach Nate McMillan is associated with the golden age of the late ‘90s. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bankers Life Fieldhouse has an Orange Julius stand, or sells Hot Dogs on Sticks. (It’s extremely appropriate that the old-fashioned Pacers play in a building sponsored by a life insurance company, seeing as all young people understand that the Earth is doomed, and welcome the sweet release of death with open arms.)
But you know what? I bet a lot of you wish you could go to a mall right now. Let these other teams be Amazon; the Pacers are a family business that turns a tidy profit, never holds an IPO, but also never lays anyone off. They’re content to simply be entertaining and pretty good at basketball. That is to say, they’re finishing sixth and losing in the first round – but the 4-1 loss will be closer than it looks! Then they’re gonna go sit in the massage chairs at Brookstone. The ultimate pleasure.