Haliburton's Pacers are too good to tank, and that's just fine
When the Indiana Pacers were awarded the sixth overall selection in the 2022 NBA Draft, it marked the franchise's highest pick in 34 years. In finishing with the league's fifth-worst record last season (25-57), the Pacers suffered only their third 50-loss campaign in the last 36 seasons.
Despite Indiana's aversion to bottoming out under owner Herb Simon, the Pacers have always managed to retool on the fly before eventually finding their way to a contending core.
There's no championship to show for it, but teams led by Reggie Miller during the '90s, Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest during the aughts, and then Paul George during the first half of the 2010s all reached bona fide contender status. Indiana frequently built better teams than many of its rivals who were perennially situated near the top of the draft.
This was The Pacers Way.
When Kevin Pritchard took over for Larry Bird as Indiana's president of basketball operations in 2017, he reaffirmed that franchise ethos. "I don't believe in tearing it down, because then you can tear down your culture," Pritchard said during a news conference five and a half years ago. "You can't teach guys how to win. Some teams are out of the playoffs seven, eight, nine years. We don't do that."
It's ironic, then, that after inadvertently building a team made for the bottom last season, the Pacers are now overachieving this year with a team that was purposefully built to tank for the first time since the '80s. A team widely projected to finish with a bottom-five record entered the Thanksgiving break with a top-five mark (10-7) in the Eastern Conference and a top-10 overall point differential.
The biggest reason for that early-season surprise, and the development that should render this season a success no matter how much it negatively affects the team's lottery odds: Tyrese Haliburton is too good to tank with.
With more offensive responsibility in Indiana than he had in Sacramento, Haliburton's production increased following the midseason trade that sent Domantas Sabonis to the Kings. But the Pacers went 6-20 with Haliburton in the lineup last year. What the young guard has done through five weeks of his first full season as a Pacer has been much more impressive.
Haliburton has the Pacers' offense on a string while keeping his opponents' heads on a swivel. He's fueled the league's eighth-best offense by perfectly balancing his skills as an uber-efficient scorer and game-changing playmaker.
He's driving and getting to the rim more frequently, while still leveraging the power of his passing when he perforates defenses. He's shooting the leather off the ball while feasting on an analytically savvy shot diet that sees 71% of his attempts either come from behind the arc or at the rim.
Though Haliburton's individual offensive production has been a revelation, his breathtaking playmaking has somehow been better.
In leading the league's seventh-fastest team (both in overall pace and average time of offensive possession), Haliburton must have opponents shaking in transition. Overplay your hand to stop him and he'll find an open teammate - often in spectacular fashion - for an easy bucket. Give Haliburton too much space and you're essentially giving one of the NBA's most devastating pull-up threats a green light.
He's also developed a symphonic pick-and-roll partnership with Myles Turner and leads the league with an assist percentage of 48.9%, meaning that nearly half of every non-Haliburton basket the Pacers score when he's on the court is assisted by Haliburton.
He's averaging 19.8 points and a league-leading 10.8 assists while shooting 57.1% from 2-point range, 38.8% on 7.1 3-point attempts per game, and 86.3% from the free-throw line. Among qualified 3-point shooters, the only other players who averaged at least 19 points and 10 assists on 60% true shooting in a season are James Harden and Magic Johnson. So, this feels like a good time to remind you Haliburton is 22 years old and only about a quarter of the way through his third pro season.
In Haliburton, the Pacers have already found the type of foundational star teams tank for. If that ends up costing them Ping-Pong balls in this year's lottery - which even the worst team only has a 14% chance of winning - then so be it.
There's more: Indiana may have found another of those foundational stars during their rare appearance in the draft's top six last summer, as Bennedict Mathurin has looked like a steal.
The 20-year-old Canadian is averaging 19.4 points on 60.7% true shooting off the bench, putting him in early contention to be the first rookie since Ben Gordon in 2004-05 to win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award.
As a big shooting guard, Mathurin possesses a rare combination of shooting range and brute force as a driver, which has resulted in him parading to the free-throw line. Still only 17 games into his career, Mathurin is in the 97th percentile among wings when it comes to drawing shooting fouls, according to Cleaning The Glass. Among high-usage rookie guards in the 21st century, only Chris Paul and Keyon Dooling posted a higher free-throw attempt rate.
That rim pressure, foul-baiting, and shooting makes Mathurin a perfect complement to Haliburton in the Pacers' backcourt of the future.
Behind them, Turner is quietly enjoying a career year.
The Pacers have been below average on the defensive end (they rank 18th), but the fact Indiana isn't flirting with dead last in that department is a testament to Turner. The big man's impressive 2.8 blocks per game don't do his defensive impact justice. The difference between Turner's league-leading 9.6 shots defended at the rim per game and Sabonis' second-ranked figure of 7.7 is equivalent to the difference between Sabonis and 17th-ranked Ivica Zubac.
Zubac, Brook Lopez, and Isaiah Hartenstein are also the only three players holding opponents to a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Turner among the 25 players who are challenged at the rim most often.
The most promising aspect of Turner's early-season success, however, has been his offensive development. He won't continue to shoot 45% from deep, and he can still improve when it comes to bullying mismatches in the post, but Turner's willingness to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts so far this season gives him a more complete offensive arsenal. It's also part of the reason he's averaging a career-high 18.6 points to go along with a career-high 8.4 rebounds.
Turner's ability to protect the rim on one end while spacing the floor on the other makes him a coveted breed of big man in the modern era, particularly now that he's also more of a threat as a roll man in pick-and-roll actions. His development begs the question: Why are so many pundits eager to dismiss him as a core piece of Indiana's rebuild?
Playing on an expiring contract for a team that entered the season with lottery odds top of mind, Turner appeared to be an obvious trade candidate; the Pacers could recoup draft capital while sending him to a team trying to win now. But at only 26, Turner can still be part of the next great Pacers team. Though it feels like he's been around - and on the trade block - forever, his timeline can still align with Haliburton's and Mathurin's.
Unless Indiana is blown away by a trade offer or Turner leaves no doubt he plans to depart in free agency, the Pacers should be thinking about how to keep the two-way big man in the Hoosier State.
The sweet-shooting Buddy Hield would be a more reasonable trade chip if the Pacers want to strike a balance between letting this season play out and still planning for the future. Same goes for T.J. McConnell, if the veteran guard can pick his play up between now and the deadline.
As good as Haliburton, Turner, Mathurin, and Hield have been, the Pacers must remain realistic about their 2022-23 outlook. Their fifth-best player might be Isaiah Jackson. They've played one of the league's softest schedules so far and have taken advantage of some injury-battered teams; Indiana's last four wins came against the Magic, Rockets, and Hornets. After hosting Brooklyn on Friday, the Pacers will embark on a tough seven-game road trip through Los Angeles, Sacramento, Utah, Portland, Golden State, and Minnesota.
Most projection models peg their eventual win total in the mid-to-high 30s, which should leave them fighting for the East's final play-in spot. That's fine. As discouraging as the middle of the pack can be, there's a big difference between being a 35-40 win team fueled by young players who will serve as your foundation for years and being a mediocre team that's already mortgaged the future just to get there (like the division-rival Bulls). Remember, the Pacers' preseason over/under win total was set at 24.5.
In addition to possessing all of their own future first-round picks, the Pacers are also on track to have two extra first-rounders this season (from Boston and Cleveland), so they've got plenty of draft capital.
The Pacers would've liked to use some of it near the top of the 2023 draft, and they may still be able to if the season goes off track and the lottery bounces their way. But the presence of Haliburton, Mathurin, and potentially even Turner has them in good shape regardless of how this season or the lotto plays out.
It's a fun place to be for a rebuilding team, and Indiana only had to endure one truly miserable season to get here.
Whether intentional or not, it simply seems to be the Pacers way.
Joseph Casciaro is theScore's senior content producer.