The Pacer’s best player and shining beacon fell to a horrific knee injury that cut his season short on Wednesday night. Indiana now has several tough questions that they have to face with the second half of the season kicking in. Unfortunately, this will be without their All-NBA caliber player.
Watching Victor Oladipo crash to the floor was hard to watch. There was an uneasy feeling that churned through my stomach. That, however, cannot compare to what the 26-year-old guard must’ve felt in that moment. He was attempting to chase down Pascal Siakam. And in the following second, he wasn’t. Oladipo was clutching his right knee on the floor. While he his night ended with him being pulled off on a stretcher, he did raise his arm to show his affection to a stunned audience. Despite only being a Pacer for a little over 18 months, Oladipo has become a fan favorite in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He went from a bit-part player to on the verge of becoming a superstar in front of the Indiana loyal. He did his best to hide his tears, but a few escaped as he left the court.
The next day, an MRI confirmed what he (and the rest of the Pacers organization) already feared. It was confirmed that he has a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee. He would require surgery and forced out of action for the remainder of the season.
This injury is not as common as a torn ACL or ruptured Achilles tendon (just two of the more common lower-body injuries to NBA players). Rare, but not improbable. Tony Parker was the last NBA player to suffer the same - though it was his left quad tendon that ruptured. It was during Game 7 of the West Semifinals against the Houston Rockets. It too ended his season and would make his return after seven months on the sidelines against the Dallas Mavericks. It was evident then, and in the subsequent games, that it would take the rest of the season before he would look like his old self. Only know that he has moved to Charlotte - and has had a summer where he has gotten back into shape - is Parker playing his usual self. Parker was 34 when a sustained his injury. Oladipo is eight years younger, and more reliant on his athleticism than Parker at the time of the Frenchman’s injury. The 2019-20 season only begins October. While it is still too early to say, Oladipo must undoubtedly be aiming to return to the hardwood for the Pacers season opener.
Seeing your best player fall to a season-ending injury can be a gut punch. But this was not the first time Indiana has had to play without the Maryland native. They have gone 7-4 in the 11 games me missed due to a knee injury earlier in the season. The rest of the team stepped up with their triumvirate of big-men - Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner - all took the mantle of making up for Oladipo’s absence. Instead of crumbling, the Pacers doubled down and rallied together against a Raptors side currently tied for 1st in the East. Young spearheaded their second-half run. He finished the night with 23 points (12 of which came in the decisive 4th quarter) and 15 rebounds.
This is in stark contrast to seven games Oladipo missed last season. Sure, it is a small sample size, but they did not win a game without him. Also, they had an atrocious net rating of -8.2 points per 100 possessions anytime he was not on the hardwood. Both Turner and Sabonis have taken significant strides to improve this season and a determined Thad Young (in a contract year) is always a net positive. Kevin Pritchard (the President of Basketball Operations for the Pacers) also deserves plenty of credit for the summer acquisitions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott along with drafting Aaron Holiday. Nate McMillan has been a candidate for the Coach of the Year award and has willed the Pacers to 3rd in the East with plenty of hard work needed to keep the ship afloat.
The depth that they have built over the first half of the season will be needed now more than ever before. Even before the season-ending injury, Oladipo has not been the All-NBA caliber player of last season. His scoring and shooting percentages have dipped significantly this season. This a virtue of opposition coaches treating him like a superstar. Despite the jump in defensive attention that was given to him and knee troubles that sidelined him for 11 games prior - Oladipo has still been the Pacers best player. His 18.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.2 APG, and 1.2 SPG in just under 32 MPG is still an impressive state line. Only a handful of players this season have an 18-5-5 (or better) stat line. Of those players, only Giannis Antetokounmpo has a more significant defensive impact on than Oladipo. He is the rare star whose defensive effort is comparable to that when he has the ball in his hand. This has resulted in the Pacers being 1st in Opponent Points per Game and 2nd in Defensive Rating.
The Pacers play their first game since Oladipo’s season-ending injury against the Grizzlies. Tyreke Evans was brought in as a Sixth Man in the offseason and is expected to partner with Darren Collison in the backcourt for the duration of the season. He has had a slow first half of the season but an increase in minutes should likely result in him being a more productive player. Rookie Aaron Holiday has hardly featured this season (after being drafted late in the first round) so far, but a more role in the Pacers rotation might be enough to convince Nate McMillan of his two-way prowess.
Their depth has been the biggest strength. The Pacers currently sit as the 3rd seed in the East with them being a game ahead of the 76ers and 2.5 ahead of the Celtics. Even if both teams were to overtake Indiana is ridiculously unlikely that they will fall lower than 5th. The gap they have built between themselves and the lower seeded teams in the East is too large to close down. With that in mind, their hopes of advancing to the Conference Finals were crushed the second Oladipo collapsed to the floor.
Indiana has been the odd team atop the Eastern Conference. They are not star-driven with their depth being their biggest asset. The trade deadline is less than two weeks away. Before Oladipo’s injury, everyone’s eye was on them to see if they could add a piece to become a legitimate contender. Another offensive weapon who can also be a shot creator to ease the burden off of Oladipo - both for this season and as a long-term Number 2 option. Now, Kevin Pritchard has to scrap whatever plans he has. By no means are the Pacers going to tank. They are a lock to make the postseason. But their chances of winning and advancing past the first round are incredibly slim. Maybe he takes the long-term approach to use their expiring contracts for future picks to bolster Indiana for years to come.
Either that or he gives one this group a real chance to shine. Their chemistry and hustle are unlike many teams in the NBA. This group is well coached and will show up on a night-to-night basis. Their effort cannot be questioned. Perhaps they could have been a legitimate threat in the East had fate gone their way. But it is hard to feel optimistic when Oladipo clutched his knee. The Pacers’ head trainer Josh Corbeil covered his star player’s knee with a towel before he was stretchered off. By no means have Indiana thrown in the towel, but it did mark the end of what was supposed to mark a new era for a franchise that is vying a chance to once again contend for a title.