It’s difficult to look at the numbers of the Indiana Pacers season and claim it was a victorious one. Finishing 35-47, the Pacers didn’t surpass .500 on the season, which as any longtime follower of the franchise will tell you was no surprise. While the losing record wasn’t surprising, this wasn’t a season of hopelessness like last years 25-win season, in fact, there were many glimpses of hope that shine a spotlight on a team with a bright future.
Coming off the miserable 21-22 season, many Pacers fans entered the ‘23 season with the thought process “anything had to be better than last year.” During the 21-22 season the Pacers finished sixteenth in offense, twenty-eighth in defense, and with ten straight losses to wrap up the season (which looked pretty clearly to the basketball community as a deliberate tank.)
The offseason went well for the Pacers, drafting young guards Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard. However it was clear from the get-go that the Pacers would be faced with a rebuilding year, but by all accounts a rebuilding year that wouldn’t be plagued by the dreariness of the 21-22 season.
January 11, 2023. A day that will live on in infamy for Pacers fans. This was the day that changed the trajectory of the entire Pacers season. Prior to January 11, the Pacers were looking like a team finally coming together. Tyrese Haliburton had recorded numerous double-doubles, Nembhard and Isaiah Jackson were showing moments of great defense, and it seemed for a moment that Rick Carlisle was going to lead the Pacers back to the playoffs.
When Haliburton went down on the 11th during a drive against the New York Knicks, injuring both his knee and more seriously his elbow. Haliburton was averaging a 20.2 points a game and an NBA-leading 10.2 assists per game. After his injury, the Pacers lost five straight, with a brief reprise when they beat the Chicago Bulls on the 24th of January, followed by another seven losses in a row. To put it bluntly – the Pacers were falling apart.
Yet the numbers at the end of the season do show some positives – specifically that Mathurin is a force to be reckoned with, finishing second in points off the bench in the entire NBA. Myles Turner is more comfortable in the five-spot, reaching career highs in both points and assists.
Haliburton is a franchise player, becoming the only player in NBA History to shoot 40% from three while averaging 20 points and 10 assists. The Pacers also improved their shooting from outside, with Buddy Hield finishing second in the league in three-pointers and T.J. McConnell hitting 26 of his 59 three-point-attempts this year.
The true highlight of the Pacers offense this year cannot be argued – their pace of play. The Pacers led the NBA in fast-break points, finished fifth in possessions a game, and finished tenth in scoring. In fact, the Pacers even set a franchise record for points scored with 9,535 points. This is another bright spot going forward for the Pacers.
Overall, the injury of Haliburton truly hampered the Pacers offense this year, and while other players stepped up to fill the gap, they still fell short. While there were some hopeful moments, the Pacers still finished 26th in the league in overall offense.
Defensively, the Pacers placed in the exact same spot as their offense, 26th in the league. A far-cry from being a defensive powerhouse, but there were again glimpses of excellence throughout the season.
Nembhard’s defensive prowess was elite throughout the year, and he has quickly shown himself to be an important piece of this Pacers team. Many analysts put him as the “steal” of the 2022 draft, a title well-deserved.
But Nembhard’s excellence simply wasn’t enough. The Pacers finished near the bottom in every defensive category including points per game allowed, averaging 119. In fact, the Pacers only kept three teams under 100 points all year. Rebounding was just as bad, finishing dead last in the NBA in defensive rebounding.
The Pacers learned the hard way, no matter how many points you put up on the fast-break, if you can’t defend and rebound you simply will not win games.
This is not lost on Carlisle. Carlisle has been incredibly forthcoming with the attitude that defensive improvements are going to be the key to a 2024 Pacers playoff appearance. But until those improvements come, incredible individual performances aren’t enough to save the Pacers defense.
The 2022-2023 Pacers team was many things. Young, hungry, talented – but most importantly, incomplete. When Haliburton went down on January 11, the entire Pacers season fell apart, and the basketball world was suddenly all too aware of how Haliburton kept the team together. Small glimpses of hope throughout the season coupled with the dominance leading up to Haliburton’s injury should excite Pacers fans.
This is going to be a team that continues to be fun to watch, and if Carlisle can continue making improvements especially on the defensive side of the ball – this team will be a serious playoff contender in the years to come.
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