Loaded with expiring contracts, Pacers still scraping and clawing together

Dan Feldman

Thaddeus Young faced a tough decision last summer.

Coming off the best season of his career, he held a $13,764,045 player option with the Pacers. Opting in probably, though not definitely, maximized his salary this year. But opting out would have allowed him to sign a long-term deal with more total compensation.

Young opted in.

“Obviously, I had a few teams that wanted to pay me some money and stuff like that,” Young said. “But I figured that playing another season and going into it with these guys is better for me.

“We’re a family. We built something. We have some unfinished business.”

That decision, several others and Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury sent Indiana toward its identity – a tough, balanced team full of players incentivized to look out for themselves.

Several key Pacers – Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans – are on expiring contracts. But they don’t play like it. Indiana has remained cohesive amid obstacles, including the contract situations.

Don’t expect that to change with the Pacers trailing the Celtics 2-0 in their first round series entering Game 3 tonight.

Indiana proved its mettle last season. Largely written off after the Paul George trade, the Pacers became the NBA’s surprise team by winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo broke out as a star.

This season brought a new complication – players on the verge of getting compensated for their success. It could have happened more gradually, but circumstance created a rush.

Young opted in. Indiana exercised a $10.5 million team option on Bogdanovic and a $10 million team option on Collison, locking this in as the final year of their contracts. Matthews got bought out by the Knicks and signed for the rest of the season with a Pacers team that presented major opportunity with Oladipo sidelined. Evans, finding an underwhelming market in free agency last summer, prioritized a one-year deal. Joseph was the only one who was clearly entering the final season of his contract in Indiana.

The Pacers have given 68% of their minutes this postseason to players on expiring contracts. That’s a close second to the 76ers (only because I counted a few players with sure-to-be-declined player options – Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton – as having expiring contracts).

Here’s the percentage of minutes given to players on expiring contracts this postseason:

In the regular season, Indiana trailed only the Wizards.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he addressed the contract situation before the season. His message, as summarized by Joseph: “We’re better when we play together, and if we do, then everybody will get rewarded.”

Players clearly bought in. Indiana surged to a 32-15 start. But Oladipo’s injury tested the Pacers’ cohesiveness.

They clearly wouldn’t be as good without their star, and they went just 16-19 since his last game. It would have been a logical time for players to go their own ways and start playing for themselves in what looked like it’d be a lost season.

Instead, they tightened their bond. This team has been quite competitive without Oladipo. The schedule got tough in March, but the Pacers stuck together.

“We don’t have big names, big stars on our team,” Bogdanovic said. “But we are fighting every single night.”

The delicate balance of Indiana’s offense – especially considering contract-year motivations – is quite stunning.

The Pacers averaged 5.4 double-digit scorers per game this season – the most in nearly two decades. Not bad for a team that finished 22nd in the NBA in points per game. Though scoring is up this season, 69 other teams averaged more points per game since another team had so many double-digit scorers per game.

“There’s a lot of players on the other teams that play for their own stats,” Bogdanovic said. “…We have this season, eight or nine players with expiring contracts, and we are still playing the right way, sharing the ball. We don’t care who’s going to score. That’s why we are successful.”

Unconcerned about their scoring numbers, Indiana players exert their energy on other things – defending, rebounding, screening. The Pacers impose a hard-nosed style, just as they did last year.

Indiana’s professionalism and focus on winning is a tribute to its players and organizational culture. This is a veteran team with the right priorities.

As much as he believed in this group, as well as he has guided it, McMillan wasn’t quite certain how the contract situations would affect his squad.

“That can go either way,” McMillan said. “It can be good or bad. It’s been good for us. Our guys have committed to playing together.”