Coming into this season, the Bucks were the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference, while the Sixers and Celtics were the two right behind them. The Nets weren’t expected to contend in 2019-20, but it was known next season would be much different with Kevin Durant expected to make his return from his Achilles injury.
While Miami has been a major surprise and Pascal Siakam has shown Toronto is still a tough team when he’s healthy, there’s been another team waiting for its chance to create havoc in the East. The Indiana Pacers. And they’ve just needed one piece in order to do so. Victor Oladipo, who hasn’t played in a game since January 23 of last season — which was when he ruptured his right quad tendon.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported Oladipo was shooting for a late January or early February return. On Wednesday, Oladipo told Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic he has set his return date for January 29, when the Pacers face the Bulls.
Even if he plays in half of those regular season games and each postseason contest, that’s plenty of time to work back up to full speed heading into the summer to get ready for 2020-21 — which is when the Pacers will really be a problem.
Still, when the postseason rolls around, the Pacers will be in the mix. They’re sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. That probably won’t change — unless Oladipo comes back in full form.
Which is really what it all comes down to regarding Indiana’s potential impact this postseason: what does Oladipo look like? They’re a tough team without him now that they’ve added Malcolm Brogdon to go with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. If Oladipo comes back at 80% of what he was before his injury — even that’s a big “if,” given how Paul George and Gordon Hayward looked when they returned from their lower body injuries — the Pacers are going to be a serious problem. They won’t win the title this year, but they could pull off a postseason upset depending on what Oladipo looks like. Because, remember, Oladipo was an All-NBA selection (Third Team) in his last full season (2017-18) and probably would’ve been again in 2019-20 if he hadn’t only played in 36 games.
Which means, one of Boston’s goals should be to finish with one of the two best records in the conference by the end of the regular season. That way the Celtics aren’t likely to face the Pacers in the first round, since they’re comfortably ahead of the Magic, Nets and Hornets, who are seventh, eighth and ninth in the conference, respectively.
Now that Oladipo is coming back, there are too many “if’s” and “maybe’s” surrounding the Pacers to view them as a good postseason matchup.