2021 NBA Playoffs: Indiana Pacers show Orlando Magic culture only goes so far

Caris LeVert carries a lot of hope for the Indiana Pacers as their next star to keep their culture going. The Orlando Magic seemed to learn that has a limit. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Caris LeVert carries a lot of hope for the Indiana Pacers as their next star to keep their culture going. The Orlando Magic seemed to learn that has a limit. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

The Indiana Pacers are something of a model for small-market teams.

They are not the San Antonio Spurs, lacking the championships that the Spurs have accumulated. But Indiana has had an equally impressive run of playoff appearances and success.

Indiana has made the playoffs in nine of the past 11 seasons and 15 of the past 22 seasons. The Pacers had only one streak of consecutive playoff misses and eight Eastern Conference Finals appearances in that time (although just one trip to the NBA Finals).

This is a franchise that has experienced success. The Pacers were always just one superstar away from contention and they always had a solid group of veterans. They were always built on hard-nosed defense and the ability to move the ball.

Pacers basketball has been relatively unchanged for the better part of two decades. They defend well, they play together, they hustle. If there is the definition of a team that is perpetually hard to play against, it is the Pacers.

Still, Indiana has not broken through. The Pacers might be a model for a small-market franchise and perpetual success. But they are not the end goal. They are not the San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat, two teams whose culture seems to outpace their talent.

The Indiana Pacers are a small-market model for consistent playoff trips. But their constant cycle through the first round shows culture only gets a team so far. The Orlando Magic saw that and hit reset to improve their overall talent.

And once again, the Pacers found themselves wanting in the playoffs.

They might properly blame injuries and maybe even some coaching discord — their sudden and surprising dismissal of Nate McMillan this offseason looks worse considering what he has done to turn around the Atlanta Hawks and instill a culture with a superstar player in Trae Young — but it still leaves the Pacers in an unfamiliar place: Outside the Playoffs.

The lesson from the Pacers’ season this year is that culture can take a team a long way. It can help the team withstand injuries and it is an important part of the puzzle. But it cannot be the whole puzzle.

In the end, star power matters. Talent wins in the league. And the Pacers found themselves bereft of elite talent.

Indiana has had moments of extreme success when they find their way into elite players — Reggie Miller, Paul George and Victor Oladipo. But the last few years have seen them struggle to find consistency.

Indiana, as a small market, has gotten adept at pulling the plug on their “star” players before things get really bad. Doing this prevented an all-out, years-long rebuild. The Pacers seemed to know their place in the NBA hierarchy. They shuttled Paul George out of town for two future All-Stars in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. They flipped Victor Oladipo around for Caris LeVert.

Sabonis turned in another All-Star year. He averaged 20.3 points per game, 12.0 rebounds per game and 6.7 assists per game. He became a triple-double machine at the center spot and rightfully got an All-Star spot alongside the Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic.

But the Pacers were impressive because of their balance.

Malcolm Brogdon has continued to be a lethally efficient shooter. LeVert came back from his kidney disease diagnosis and continued to flourish with more opportunities. It feels like the Pacers were able to flip into another potential star again.

Indiana Pacers
Indiana Pacers /

Indiana Pacers

And the Pacers played a good chunk of the season without All-Defensive Team candidate Myles Turner. Turner played in only 47 games. And while his counting stats are poor, Turner is one of the premier shot blockers and rim challengers in the league.

The Pacers’ roster is dotted with grinders who have just found their place within their ecosystem. Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell get after players on both ends — McConnell especially has become adept at creating backcourt steals.

Teams need these players to be successful. And the Pacers have plenty to build around to get back into the playoff conversation. This is not a team that will stay down.

In the Eastern Conference, all this is enough to fight for homecourt advantage most of the time and make the playoffs at least. But overall, this team is just average. Literally average ranking 14th in both offensive and defensive rating.

The question that haunts the Pacers each year is whether they have enough to get out of the first-round ringer. The Pacers’ culture and way of playing has made them a consistent playoff team. But unless they draft or find that superstar player — like George or Miller — they are not likely breaking through.

Look at how the team played in their elimination game against the Washington Wizards.

The Indiana Pacers got a triple-double from Sabonis (19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists), who bounced back from a poor shooting game against the Charlotte Hornets. But Brogdon had an off night. And Russell Westbrook (18 points, 15 assists) and Bradley Beal (25 points) ran wild to give the Wizards a blowout win.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Maybe that play-in game was the case of the Pacers have an uncharacteristic off night. Such is the risk of a single-elimination game.

Indiana has staked a comfortable spot in the middle of the league. They are the kind of team that young teams should aspire to be in some respects. They are consistent and constantly overperform their talent.

But that has limits. Very clearly it has limits. And the kind of team the Pacers are and have been is not the team anyone should be trying to be.

Their consistency is admirable. And the Pacers are showing no signs that they will miss the playoffs for very long. A healthy Caris LeVert and a healthy Myles Turner along with T.J. Warren’s return should be enough to keep them in playoff contention.

This was a down year for the team because of that.

But the question is whether they will ever have enough to get beyond that middle ringer in the conference.

The Magic under Steve Clifford were trying to build the kind of consistency that the Pacers have built. They wanted to have a consistent way to play that would result in consistent winning.

But Orlando very clearly decided that was not the goal. That is not the end destination. They were not willing to reshuffle the deck anymore to maintain their place in the middle. Not with the team facing salary cap purgatory and the prospects of a top pick.

The Magic know that it takes elite talent to compete at the end of the day.

Orlando will hope to get back to where Indiana is quick. The team wants to build that kind of consistency both with its team identity and its results. But at a certain point, the Magic want to break through into that upper tier. Whether that will happen or not will be part of the team’s development.

Next. NBA Play-In Tournament will help Orlando Magic grow. dark

It is clear though in watching the Pacers that while their consistency is admirable and a goal in itself, they are still missing the star power to break through and be more than a middling team.