The Indiana Pacers have exceeded expectations this season. After Paul George's trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder last July, analysts thought that it would be the beginning of a full rebuild for the franchise.
However, as it turned out, Indiana got an invaluable return in Victor Oladipo, and Domantas Sabonis as the two players have also exceeded the franchise's expectations. The result so far is a season of overachievement as believed by some pundits.
The Pacers are currently fifth in the East with a 33-25 record heading into the All-Star break. On paper, teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, and Detroit Pistons are considered by many as much better than Indiana, but they are currently ahead of them all in the standings.
However, Ryan Eggers of FanSided's 8 Points 9 Seconds opined that the Pacers might be headed into a "nightmare scenario" after the team decided to stay put at the trade deadline.
By retaining their current roster, Eggers thinks that Indiana would most likely end up "with a bad playoff seed" that could result in a first-round sweep.
Finishing from the 6th to 8th playoff spot means that they have to face one of the East's big three – the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, and Cleveland Cavaliers – in the first round, and they are reportedly not equipped to put up a good fight against any of these teams at the moment.
Sporting News' Sean Deveney reported that the upcoming offseason would then be a crucial time for the Pacers' management to make key moves that would improve their roster to the point of championship contention, or at least Eastern Conference contention, moving forward.
Deveney cited unnamed league executives as saying that the Pacers are likely to be "a player on the restricted free-agent market this summer." He named Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon and Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart as the Pacers' top two free agent targets in July.
Gordon, 22, is currently having his best season so far in his four-year NBA career. The former Arizona standout is averaging 18.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 34.0 minutes per game for the Magic, which are all career-highs by far.
Meanwhile, Smart is considered as one of the best wing defenders and substitute players in the league right now. He is averaging 10.1 points, 3.5 boards, 4.7 assists, and 1.3 steals in 30.3 minutes coming off the bench for the Celtics this year.
Smart was sidelined by a freak hand injury he suffered by punching a glass picture frame in a Los Angeles hotel room last month, but he is expected to return later in the season.
According to Deveney, the Pacers tried to make a trade before this year's deadline, even telling their potential trade partners that they were willing to "take on a bad salary in exchange for draft picks" because of their current available cap space.
However, no deals were made as Indiana reportedly felt that they would get more opportunities for better returns if they wait for the offseason.
Deveney said that the team would be more likely to "continue to explore using their cap room in trades at the draft and during this summer." If that's true, it shouldn't be a surprise if Gordon and Smart's names are linked to the team by then.