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The Pacers’ “Happy” Daze

As they ended 2021 at the low point of a seven-plus season stay in NBA purgatory, the Pacers are on a road to nowhere. When is someone going to actually grab the wheel?

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Indiana Pacers this season, chances are you may not have noticed just how bad things have gotten for them.

Indiana currently ranks dead last in NBA attendance and even for fans who are masochistic enough to still want to watch them on television, but unwilling to light real money on fire by buying tickets, can’t. Bally Sports Indiana isn’t carried on most streaming services, and the Pacers’ lone nationally televised game, a total laugher at Miami in December, was an embarrassing 30-point beatdown.

Stop a dozen people on Monument Circle and most of them could probably name a current Pacer (you know, besides the local legend Lance Stephenson), but that’s only because most of the decaying core of this team has inexplicably been allowed to fester for yet another bleak season. Indiana is nearly halfway through what will again be a playoff-less campaign, but instead of pushing for major changes that have needed to be made for several years now, team owner Herb Simon got in front of a microphone to say, “I love our little team” in a small gathering with local media last month. The comment was met with universal derision from Pacers fans—at least the ones that still give a shit—who are fed up with a go-nowhere team and its complacent brass. While no one expects any team owner to take a flamethrower to his players publicly (in the hopes that someone will still actually want to trade for those players), Simon’s line was woefully ignorant of the fanbase’s completely fractured relationship with this group and the extreme Pacers’ apathy around the entire city.

Hours after Simon made those comments, the Pacers were outscored 27-12 in the fourth quarter by a Bucks team down seven players, including their two best in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, in a 15-point loss. Six days later, came The Miami Dismemberment, a 125-96 defeat to the Heat’s G League squad without its All-Stars (Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo) and three other regulars due to injuries and COVID breakouts. Finally, DeMar DeRozan’s one-footed, buzzer-beating three on New Year’s Eve capped the Pacers’ craptacular 2021—a 44-58 slog spanning two different failed seasons—a year that somehow sunk the franchise below even the maddening “be pretty good but then get quickly tossed into a trash compactor in the first round” rung on the NBA ladder.

Any professional sports team needs to get Joe and Jane Fan to buy into either being competitive in the present or some sort of a blueprint/plan for the future, yet the Pacers, frankly, have neither of those items in their cart. Forget the losing: On the checklist of Reasons To Watch Your Sports Team, the Pacers don’t check any of the boxes. They’re not good, they’re not fun, and they’re not even the slightest bit interesting, and they haven’t been for a while now, so why is everyone at the Ascension St. Vincent Center sitting on their hands? Do Simon and team President Kevin Pritchard also not get Bally Sports Indiana? How else could anyone look at this overflowing Port-a-Potty of a basketball team and be content with its present or bullish on its future?

If we’re going to have a conversation about that future, it can’t possibly include this core, which while seemingly likable and reasonably talented, lacks any semblance of cohesion and any semblance of a star. Domantas Sabonis, a lower-echelon All-Star and extreme-fringe All-NBA–level performer, is possibly the closest thing, but even Pritchard admitted that he’s not that guy for this team (hey, a publicly honest comment from an executive!). In a league where you need an A/A+ level player or players, the Pacers’ report card is filled with B’s and C’s, all of whom (Sabonis, Myles Turner, Caris LeVert, and Malcolm Brogdon—who can’t be traded this season) have been in the league for six or more years. If the ascension was going to happen for any of them, we would’ve seen it already. Promising rookie Chris Duarte, a rare Pacers’ first-round draft pick that didn’t spontaneously combust into flames once reaching the league, is worth keeping around, but everyone else should be on the table.

While the Pacers may be shopping around for deals, even if they won’t admit it publicly, a full-scale rebuild or “tank” appears to be a non-starter for a franchise that hasn’t owned a single-digit draft pick since 1989 (the longest stretch in the league, by far). Simon voiced concerns about fans not wanting to go through that, but fans sure as hell don’t want to go through this [gestures wildly], either. The thought that Pacers’ fans will respond more favorably to a less competent team (35-ish wins) than a totally incompetent one (20-ish wins) after becoming a seller is laughable. The Pacers were never one of the nine worst teams in the completely forgettable Mike Dunleavy/Troy Murphy era (2007–11), yet like this season, they ranked dead last in attendance in two of those years. While I’m not advocating a full-scale tank, fans have already checked out and there aren’t many left to lose, so Simon’s anti-teardown rationale doesn’t fly.

From about 2015 to 2020, this was a low-ceiling, high-floor team, but in the last 13 months, the living room has caved in. Since a 45-28 COVID bubble season in 2020, the Pacers are 48-63. Not even Rick Carlisle, a respected, tenured, and championship-winning coach, has been able to halt this franchise’s deterioration in his first season back at the helm. Sadly, a long rebuild-on-the-fly that started with the Paul George trade in July of 2017 is backpedaling as we approach the five-year mark of that transaction.

This is fixable and it’s fixable by this ownership group, which, contrary to popular belief, has presided over successful teams in the past, but those decisions and a path forward for the Pacers need to be executed immediately instead of holding on to the delusional hope that fans will invest their time in a slightly mediocre team over a downright terrible one. You can’t conjure up trades out of thin air, but the Pacers have movable pieces on team-friendly contracts who could fit as complements on teams that still have meaningful basketball left to play. Given those (potential) trade possibilities, not all of Simon’s public statements should be taken at face value, but if he’s any semblance of happy with the franchise’s straight-into-the-ground trajectory and content to ride it out with this go-nowhere roster, then empty seats and streaming blackouts are the least of the Pacers’ concerns.


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