Instead, the Pacers finished with 48 wins and took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in round one of the playoffs.
There’s at least one person who thinks a similar storyline could unfold for the Chicago Bulls next season.
“There’s always a surprise team, I feel like last year the Pacers were the surprise team in the East, y’know?,” Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis said on the Locked on Bulls podcast recently. “Maybe that can be us this year.”
As NBC Sports Chicago’s Michael Walton notes, the 2017-2018 Pacers and the 2018-2019 Bulls have some similarities.
First, the Pacers had a lot of young talent that stepped up. Key contributors Bojan Bogdanovic (fourth year in the NBA), Myles Turner ( third year in the NBA), and Domantas Sabonis (second year in the NBA) all exceeded expectations and/or took major steps in their development.
The Bulls have a lot of young guys this season who they hope can have a similar experience as their neighbors to the east.
Secondly, both franchises completed a blockbuster trade within a year and a half of these seasons which were viewed as major screw ups until circumstance slowly changed the perception.
The Pacers traded impending free agent Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Sabonis. Oladipo’s Most Improved Player campaign catalyzed the Pacers expectation-shattering season.
Similarly, many clowned the Bulls for trading Jimmy Butler away on draft night 2017 (and their 16th overall pick) for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the No. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen). With the benefit of hindsight and the recent drama surrounding Butler, it’s very hard to argue that the Bulls didn’t win that trade now.
Can Markkanen, Dunn, and/or LaVine go from the butt of trade jokes to leading their new team to unexpected heights like Oladipo did?
All three certainly have the talent.
The key ingredient for the Pacers though that made it all work was Oladipo’s teammates recognized his talent, deferred to him on offense, and head coach Nate McMillan ran plays for him. Oladipo averaged 17.9 shot attempts per game (over seven more than the second highest player on the team), and was top 15 in the NBA in usage percentage (minimum 30 games played).
But with so many mouths to feed offensively, the Bulls path to success may need to take another route. The Bulls will struggle to win 20 games if LaVine or Jabari Parker end up with a usage percentage over 30.
The key for the Bulls will be spreading the wealth around offensively without reverting to “your turn, my turn” basketball. Dunn is an integral part of making that happen, as Mark Karantzoulis outlines in his most recent article.
But with enough talent offensively to keep them in most games and low expectations for this season (FiveThirtyEight projects them to win 27 games), the Bulls are going to be better than advertised, even if they don’t beat their preseason win/loss projection by 16 games like the Pacers did last season.