Tyrese Haliburton has the Pacers skipping the NBA waiting line

Tyrese Haliburton has the Pacers skipping the NBA waiting line

There are three tiers of NBA existence: Teams stuck in the mud, teams trying to fit through a championship window and future contenders waiting their turn. Prior to Tyrese Haliburton’s first full season as a Pacer, Indiana was rudderless and stuck on a road to nowhere. Aside from Haliburton, there wasn’t much to look forward to. The Pacers had notoriously avoided tanking for years, so the talent coffers weren’t as full as the ones in Oklahoma City or New Orleans. Benedict Mathurin was their first top-9 selection since 1989. As a result, The Ringer ranked them 14th in their future rankings behind the Atlanta Hawks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, and Charlotte Hornets. Each of the aforementioned teams’ offenses was orchestrated by some of the games’ young, neophyte point guards.

FiveThirtyEight’s now-defunct RAPTOR player ratings gave an insight to Haliburton’s standing among his peers at the time. Haliburton’s RAPTOR score before his first full season as a Pacer ranked him 81st behind Melo Ball (80th), Trae Young (27th), Ja Morant (23rd) and Shai Gilgous Alexander (71st). By the end of the 2022 season, he was 30th, but the Pacers were still a sub-.500 squad and a bottom-third offense.

Just like Haliburton pushing his way through the mosh pit of young point guards, Indiana has skipped the line this season. Gilgeous-Alexander’s sudden ascent made noise, but Haliburton was more slept on in a melatonin offense. If you didn’t catch wind of Haliburton threatening to become the first player to average 25 points and 12 assists in a season, he bullied his way into your consciousness on Monday night when his four-point play in the final 90 seconds of regulation helped catapult rambunctious Indiana past the more corporate Boston Celtics.

Today, Haliburton and SGA are the on-court headmasters of two of the NBA’s rising whippersnapper rosters. Conversely, the Trae Young Hawks are trending downwards and Young’s stock is plummeting with it. That 2021 Conference Finals feels like more of an aberration every day. Morant has been forced to take a sabbatical by the NBA after a series of incidents off of the court and Melo Ball has struggled to lift the Hornets from the floor.

Meanwhile, Haliburton has become the accelerant for a flamethrowing Pacers offense that is shattering NBA records for offensive efficiency. If SGA is the no-frills superstar, Haliburton brings the razzle-dazzle. Crucially, Indiana finally has a personality and an upside. But only Haliburton is bringing his GTA 6 mode of offensive basketball to the NBA’s version of March Madness.

New Orleans has flashed their greatness before, but Indiana had the profile of a low-risk and low-reward penny stock roster. By advancing past Boston to reach Las Vegas for the NBA Cup semifinals, Haliburton has taken advantage of the showcase for Indiana’s fast-lane offense on a grand stage. In games that have counted towards the NBA Cup, they’ve now taken wins off of the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Atlanta Hawks.

Inevitably, once a player of Haliburton’s caliber emerges, the countdown to when he can take his talents to a bigger market begins ticking. On Tuesday, Nick Freidell, formerly of ESPN, postulated that the league would be better off with the Knicks and Lakers advancing than the Bucks and Pacers. He’s going to be waiting a long time.

Indiana replicating this sort of run in a seven-game series is much more unlikely because of Indiana’s phantom defense, but in a knockout-round setup, unpredictability reigns supreme. YOLO basketball plays better in single-elimination basketball. Additionally, that $500,000 prize for winning the tournament hits a little differently for a team full of 25-and-under stars on reasonable contracts based out of Indianapolis. Haliburton’s $250 million rookie extension doesn’t kick in until next season, meanwhile, the dollar stretches a little further than it would in Los Angeles.

However, it’s better for the Pacers’ long-term viability that they have an easily diagnosable vulnerability. To enliven their defense, Indiana inked Bruce Brown in free agency to provide defensive toughness, and rookie Jarace Walker was drafted out of Houston because of his defensive versatility, but Walker has barely seen the floor this season. In a smattering of G League assignments, Walker has lit up the floor, averaging 26 points on an incredibly efficient 60/40/70 split while also chipping in energy plays defensively in the form of 2.6 stocks (steals and blocks) per night. His long-term development is possibly the pivot point for Indiana’s ascension, but Indiana is years from unleashing their 19-year-old forward.

Ultimately, Indiana has already shown enough to vault them into the NBA stratosphere. In a league of haves and have-nots, Indiana has always been at a disadvantage, but small-market teams are having a moment. Denver is the reigning champion. New Orleans is healthy and flying high since turning around their season after a players-only meeting in mid-November. The Bucks locked in Giannis Antetokounmpo for another four years and for the first time in years, Indiana has inserted themself into the conversation.

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.