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Victor Oladipo Finds Himself in Another Unfamiliar Situation
By: Khaqan Khan
After pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers to a seven-game series in the first round as part of LeBron's historic playoff run, the Pacers at the end of 2017-2018, to the surprise of many, looked like a promising young team led by a blossoming young star in Victor Oladipo. Drafted out of Indiana in 2013, taken 2nd overall by the Orlando Magic, the young kid out of Silver Spring, Maryland, Victor Oladipo always seemed poised to be a real difference-maker on the court.
However, even with Oladipo showing flashes, The Magic could never transpire any real results. After three seasons, The Magic decided to trade Oladipo and the 12th pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who needed to retool to avoid basketball destitution after Kevin Durant's infamous free agency move, for Serge Ibaka. Oladipo now found himself as the second option behind Russell Westbrook, who was eager to seek vengeance out on the league. After one season, where Oladipo struggled to play up to Westbrook's pace, Sam Presti struck yet another shocking deal with Pacer's GM Kevin Pritchard.
It would send Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis (who they took with the 12th pick they got in the Ibaka trade) to Indiana in exchange for disgruntled superstar Paul George. At the time, it was, without a doubt, a robbery by the Thunder. Many questioned Pritchard's decision, claiming he took a lesser deal to spite George for how he handled his ending in Indiana, sending him to a place that is the furthest thing from the Los Angeles destination George preferred.
The problem with that criticism was that it overlooked Oladipo and the transformation he was embarking on.
Citing Russell Westbrook as a key inspiration, Oladipo committed himself that offseason to losing 15 pounds and adding more lean muscle in an effort to unlock his potential. Though a frustrating path, going to Oklahoma City, and getting valuable experience alongside fellow freak athlete Westbrook was great. Then getting traded to a place where he played college basketball for a franchise with no expectations somehow put Oladipo in the perfect situation to assert himself and stake his claim as a star in this league. However, three years later, Oladipo finds himself at another crossroads point in his career.
Now 28 years old and entering the last year of his four years/ $85 million contract he signed with the Thunder, coming off a gruesome thigh injury that kept him out for most of the year, Oladipo finds himself in yet another trade offseason filled with uncertainty.
Initial rumors indicated Oladipo wanted to play for a bigger market, a story Pacers fans are all too familiar with over the past decades. Both LA teams, who are in the market for an upgrade at the guard position, were initially brought up. But it has been said that Oladipo likes to spend his offseason in Miami and would like to play for the Heat organization. Oladipo, since then, has come out publicly to shoot down those rumors, stating, "I'm a Pacer".
Oladipo was not the only Pacer player unsettled in Indiana. Reports have said that key players on the Pacers were frustrated by Nate McMillan's lack of innovation and ability to adapt. Citing poor defensive strategy, a stagnant offense, and rejecting pleas to make tweaks to the offense. It led to McMillan being fired after another disappointing first-round exit and getting replaced by Toronto Raptors' assistant, Nate Bjorkgren. Bjorken has been alongside Nick Nurse since 2007 when the two would spend hours upon hours developing their basketball philosophy on multiple whiteboards in the basement while coaching in the G-League. The Pacers feel Bjorkgren possesses the same qualities that make Nick Nurse one of the better coaches in the league today.
Nurse has been notorious for his positive mindset, the ability to build relationships with players, and importantly, not just the willingness but the desire to innovate. It will be interesting to see how this fresh mindset will impact this current roster. Full of sound and solid players like Malcolm Brogdon and Emerging All-Star Domantas Sabonis, not to mention TJ Warren, who had his coming out party in the Bubble at Orlando.
As for Oladipo, early signs from this hire prove to be positive. President of Basketball Operations, Kevin Prichard, said about Oladipo, "we did a Zoom with the whole team yesterday, and Victor spoke up and was as positive as I have ever seen him... He feels good about the team. He's talked to me about how he thinks this team can be very good." At the introductory press conference, Bjorkgren said Oladipo texted him immediately once he got hired, and the two proceeded to have a great and encouraging conversation over the phone.
Coming off the knee injury that only allowed him to play in 19 games, it is understandable the frustrated mindset Oladipo might be in. The last thing any professional athlete wants to do is not play. That frustration mixed with the team's failure to get out of the first round, paired with the uncertainty of heading into his contract year with the threat of covid still looming over the league and the rest of the world, it is a surprise how Oladipo and other athletes like him can stay so composed. Not to mention racial tension reaching a fever pitch across the nation during an election year.
People assume with his R&B career and his recent appearance on the Masked Singer that Oladipo is more concerned about raising his profile in a bigger market than he is about playing basketball for the Indiana Pacers. Though that might be part of the thought process, it is important to understand that players know the best way to raise their profile is by winning at the biggest stage possible. Case in point, Jimmy Butler, who many doubted went to Miami for 'basketball reasons,' changed his perception by dueling with two of the best five players in the league during the finals. Another example from the Miami Heat is rookie Tyler Herro, whose jersey became a top seller after his record-setting game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
If Oladipo does want to get traded, this might not be the best time. His trade value is up in the air with him coming off an injury and being owed 20 million dollars at a time where many people in the league are unsure about how the cap situation will look in the upcoming years. There are serious doubts the Lakers and Clippers will have enough to entice the Pacers, and reports out of Miami stated the obvious, that Miami doesn't need to trade for another guard right now. Oladipo is linked to Toronto, who might be ready to do a roster makeover, and potentially replacing Fred VanVleet, who is a free agent, with Oladipo would be a positive for Toronto.
The best route for both Oladipo and the Pacers might be to play the season out. Maybe, making key-tweaks to the roster like perhaps trading Myles Turner and freeing up Sabonis. Or, acquiring a playmaker like Gordon Hayward. Oladipo seems like a good fit alongside Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, and Domantas Sabonis.
The Brogdon-Sabonis pick-and-roll was one of the more underrated and more efficient combos last season, which should free up looks for Oladipo and Warren. Nonetheless, the Pacers have a smart and talented roster but also have a few moves to make if they want. If things don't work out next season for whatever reason, the Pacers could get a good return at the trade deadline, assuming Oladipo is healthy and plays well enough to build his value back up.
Going back to the 2017 offseason, it is kind of remarkable that a trade everyone thought the Pacers would regret now looks like a trade everyone else regrets not making. Three years later, as the 2020-2021 offseason unfolds, it will be interesting to see what the Pacers decide to do with their roster, mainly what they do with Oladipo. It's easy to expect Oladipo to ball out as most players do during their contract years, and as fans, that's what we should be rooting for. But it's also important to remember professional athletes aren't just robots or millionaires motivated solely by money.
At the end of the day, players want to play, and players want to win when they play. A lot of them understand the money will come if they do those two things. Coming off rehab and getting adjusted to the new coach (or if he's traded, getting adjusted to his new city and team), it will take time for Oladipo to come back as the player he once was. If he can return close to his 2017-2018 form, scoring 23 points per game on 47% shooting and challenging LeBron James in the first round, the Pacers should easily see another playoff berth in the east. For Victor Oladipo, that might be all he wants at the end of the day. A chance once again to prove himself at the highest level. A chance to win.
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