Pacers keep losing in first round. Are they succeeding or failing?

After the Pacers lost to the Raptors in the 2016 first round, Paul George dapped up Drake, high-fived Toronto fans and left the court with his head held high.

“At the end of the day, we had a good year,” George said. “We had a good run. It’s our first year together. We had a rookie in our lineup who’s going to get better.”

That rookie, Myles Turner, did get better. But after Indiana got swept by the Heat this year – the Pacers’ fifth straight first-round loss – the tone has changed.

“At some point, you have to get over the hump, man,” Turner said. “Five years of being in the playoffs, five first-round exits. So me, personally, I take that s— personally. You gotta find a way.”

The Pacers’ five-year run of losing in the first round is tied for third-longest since the NBA adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1984. Only the 1997-2003 Timberwolves (seven) and 1993-1998 Trail Blazers (six) have longer streaks of first-round losses:

Indiana’s recent first-round losses:

  • 2016: Raptors 4, Pacers 3
  • 2017: Cavaliers 4, Pacers 0
  • 2018: Cavaliers 4, Pacers 3
  • 2019: Celtics 4, Pacers 0
  • 2020: Heat 4, Pacers 0

The Pacers have shifted identities through this streak.

After reaching the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference finals behind its defense, Indiana built a more dynamic offense with players like Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague. That vision gave way to a team of scrappy veterans like Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic. Then, the Pacers got younger last summer.

Indiana’s most tenuous moment came when George effectively forced his way out and the Pacers traded him for a meager-looking return in 2017. But Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis demolished expectations and kept the playoff streak going.

Only Turner remains from the 2016 roster. Even the coach (Frank Vogel to Nate McMillan) and lead executive (Larry Bird to Kevin Pritchard) changed during the streak.

Along the way, Indiana produced memorable moments. In 2017, the Pacers lost to Cleveland by just 16 combined points – the closest sweep in NBA history. In 2018, Indiana pushed LeBron James harder in the first round than anyone else has.

But those were still first-round losses.

Losing in the first round is hardly uncommon. When the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason format in 1984, more than a third of the league suffered that fate. Expansion has increased the number of teams missing the playoffs. But more than a quarter of the league still loses in the first round each year.

Yet, the Pacers are especially prolific first-round losers.

Since the NBA adopted that 16-team postseason in 1984, Indiana has lost in the first round 16 times – second behind only the Trail Blazers (20, going on 21).

Probably not coincidentally, Herb Simon bought the Pacers entering the 1983-84 season. Under his watch, the small-market franchise has generally pursued moderate success rather than higher-risk, higher-reward plans. Payroll has mostly remained below the luxury-tax line. If merely making the playoffs with an affordable roster is the goal, the Pacers are succeeding.

While the Pacers spent the last five seasons losing in the first round, the Kings, Suns and Knicks didn’t make the playoffs at all. Is that really better? Maybe Phoenix and Sacramento got enough picks in the lottery to take off, but that remains theoretical. Indiana’s postseason appearances are guaranteed because they already happened.

But the stagnancy can get frustrating. George grew tired of it. Turner is already chafing. Approaching 2021 unrestricted free agency, Oladipo could leave for a more ambitious team.

Next year, are the Pacers more likely to advance to the second round or miss the playoffs? It’s a legitimately difficult question.

They still have Oladipo, Sabonis, Turner and Malcolm Brogdon under contract. But breaking into the Eastern Conference’s top tier won’t be easy without a lottery pick or cap space to upgrade. Yet, those quality players won’t let Indiana fall too far.

Making the playoffs is nice, especially for casual fans who are more likely to attend and watch games when their local team is winning. Sustained success, even moderate success, is commendable.

But, by now, the Pacers have experienced enough of that to want more – maybe even if it requires taking a step back.