Derek Schultz: In Tyrese, the Pacers trust

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With the lone exception sometimes coming during a presidential election cycle, the eyes of the nation are never on Indiana in November—certainly not for the state’s NBA franchise—but the start to this Pacers season feels different.

Only one of the Pacers’ 82 games is slated to be on national television (a game on TNT against Boston in late January), and the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game in five seasons or a playoff series in the last 10, but that hasn’t stopped prominent basketball figures and hoops media types from taking notice in Indiana’s impressive first month.

Basketball Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett raved about the team on his show, “KG CERTIFIED.” Rob Mahoney blasted out a fabulous, 6,000-word Pacers piece for The Ringer. Even ESPN’s Zach Lowe has somehow made room for some blue-and-gold talk on his table among the usual James Harden and big-market-powers fare.

While there have been plenty of reasons for Indiana’s ascent from afterthought to NBA League Pass darling—entering this week, the Pacers have been the best-scoring offense by a wide margin, are making and taking the most 3’s in the league, and usually have at least one highlight-reel dunk (usually from Obi Toppin) per night—there is clearly one thing fueling that national adoration: Tyrese Haliburton.

The fourth-year pro is off to a historic start, comfortably leading the league in assists, and is on pace to join the exclusive 50/40/90 (field goal/3-point/free-throw percentage) club, something accomplished by just nine players in NBA history. Haliburton’s monster month has been highlighted by an insane, 48-hour stretch in Philadelphia where he scored 58 points, dished out 32 assists, and committed 0 (zero!) turnovers in a 75-minute run in consecutive games against the Sixers.

To no surprise, he’s the first player to put up at least 25 points and 15 assists in consecutive games without turning the ball over since the turnover statistic began being tracked almost 50 years ago. Oh, and just for good measure, he hit the dagger 3 to extend the lead to nine points in the final minute of the Pacers’ eventual 132-126 win over the then-Eastern Conference leaders.

Point guard Tyrese Haliburton last summer signed a five-year, $260 million contract extension with the Pacers that commits him to the franchise through the 2028-2029 season. (AP photo)

Haliburton is the lead conductor of the NBA’s best offense and consistently making critical shots in crunch time. If you want to poke holes in his game, he’s still very much a work in progress defensively (which is probably being kind), but the fact that a 23-year-old is already this far along is both encouraging and unprecedented, at least for this franchise. For all the successes and individual accolades that Jermaine O’Neal, Paul George and even beloved star Reggie Miller brought to the table, none of them was ever on this sort of trajectory.

Think about the Pacers’ true stars in their NBA history—for all his incomparable playoff heroics, consistency and longevity, Miller was arguably never one of the 10 best players in the league at any point during his career. Even if he was overshadowed by Michael Jordan at his own position, Reggie only ever appeared on three MVP ballots in his 18 seasons (a career-best 13th-place tie with Jalen Rose and Michael Finley in 2000), earned All-Star honors in consecutive years just once, and made just three All-NBA teams (a third-team selection each time).

O’Neal is the franchise’s all-time leader in All-Star Game selections (six) and had arguably the best individual season for any Pacer in the team’s NBA history during the 2003-2004 campaign, but any slim hopes he had of being a franchise-altering star were quickly snuffed out during the fateful night of the brawl with the Pistons in early 2004. George’s broken leg basically zapped the encore to his breakout season in 2013-2014, and while he returned to All-Star form later as a Pacer, it wasn’t until his forced exit out of Indiana that he reached his peak.

Given his position as a point guard and role as a facilitator, Haliburton is also better equipped to improve the play of the players around him, something that previous stars have done with only sporadic success.

All of this is not to say Haliburton’s continued ascent is a guarantee. He just made his first All-Star Game. He has yet to earn an MVP vote or a spot on an All-NBA Team. Heck, he has yet to even participate in, much less actually win, an NBA playoff game. Also, as we’ve seen too often in the past in this town, sometimes outside factors like egos (George), injuries (Victor Oladipo) or fate (Basketball gods’ vengeance? Dark magic? However you want to explain that night in Detroit in 2004 for O’Neal and company) can intervene for the franchise stars of the hard-luck Pacers. We’re undoubtedly putting the cart miles in front of the horse, but that cart clearly exists for Haliburton and these Pacers. And you don’t have to squint to see it.

Through the eye-popping stat lines, the Pacers’ rapid improvement from a franchise teardown just two years ago and even Haliburton’s endearing smile and lovable personality, the point guard’s star is both obvious and downright blinding. Plus, his looming $260 million extension, which locks him down through his 29th birthday, and his humble, Midwestern roots seem to make him a safer bet than anyone who has come before him to stay and excel in Indiana.

Tyrese Haliburton goes up for a shot past Paul Reed during a Nov. 14 game in Philadelphia. During the away series against the 76ers, Haliburton scored 58 points, made 32 assists and committed no turnovers. (AP photo)

There is a hesitancy here to even entertain grandiose thoughts about the Pacers. In their NBA history, they’ve been a pretty good team, with some pretty good players, and mostly enjoyed just pretty good success. Team owner Herb Simon’s ill-conceived “I love our little team” comment a few seasons ago underlines the widespread mentality for a franchise whose closest brush with greatness was being a tough out for Jordan’s Bulls or Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers—true NBA elites.

If you are one of those Pacers fans who always waits for the other shoe to drop, you have the evidence to present your case. But, again, the infancy of Haliburton’s Pacers tenure feels historic, unprecedented and special.

Most of all, it feels different.

Haliburton is allowing Pacers fans to dream big. Nearing the half-century mark as an NBA franchise, maybe this time it isn’t just fantasy.•

__________

From Peyton Manning’s peak with the Colts to the Pacers’ most recent roster makeover, Schultz has talked about it all as a sports personality in Indianapolis for more than 15 years. Besides his written work with IBJ, he’s active in podcasting and show hosting. You can follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @Schultz975.

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