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No one will want to face the Pacers, who may be the surprise winners of the Harden trade

Caris LeVert has matched Victor Oladipo’s numbers of late, and he’s signed for three years.

Caris LeVert has matched Victor Oladipo’s numbers of late, and he’s signed for three years.
Image: Getty Images

Malcolm Brogdon and Domatas Sabonis have been a top-five NBA duo this season, and Caris LeVert is the perfect complement to the East’s sneakiest contender.

As part of yesterday’s James Harden-centered blockbuster deal, the Indiana Pacers swooped in and switched out former franchise player and all-star Victor Oladipo for LeVert, sending the Indiana University alum to the Houston Rockets. Technically this is also a reunion, because as part of a prearranged agreement, the Pacers drafted LeVert and he was the first-round pick sent to Brooklyn in exchange for Thaddeus Young.

This isn’t to say Oladipo didn’t fit the Pacers’ current roster, but while on an expiring contract, it’s clear that he’s on a different timeline. Following his ruptured quad tendon suffered in January 2019, the 6-foot-4 combo guard was limited to just 19 appearances in 2019-20, shooting less than 40 percent from the floor and averaging under 15 points per game. Behind Brogdon and Sabonis, the team still made the playoffs as a four-seed despite Oladipo’s struggles. Ethan Skolnick of 5 Reasons Sports reported on multiple occasions that the Heat have been atop Oladipo’s wishlist — echoed by Kevin O’Connor last night — and that he had been trying to force his way to Miami prior to yesterday’s deal. Although he’s denied it, local reporters have long maintained that Oladipo wanted out of Indiana.

And because of his expiring contract, the Pacers had to get something for him, even though they fancy themselves as a contender.

Enter LeVert, the beloved Net in the first of a three-year deal worth $52 million who now arrives back to where it technically began. In a market that traditionally doesn’t land “name” free agents, they turned one season of Oladipo into three of LeVert, who is at least his partial facsimile. Though Oladipo’s numbers are better, and he’s more accomplished, LeVert’s production has been nearly identical since coming into his own in 2018-19, where he looked like an all-star for 14 games before breaking his leg and returning three months later in a limited capacity. LeVert and Oladipo’s injuries that season came two months apart.

Since the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign, Oladipo’s averaged 20.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes, while shooting 41.6/33.9/ 75.1 percent from the field, three and on free-throws. LeVert, who has 97 games to VO’s 64 during this span, is at 21.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per-36 minutes, with a shooting line of 42.8/34.3/70.9. Offensive rating per 100 possessions? Advantage, LeVert, 104-102. Defensive rating? Oladipo with the edge, 107-110. Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)? Oladipo, 1.4, LeVert, 1.3. Win Shares per-48 minutes? LeVert, .071, Oladipo, .070.

You get the idea.

This season, the best that Oladipo’s been since before the injury, he’s at 21.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per-36 minutes, shooting 42.1 / 36.2 / 73.0. LeVert? 23.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per-36, shooting 43.5 / 34.9 / 76.5.

Separation, yes, but consider the circumstances. While LeVert was teammates with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, he played three games without both and an additional three without one or the other. In those six contests, he averaged 26.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.3 rebounds. Oladipo’s been the Pacers’ third-leading scorer this season behind Brogdon and Sabonis, attempting to fit in rather than be “the guy.”

If LeVert starts, the Pacers’ five of Brogdon-LeVert-Justin Holiday-Sabonis-Myles Turner would be among the most balanced in the East. If he comes off the bench, it’ll provide a necessary scoring punch for Pacer reserves, whose best option is currently Doug McDermott, and there’s even a notable drop-off from him. It also keeps a timeline for the Pacers, who are building, not rebuilding.

LeVert, Brogdon, and Sabonis are all locked in through 2023. (2024 in the case of Sabonis.) Turner is as well, but the Pacers may try to deal him again. It’s not a championship contender today, but it will be one of the most feared playoff match-ups for their Eastern Conference contemporaries. They could also be a sleeper in the way the Miami Heat were one season ago. LeVert, Brogdon, Sabonis, and Turner are also all between the ages of 24-28. If LeVert remains healthy, and if certain other things (hello, Brooklyn) implode as some expect, we may one day argue that the Pacers won the Harden deal.

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