Why the Pacers’ trade for Pascal Siakam makes so much sense

The first bit to remember: The Indiana Pacers’ history in free agency hasn’t exactly been sterling. In nearly six decades of existence, the Pacers have rarely been bad, have often been very good and have just about always been competitive … but they’ve also always been in Indiana, which is not a place top-flight talents tend to have at or near the top of their wish lists. When the best player you’ve ever signed on the open market is probably David West, that says something about the space you occupy in the hierarchy of superstar destinations.

(Let me briefly make one thing abundantly clear: That was not intended as a shot at David West, who was a fantastic player and a grown-ass contributor to teams of consequence for a long time in an excellent career. I cannot stress how little I want David West Problems.)

The second bit to remember: The Pacers understand that position, but they also believe they have something better than beaches and warm weather to sell — namely, a guy from a cold place who remembers when, how and why it suddenly got hot. From a November 2023 feature by Rob Mahoney of The Ringer:

"[Tyrese] Haliburton has heard the rebuttals—that you can’t get a star to come play in Indianapolis, just like you couldn’t get a star to come play in Sacramento.

“But I’m from Wisconsin,” he says. “And growing up, it was like: You’re never gonna get anybody to go to Milwaukee. Well, you get Giannis Antetokounmpo, and now people take a pay cut to go play for the Bucks. I’ve seen it firsthand. In my life, I’ve seen it. So I think I play the right brand of basketball that makes people wanna play with me, and that’s not just me, but that’s how this team is coached and the style of basketball we play.”

“With Tyrese Haliburton,” [Pacers head coach Rick] Carlisle says, “all things are possible.”

This is the mentality the Pacers — who broke through into the national consciousness with their breathtaking run to the finals of the inaugural in-season tournament, led by the ascendant, force-of-nature playmaking of Haliburton, and who entered Wednesday a game out of fourth place in the East — carried with them into the new year. And three weeks before the 2024 NBA trade deadline, it landed them a two-time All-NBA selection to plug the biggest hole on their roster.

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam plays during an NBA basketball game, Friday, Dec. 22, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
The Pacers are betting Pascal Siakam will enjoy their open, flowing style of basketball. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Pundits and punters will engage in plenty of debate over the price Indiana paid Wednesday to make Siakam a Pacer — most notably, whether moving three first-round picks for a player slated for unrestricted free agency at season’s end represents a worthwhile gamble.

The devil, as always, is in the details. The Pacers will reportedly send the Raptors their own 2024 first-round pick (top-three protected); another 2024 selection, whichever one winds up the least favorable (read: worst) of the picks belonging to the Jazz, Rockets, Clippers and Thunder (a rat-king rights tangle that stretches back to 2019, winding its way through the deals that landed, among other things, Paul George in Los Angeles, Russell Westbrook in Houston and Derrick Favors’ salary in Oklahoma City); and the Pacers’ 2026 first-rounder (top-four protected, with those same protections rolling over into 2027).

As it stands, that would amount to the Pacers sending Toronto the 18th and 27th picks in this June’s draft, according to Tankathon — picks that could wind up closer to the end of Round 1 if Indiana improves and as the Clippers and Thunder vie for the West’s best record — and, at best, the fifth pick in 2026 or 2027.

That’s not nothing. For all we hear every year about the relative projected strength or weakness of a given draft class, teams can and do find gold late in the first round (like, for example, the Raptors plucking Siakam out of New Mexico State with the 27th pick in 2016). If things go south in Indianapolis in two years’ time, you can bet Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and Co. will wince at handing over a potentially valuable mid-lottery pick smack in the middle of Haliburton’s prime.

What this deal represents, though, is a different kind of bet for the Pacers. It’s a wager that this pre-prime version of Haliburton — the one who has led them to the NBA’s No. 1 offense and an 11-5 record against Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami and New York — is good enough to justify pushing some chips into the middle of the table right now.

It’s also a wager that, after playing in some of the most spacing-cramped and shooting-devoid environments the NBA has had to offer over the past few years, they can make Siakam feel like he’s somehow teleported to a harmonic new plane of offensive existence.

The 29-year-old has never played with an orchestrator such as Haliburton or in this type of spaced-out, high-speed, freewheeling structure. He has certainly never been surrounded by marksmen such as Haliburton (40.3% from deep on 8.4 attempts per game), Buddy Hield (38% on seven attempts per game), Aaron Nesmith (46.6% on 4.5 attempts per game) and Bennedict Mathurin (37.7% on 3.5 attempts per game) and a stretch-5 in Myles Turner (only 32.7% from distance this season but a legit threat defenses must honor outside). It’s easy to picture: Siakam screens for Haliburton with a spread floor. The defense traps the ball out of Haliburton’s hands; he slips a pocket pass to Siakam at the free-throw line. Siakam starts getting his Draymond-on-the-short-roll on, either picking out his preferred pass to a knockdown shooter on the perimeter or slicing all the way to the cup, where he’s shooting nearly 65% as a roll man this season. Easy money.

Carlisle can also switch it up, dialing up a steady diet of inverted pick-and-rolls for Siakam. Indy’s array of guards can screen for him and flare out to the arc, drawing their defenders to the perimeter and creating acres of space in which the Cameroonian can cook, whether driving to the basket (which he did about 14 times a game each of the past three seasons before taking a bit of a back seat to the rising Scottie Barnes this season) to hunt his own shot or finding a waiting teammate. Siakam has averaged more than five assists per 36 minutes the past three seasons but has averaged more than eight potential assists per game for four years running; his facilitating might play up even more with the shot-makers Indiana can offer him.

Siakam has long been a good-to-very-good one-on-one scorer on the ball and a dangerous cutter off it, despite mostly playing in gridlock. With wide-open driving lanes, spot-up threats that opponents have to stick close to and a visionary playmaker who leads the league in assists, he might sleepwalk into more than the 22.2 points per game he’s averaging this season.

It’s also a bet that bandaging one gaping wound can improve the overall health of the Pacers organism. While Indiana boasts the NBA’s No. 1 offense, it also owns the league’s fourth-worst defense, conceding a scalding 121.1 points per 100 possessions. The Pacers rank at or near the bottom of the league in defensive rebounding rate, putting opponents on the free-throw line, preventing shot attempts at the rim, defending shot attempts on the perimeter, limiting opponents in transition and just about every other way a team can be bad at defense.

Siakam, on his own, doesn’t fix all of those problems. But the arrival of a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan who can physically match up with opponents’ big-wing playmaking threats — the kind of like-sized option that Indiana straight-up didn’t have before Wednesday — could have a force-multiplier effect on the Pacers’ defense. (Sort of like Siakam’s old running buddy, O.G. Anunoby — whom the Pacers had reportedly gone hard after — has had on the Knicks’ defense since he arrived in New York.)

Siakam doesn’t necessarily have to be an elite on-ball stopper; he just has to be better and more physically capable of executing the assignment than the gaggle of 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 guys Carlisle has been throwing into the fire all season. Suddenly, guys such as Nesmith and Andrew Nembhard — who are good defensive players who give great effort — are occupying more manageable matchups. Suddenly, it might become a bit harder to hunt Haliburton and Hield because there’s a bit more size, length and experience to better keep them out of harm’s way. Suddenly, it’s not just constantly open season on Turner, still an elite shot-blocker but incapable of turning back every source of penetration every possession when the Pacers can’t stop the ball at the point of attack.

Combine that kind of size and talent upgrade with the sort of improvements Indiana has started to make of late, and the Pacers might have a shot at going from terrible on defense to merely bad — and maybe even average or, in the right matchups, even better than that. And if they can add that to the offense they’ve got … well, suddenly we’re not talking about just a fun early-season story anymore. We’re talking about a team that could make some serious noise come springtime.

The biggest question, though, lies after that — in whether the Pacers have forked over serious assets to chase a short-term fix, with a player who had reportedly shown no interest in re-signing anywhere the Raptors might trade him. Which brings us to the other bet that Pritchard and Co. seem to have made, the kind you make when you’ve got a pretty good idea what the other guy’s hole cards look like.

Maybe Siakam’s reported interest in sticking around comes in accordance with the prophecy: With Tyrese Haliburton, all things are possible. Maybe it’s got more to do with the small matter that, as part of the trade, the Pacers inherited Siakam’s Bird rights, giving them the ability to go over the salary cap to re-sign him to a new contract worth up to $247 million over the next five years — the kind of max Toronto was reportedly unwilling to give him.

You’re within your rights to swallow hard at that prospective outlay — nearly $65 million in Siakam’s age-35 season — and wonder whether the Pacers, now all but capped out moving forward, will feel the pain on the back end of that sort of investment.

Even there, though, Indiana’s brass did what it could to apply some preventative Tylenol. The timing of the pick transfers means Indy keeps its top choice in a 2025 draft that’s reportedly better stocked with high-end talent than the 2024 edition and retains control over its picks in 2027 and beyond, affording both flexibility for future deals and a chance to reboot in a couple of years, with Haliburton still playing on his about-to-start max extension.

Moving Brown, Jordan Nwora and a rerouted Kira Lewis Jr. (by way of the Pelicans, who got into the deal by sending cash and a second-round draft pick to skirt the luxury tax and potentially give themselves some breathing room to make more moves before next month’s deadline) for Siakam means the Pacers have hung on to all of their 25-and-under pieces — Mathurin, Nesmith, Nembhard, rookies Jarace Walker and Ben Sheppard, reserve bigs Obi Toppin and Isaiah Jackson — thus preserving the possibility that they improve to develop into higher-wattage contributors or serve as ballast in another roster-building deal down the line. Hield’s $19.3 million expiring contract is still around, too; maybe that plus one of those young frontcourt players about to see their minutes shrink with Siakam on-side gets Indiana into an interesting conversation or two in the next couple of weeks.

An NBA team with designs on contending can’t fully eliminate risk, though; all it can do is try to mitigate it and ensure the reward is worth it. In this case, the Pacers bet that it could turn three middling-or-worse picks and no stars into a second All-NBA-caliber player who augments their greatest strength and strengthens their greatest weakness. It’s a gamble, sure. But with Haliburton at the controls, it might be one that Indiana wins — big.