The Mazzola Minute
Issue   |   Tue, 04/10/2018 - 20:01

Last spring, Paul George, unhappy with his team’s subpar playoff performances, informed the Indiana Pacers he wished to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers when his contract expired.

Rather than lose their superstar wing (then a four-time NBA All-Star, three-time All-NBA Third Team, one-time All-Defensive First Team, two-time All-Defensive Second Team, one-time Most Improved Player and one-time All-Rookie Second Team) for nothing, the Pacers opted to make a trade.

As a result, Indiana traded George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, who had combined for a lone All-Rookie First Team accolade heading into the 2017-18 season.

At the time, the trade was derided for how lopsided it appeared, and fans assumed the Pacers were looking to tank.

In recent seasons, tanking has become a widely-used strategy for teams stuck in the mid-tier of the league, unable to compete with the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers of their conferences but unable to secure the top draft pick. The Philadelphia 76ers, for example, are famous for their “trust the process” motto and consistently finishing at the bottom of the standings to stockpile draft picks and assets. Ironically enough, Philadelphia’s tanking days are behind them, as they currently sit third in the Eastern Conference.

Instead, the Pacers are fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 48-33 record. The Oklahoma City Thunder, with its “big three” of last season’s regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, George and perennial All-Star Carmelo Anthony, are seventh in the Western Conference with a 46-34 record.

How did a team turn what was once viewed as an unfavorable trade into a franchise rejuvenation?

It’s pretty simple: Victor Oladipo has been transcendent.

Let’s examine the accolades first. 2017-18 NBA All-Star Game selection? Check. 2017-1818 NBA Dunk Contest selection? Check. 2017-18 NBA Steals Champion? Check. Leading his team to a playoff berth? Check. 2017-18 Most-Improved Player Award? Probable check. 2017-18 All-NBA Team Selection? Well, he certainly deserves it.

Now, let’s take a look at some basic stats. Points per-game? 23.1 (11th in the NBA). Rebounds per-game? 5.2. Assists per-game? 4.3. Steals per-game? 2.4 (first in the NBA). Blocks per-game? 0.8.

And he has done all this while slashing .473 from the field, .367 from three, and .803 from the free-throw line.

What do all those numbers have in common? Besides the free-throw percentage, they’re all career-highs.

They also place him in the upper-echelon of well-rounded NBA two-way (referring to offensive and defensive) stars.

The advanced stats tell an even scarier tale. The real plus-minus (RPM) statistic measures the scoring difference in the game when a player is on the court versus when a player is off the court, adjusting for lineup changes to isolate the impact of each individual player.

Oladipo’s RPM of 5.54 ranks sixth in the NBA, second among shooting guards. Adjusting for total possessions played, Oladipo was worth 13.68 wins (an estimate using RPM of how many of Indiana’s wins are solely due to Oladipo’s presence), sixth in the NBA and first among shooting guards.

According to a recent tweet from Basketball Reference, “Victor Oladipo is the eighth player in the last decade to have a 30+ usage rate and a 57+ true shooting at age-25 or under. The other seven are LeBron, KD, Harden, Kawhi, Kyrie, AD and Giannis.”

Usage rate estimates a percentage of a team’s plays used by a specific player while the player is on the court.

True shooting percentage combines a player’s field-goal, three-point and free-throw percentages, adjusting for the point value of each shot, to provide a more accurate measure of how efficiently a player scores.

Still not convinced? Just watch a Pacers game or Google some highlights. Oladipo, although he’s a shooting guard, acts as the primary ball-handler for a significant percentage of Indiana’s possessions, dazzling the crowd with pull-up jumpers, nifty layups and soaring dunks.

His energy is contagious. On defense, Oladipo hounds the passing lanes, looking for steal opportunities while staying locked-in on his man.

Oladipo’s dramatic improvement over his previous seasons is no accident.

Oladipo spent the offseason working out three times daily with future Hall-of-Famer Dwyane Wade’s trainer, adjusting nutrition and fitness plans while honing his technical skills.

More importantly, he was able to seek advice from Wade, one of basketball’s greatest shooting guards.

“He was hungry for knowledge, had a real thirst for it,” Wade said. “As much as anybody in the NBA, I want to see him succeed. I’m happy for him. I’m proud of him. I want him to want more for himself.”

“I guess Victor has bad days, but I never see them,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said.

“We’ve been down in a lot of games this season, but you look at Victor in the huddle, and he’s always the same. That calmness has helped us, along with his play. And he’s just got an infectious personality. I mean, the singing?”

The singing? Oh, yeah. Oladipo is also a professional recording artist. Talk about multifaceted...