When the Indiana Pacers sent Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the start of last offseason, they were supposed to be trading away an All-Star, not trading for one.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what they have done. George was surprisingly snubbed from the initial list of All-Star reserves, making the game only as an injury replacement for DeMarcus Cousins, while Oladipo was named to the Eastern Conference list at the first time of asking and will make his debut in the competition in his sixth season.
Arguments about the possible talent disparity between the two conferences are not for this space (and also not necessarily true). A perceived lack of parity is not the reason Victor Oladipo has made the All-Star team. The reason Victor Oladipo has made the All-Star team is because Victor Oladipo has simply played like an All-Star.
Part of the reason why contemporary post-trade analysis considered the trade such an immediate win for the Thunder was that, even if George did not stay with the team long term (which he may well still do), trading away Oladipo alone as a salary dump would be worth it. The Thunder had re-signed Oladipo to a sizeable four year, $84 million contract before the start of last season, yet he immediately underwhelmed on it.
Averaging only 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists on a 53.4% true shooting percentage, Oladipo was never a good fit next to Russell Westbrook. And of course, one can only survive and thrive on the Thunder if they pair with Westbrook. While certainly not the same type of player aesthetically or practically, both do play in such a way that requires spending quite a lot of possessions handling the ball at the top of the key. And with his historically high 41.7% usage rate last season, no one was going to do that ahead of Russ.
Oladipo off the ball is still a decent player. While not an elite shooter from outside, Oladipo nevertheless hits 35.5% from downtown for his career, a number that has improved year on year. He shoots better off the catch (59.7% eFG) than off the dribble (50.3%), but then, most players do. And although he is also not the best defender, this too has improved throughout the course of his NBA career, averaging 2.1 steals per game this year and keeping up a higher level of intensity and ball pressure than ever before.
However, Oladipo’s instincts are those of an on-ball player. It is the manner in which he has been raised. If playing alongside another such player in Westbrook, then, he is put into a role unbefitting of his strengths. Furthermore, if the main scorer alongside Russ is better suited in the form of a player who can play more off the ball, it is surely the judicious decision to get one. And for as much as he played on the ball in Indiana, George is that, through his ability to play both halves of the pick-and-roll.
Oladipo, then, was surplus to the Thunder’s requirements. Expensive surplus, but surplus nonetheless. He needed a rejuvenation season, something to pre-empt a career recovery before his prime years begin some time soon.
And he absolutely has had that.
This season, Oladipo's production has increased in all categories. Most obviously, he is scoring at a rate of 24.4 points per game, up from 15.9 last season and far in excess of his career best mark of 17.9, set in his second season.
Oladipo is doing that not only by shooting more, but shooting better. His shooting percentages have improved incrementally from both two and three point range in each season, as well as at the basket. With the team sixth in the league in three-point shooting and often able to play five-out sets through the shooting of big men Myles Turner and Thad Young, the current form of the Indiana Pacers are providing better spacing for Oladipo to operate off the dribble than any team he has been on previously has. And he is taking advantage.
There is an authoritative, confident swag about Oladipo currently that has not been there before. When on the ball and attacking down hill, he is playing with freedom and abandon - going at shotblocker, taking body contact, finishing around the outstretched limbs, and also pulling up from mid-range and outside with a striking confidence.
Playing almost exclusively above the break, Oladipo is an option either handling the ball at the start of the clock or as a late-clock re-feed option, able to create his own look with a couple of steps at any time. He is playing similarly confidently defensively, too, using his improved conditioning and his always-good anticipation to be a factor on that end, thus improved on both ends of the court.
In taking on Oladipo, it seemed as though the Pacers were simply trying to the best talents available, even if they did not fit with plans on the court or in the front office. It also seemed as though they had sold low on George, their former superstar who had had his future called into question by serious injury and impending free agency. With the very real threat of him leaving whichever team he was traded to after only one season, George did not have the value in trade that should have befit one of his prestigious talents.
Perhaps that is all still true. But what is also true is that the Pacers bought low on Oladipo.
For a player to play in the offensive style that he does and succeed at the NBA level requires them to have a sufficient talent level to be one of the NBA's best players. Without that, they are an awkward role player that is most effective when the regular star is out (like, say, Lance Stephenson). Oladipo, though, is now that.
The Pacers with Oladipo are every bit the calibre of the team they had been over the last three years with George, if not better. And no one gets more credit for that than 2018 NBA All-Star, Victor Oladipo.