This will be a season of reckoning for the Indiana Pacers. Last year’s impressive run gives them a lot to build on, but it also brings some rigorous expectations.
Their 2012-13 campaign’s list of accomplishments includes a 49-32 record (a game against Boston was cancelled due to the marathon bombings and not made up), first place in the Central Division, third place in the Eastern Conference standings and a playoff appearance that pushed all the way up to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
That hard-fought, third-round series against the Miami Heat was the biggest disappointment. It’s tough to digest playing as hard as Indiana did only to come up short.
With such a disappointing denouement, the Pacers have a grand mission to fulfill. They are out to prove that they can surpass the previous year's performance even with all of the grandeur surrounding their conference rivals.
As it pertains to the free agency period, the Pacers’ biggest score was Luis Scola.
The 6’9” power forward averaged 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season as a starter for the Phoenix Suns. His addition gives Indiana a very formidable frontcourt that they hope to use to bully smaller, more athletic teams, a la the Heat, into submission.
The addition of CJ Watson keeps the point guard position stable. He has served in the reserve capacity behind Deron Williams and Derrick Rose. His three-point shot and floor management will serve the team well over the course of the season.
Indiana lost DJ Augustin and Gerald Green but the players that replaced them, Scola and Watson, will nullify whatever ill effects that would have resulted.
Tyler Hansbrough will be somewhat missed. While not a huge statistical contributor, he was an energy catalyst whose hustle added value not found in box scores.
Overall, this collection of talent is an improvement over last season and will provide some interesting narratives.
Much of the focus will be on Granger and the work cut out for him as he readjusts.
For most of the preseason he has been used in the sixth-man capacity, a stark contrast from the starter role he occupied in the six seasons prior to his injury.
Compounded with the fact that this is a contract year, it’s going to be interesting to see how Granger embraces his new beta status.
George’s high level of play last year is what got him minted as the new team leader, and he has continued in that role over the course of the preseason.
There is no questioning his talent, but the looming query is: Can he be the man while shouldering the hefty expectations of improving on last year?
From a team perspective, one has to wonder if the offseason moves were enough to push this franchise beyond the previous season’s achievements.
It’s obvious that Scola’s addition was to have more muscle to counter the Heat’s athleticism. Maybe it’s enough to challenge the two-time champs, but it remains to be seen if this new personnel can measure up to the other conference heavies.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
Here is how the Pacers’ current roster breaks down by position:
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|George Hill||Lance Stephenson||Paul George||David West||Roy Hibbert|
|CJ Watson||Orlando Johnson||Danny Granger||Luis Scola||Ian Mahinmi|
|Donald Sloan||Rasual Butler||Chris Copeland||Solomon Hill|
Let’s evaluate each spot collectively:
The point guard position is going to be serviceable this year.
Hill contributes a significant amount to the team’s scoring; he dropped a career high 14.7 points per game in 2012-13. Watson is not a consistent scorer but can have big games and knock down the three.
Both of these guys are going to have to improve facilitating. Hill averaged 4.7 assists and Watson only dished out two per game last year.
The shooting guards are not as polished and poised as other groups, but that does not mean that they will function to the team’s detriment.
The main two guys, Stephenson and Johnson, are young but have shown flashes of promise at times last season.
Maturity is their biggest hurdle. Once these guys’ collective mentality starts to level off, their games are sure to flourish.
One thing that will help their guards evolve will be the presence of Rasual Butler.
Even though head coach Frank Vogel has already gone on record as saying his roster will be at 13 by the start of the season, keeping Butler after releasing Hilton Armstrong puts the Pacers at 14.
It has been made clear to the veteran that his role will be to mold the younger Stephenson and Johnson while also being a strong locker room presence.
Indiana’s small forward position drives the franchise.
When examining the positives, this group can score in a variety of ways and rebound very well for players who don’t spend a lot of time in the paint.
Turnovers are what plague these guys the most. To be fair, much of that comes from getting so many touches per game.
Once they can establish better ball control there will hardly anything negative left to say.
The Pacers’ front office has done a good job shoring up the power forward position.
Solid in the starting five and on the bench, this team has a lot to look forward to.
This is a potent bunch offensively. Each player can score with the mid-range jumper, create with their backs to basket and pass well.
The main thing hurting this group is the lack of a defensive stopper. There are times where they can give away as many points as they contribute.
All in all, this is still a big improvement over seasons past.
This team’s center position is very solid.
They defend the rim proficiently and are above-average rebounders. While they are not exactly scoring machines—and don’t actually need to be—these guys do contribute a decent amount of points.
If there truly is hope for a championship this season, the elevated play needs to come from this position with an emphasis on Hibbert.
Rebounding is good, but he should be pulling down double-digits. There should also be a focus on improving his passing since he is working on his post moves. Small things like that can make a world of difference for a team.
For a player-specific breakdown, check out this recent post from B/R Featured Columnist Poch De La Rosa.
What to Watch For
While the team’s intriguing story lines are going to be played out both on the court and behind the scenes, there are some player subplots to pay attention to along the way.
Keep an eye on Stephenson as he should have a breakout season this year. His scoring numbers have risen steadily in his first three seasons. He has enough experience to put it all together and really take the year by storm.
Look no further than George for the team MVP. He grabbed onto the leadership reigns pretty tightly last season and is showing no signs of letting up. George will be the compass responsible for keeping this team pointed in the right direction.
As much of an improvement Watson is over Augustin, he will still fall short of what the team really needs. When comparing his one season in Brooklyn against his two in Chicago, it’s easy to see that he was far less efficient with the Nets. Maybe it was a product of the system, but Vogel is going to really have to motivate Watson to be more productive.
If the Pacers are looking to make a trade at some point this season, Granger may be their best asset. Some other factors would have to fall into place, though. Most importantly, consistent offensive production will have to come from someone else other than George. If Stephenson does break out, Granger could be on the block.
There is no question that the team’s 49 wins from last season would not have been good enough for a division title had Chicago been healthy. Indiana must knock Rose and company out of the picture before setting their sights on a rematch with Miami.
Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios with Predicted W-L Record
The preseason was not kind to the Pacers, but their sub-.500 record is not a true indication of this team’s abilities. Expectations should not be tapered because of a handful of tune-up games.
If everything plays out like they want it to, the Pacers will repeat as division champs and set up an ECF rematch from last season. Their improved frontcourt should prove too much to handle and Indiana will get back to the Finals for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
This team is too talented and too well-coached to just fall apart. The worst case scenario here would be to meet up with the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs and be eliminated rather handily.
Losing at the hands of Chicago will just prove that last season was a fluke aided by Derrick Rose’s absence. It would confirm that the Pacers are still a middle-tier team with no genuine championship potential.
This year’s regular season should be more productive; however, it may not yield the same results.
Indiana will finish at 54-28 and fall short of a division title. Their record should be good enough to challenge for a fourth seed where their closest competition should be the loser of the Atlantic Division’s top spot.
A result like this wouldn’t push the Pacers out of the championship picture; it would just make their journey more scenic than expected.