If there's one key for the Indiana Pacers in their title quest, it's their bench.
Last season, it was virtually non-existent. In spite of this, Indy fell just a game short of the NBA Finals.
Pacers president Larry Bird couldn't help but notice the Pacers' thin second unit during his one-year hiatus, as told to USA Today's Phil Richards on Nov. 22, 2013:
I watched them all year and every time, I'd say,'Where's the bench?' I talked to (Pacers owner) Herbie (Simon) and (Pacers consultant) Donnie (Walsh) throughout the year.
I knew if I got back in, the first thing I was going to do is try to completely redo the second unit.
Tyler Hansbrough, Miles Plumlee, Sam Young and Jeff Ayres (formerly Pendergraph) were all gone by season's end.
Even Danny Granger would follow suit a few months later.
Now, Indiana's bench boasts of the likes of Luis Scola, Evan Turner, Andrew Bynum, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and Rasual Butler.
We've witnessed Bird's overhaul firsthand.
The bigger question remains: Has this bench improved enough to help the Indiana Pacers win their first NBA crown?
The Pacers' Bench Before the All-Star Break
Just how was the pulse of the Indiana Pacers' bench during the pre-Evan Turner days?
Let's just say it was good but not strong enough.
If a 19-3 team can have a desperate need, Granger fills it, if he recaptures his previous form. Luis Scola and C.J. Watson are playing well off the bench, but there's a need for another scorer.
Orlando Johnson—shooting .363 from the field and .229 from the three-point line—has lost the shooting touch he held through most of last season, rookie Solomon Hill doesn't appear ready to keep up with the kind of run the Pacers are on, and Chris Copeland is stuck behind West and Scola at power forward.
Once the All-Star break commenced, Indy was 40-12. According to HoopsStats.com, the Pacers bench at that point of the season averaged 25.8 points while Indiana's opponents averaged 27.8.
The bench shot better from the field (.420 to .404) and the free-throw line (.743 to .730) than the opposition while faring worse from the three-point area (.332 to .345).
Based on Montieth's analysis and the HoopStats.com figures, Indiana's shock troopers did well prior to the All-Star break, but they still lacked depth, relying mainly on Scola and Watson for bench points.
Granger eventually returned to action on Dec. 20. However, at 30 years old and suffering through a long hiatus, he just wasn't the same player he was in his heyday.
Clearly, if the Pacers, in spite of their stellar 40-12 record, were to become even better, the bench needed some tweaking.
It also turned out Andrew Bynum's acquisition would not be Indy's last.
The Pacers Bench After the All-Star Break
|W-L||Points||Rebounds||Assists||FG Pct.||3-Pt. Pct.|
|Before All-Star Break||40-12||25.8||14||4.2||.420||.332|
|After All-Star Break||6-3||28||12.9||4.9||.438||.298|
www.HoopsStats.com (through 3/6/14)
It was around this time when Luis Scola was struggling with his shot.
Granger was also having a tough time shooting the basketball, averaging just 8.6 points off the bench on .360 shooting from the field and .330 sniping from the three-point area, per HoopsStats.com.
And then Bird pulled the trigger once again, trading Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 20 for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen.
Bird made it clear it was a move meant to improve the bench even further, per Pacers.com.
We thank Danny for his eight-and-a-half seasons with us and we appreciate everything he did for us in his time here. We felt we needed to make this trade to strengthen the core unit and our bench.
In Evan and Lavoy, we think we got two really good players that can help us and we look forward to what they bring.
Granted, we are still six games into the Evan Turner era. During that span, he's been both solid and inconsistent, averaging 11.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists on .435 shooting as of March 7.
It's not all that bad considering he's still trying to mesh with his new teammates.
Referring to the above chart, the Pacers bench hasn't progressed much. The alarming drop-off in three-point shooting percentage (from .332 to .298) certainly has played a role in Indy losing three of its nine games since the All-Star break.
With the Miami Heat gaining on the Pacers, that's not a good sign at all.
The Final Say
The Pacers have the final pieces in place for an anticipated title run in the playoffs.
Or so it seems.
The bench is capable of producing but is still inconsistent. It scored just 11 points in a loss to the Golden State Warriors on March 4 while it produced 42 (mainly garbage) points against the Bobcats on March 5.
But the main issue for the Pacers right now is not just the bench.
After a five-game winning streak, reality has set in for Indiana. After allowing the Warriors to shoot 10-of-20 from the three-point area and the Bobcats to score 109 points, the Pacers' once-dominant defense is nowhere to be found.
With this, Montieth chimed in on the Pacers' issues after the loss to Golden State:
The defense has been erratic, for a variety of reasons. Some games, transition defense is weak. Other games, they foul too much.
This time they failed to guard the 3-point line, something they have excelled at most of the season but not lately.
Two-point nights from Paul George aren't going to help one bit, either.
Another point to be made: If Roy Hibbert's and Ian Mahinmi's inability to contain Al Jefferson in the 22-point blowout loss to Charlotte is any indication, then Andrew Bynum's return can't come soon enough.
How would you grade the Indiana Pacers' bench?
Mahinmi's recent surge suggested the Pacers can hold up without Bynum. But with Jefferson abusing Indiana's centers, it is a sign Indiana needs another reliable big man, especially in the postseason.
To sum it all up, Larry Bird has done a masterful job of upgrading Indy's bench. He has addressed all of its needs to make sure the Pacers remain competitive.
Yes, the bench has improved enough. The likes of Scola, Turner, Watson, Copeland, Butler and Bynum are a far cry from what the shock troopers were a year ago.
They can help the Pacers move forward. This unit has to be more consistent in order to get the best results.
Aside from this, Indiana has to regain its swagger on the defensive end. No matter how good the Pacers bench can become, the team can kiss its title hopes goodbye if it doesn't lock down on its opponents like it used to.