In the NBA, mediocrity is truly a double-edged sword.
The Indiana Pacers have proven it these past three seasons, recording 35, 36, and 36 wins. Seasons like these give the fan base just enough hope of a playoff spot to keep April interesting, but falling short leaves a sour taste.
Repeatedly finishing ninth in the East is particularly galling for those who harbor hopes of drafting one of each season’s “can’t-miss” prospects.
Having yet to be blessed with the kind of luck that gave the Bulls Derrick Rose, a Pacer representative typically attends the Draft Lottery just to fill up the chair. Usually, it's Larry Bird who sits uncomfortably while ESPN analysts prattle about all the great prospects who’ll be off the board at 12 or 13 or 14.
Being the best lottery team is like being the guy who blows his stack on the first hand at the World Series of Poker, except Larry never has the option of pulling up his hoodie and making a dramatic exit. He’s forced to sit there while some other suit gets to celebrate.
This season was no different, with the Pacers clocking in at #13. They survey a draft class that seems long on potential, but short on sure things. The Pacers, unfortunately, are used to this sort of problem, given that the only impact player they’ve drafted since the turn of the century has been Danny Granger.
All this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Pacers have a myriad of options for the #13 pick. Five in particular seem to stand out.
5. Jeff Teague, 6’2” PG, Wake Forest
--Teague, from Indianapolis Pike High School, gets a vote as the local product, and could be a marketing gold mine for the Pacers.
However, he’s far from a steadying influence on the court. His career assist-to-turnover ratio at Wake was 1-to-1, speaking more to a player who’s better at getting his own shot than making plays for others.
Jim O’Brien likes to push the ball, but it’s quite possible that Teague would get overly caught up in that kind of game and either make it a race to the basket or put up a quick three on many possessions.
4. Gerald Henderson, 6’5” SG, Duke
--The Pacers used to be able to play some defense.
The up-tempo game has caused a corresponding rise in both the Pacers’ scoring and that of their opponents, and the balance has yet to be satisfactorily reached. Henderson has made his reputation as a gritty defender who’s capable of slowing down players at all three perimeter positions.
He may not be a guy who can play 35 minutes per game and be productive offensively the whole time, especially if he’s limited by his persistent asthma. However, as a defensive stopper and matchup specialist, he could make life difficult for opponents’ best offensive players.
3. Brandon Jennings, 6’2” PG, Italy
--As I’ve written about both here at B/R and on my own blog, Starr* Rated, Jennings is a guy who attacked his draft eligibility problem honestly, choosing not to pretend to be a college student for one year.
By all accounts, his resulting experience in Italy helped him grow up quite a bit more than the pampered college experience might have done. The odds of him being a dramatic bust may have greatly decreased thanks to his time abroad.
Jennings’ speed and quickness can be perfectly suited to play O’Brien’s up-and-down style, but he’ll need to learn to take care of the ball. Season of professional growth or not, he can still get crazy and try to make the And1-Mixtape-audition kind of play. If he can learn to play within an offensive game plan, he could be a solid starter in the Association for a lot of years, if not an All-Star.
The other downside to drafting Jennings will be the logjam at point guard, with T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack still on the roster. Both have some ability to shift to the two, but it would leave the Pacers with a backcourt similar to that of the Chicago Bulls’ trio of Rose, Gordon, and Hinrich, a talented trio who could be slowed by bigger defenders.
2. Earl Clark, 6’10” SF, Louisville
--Clark is a player who can create matchup problems for whoever he’s assigned to. He has the size to shoot over small forwards and the quickness to get around many power forwards.
What may be his greatest asset for a team like Indiana, though, is his sheer build. His long legs and strides get him down the floor in a hurry, and can make him an attractive scoring option in transition.
He may not be a reasonable halfcourt player early on, due to his tendency toward turnovers. He’s also a mediocre foul shooter, which will make him somewhat of a liability late in close games.
If his shot can fall from NBA range, however, he can give the Pacers another large outside threat, freeing Troy Murphy to scrap for more offensive rebounds.
1. DeJuan Blair, 6’7” PF, Pittsburgh
--When your starting power forward is your leading rebounder, but also your second-leading three-point shooter, something’s not quite right.
The Pacers could certainly use a low-post scorer, but after Blake Griffin and Jordan Hill, neither of whom are likely to escape the Top Ten, there really aren’t any. So, when in doubt, why not go with a nasty brute who’s not above delivering Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat arm drags to his opposition?
Blair’s judo toss of Hasheem Thabeet (which left Thabeet in the condition seen above) perfectly illustrates that he’s not a man who intimidates easily. This trait, as well as his impressive wingspan, may make him a perfect complement to Roy Hibbert inside. Additionally, a pair like Blair and Hibbert can free Murphy in the opposite direction of an Earl Clark. Murphy could benefit from the freedom to play a Rashard Lewis-type role, creating havoc as an outside shooter with a height advantage.
A big lineup of Hibbert, Blair, Murphy, Granger, and Jack could play havoc with opposing defenses if the shots are falling. If not, there may at least be a possibility of improving on last season’s statistic of allowing the third-most rebounds of any team in the league. Only the Warriors (who finished 29-53) and Knicks (32-50) allowed more.
Blair rates as the choice with the greatest upside, primarily on the basis of re-instilling the kind of snarl the Pacers had in the 1990’s with Dale and Antonio Davis scrapping inside. He, Hibbert, Murphy, and Jeff Foster can provide the interior mooring to go with the scoring abilities of Granger, Ford, and Mike Dunleavy. A lineup of this kind could potentially leave the Pacers one perimeter stopper away from winning in the postseason, where any Indiana-based basketball program belongs.