Even though the Miami Heat lost LeBron James to a sudden, potential contender in the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana had its share of infighting and horrendous play toward the end of last year. Thanks to the overall weakness of the East, the Pacers still managed to make the conference finals, where they lost to Miami in six games.
Now coach Frank Vogel's squad heads into the upcoming campaign with even more adversity. Young, rising superstar Paul George suffered a gruesome broken leg while partaking in a scrimmage for Team USA basketball. That will likely keep him out for the entire 2014-15 season, where it now appears the Pacers would do well just to reach the playoffs.
George appreciated the support and asserted he'd made the best of the unfortunate situation:
It will be up to Hibbert to pick up his game, and for veteran David West to take up the leadership mantle once again to keep the Pacers in the postseason hunt. That frontcourt is just about all Indiana can take solace in at the moment with regard to its starting five.
Bleacher Report's Ethan Norof brings up a valid point about how Indiana's backcourt is another group fans have to worry about:
It will likely be Rodney Stuckey who will do his best to replace Stephenson in the starting five. Stuckey has a similar skill set, but is inferior in just about every way—shooting, on-ball defense, you name it. He doesn't bring the same tenacity Stephenson did, which has been the bedrock of Indiana's success with Vogel at the helm.
OddsShark.com has the Pacers' championship odds at 40-1, ballooning twofold from 20-1 since George's injury. Let's take a look at some of the games that will determine whether Indiana will be a true contender, along with an early projection for the Pacers' 2014-15 record.
With the full schedule released on NBA.com, let's take a look at the Pacers' upcoming season.
Analyzing Marquee Matchups
Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat, Nov. 12
This showdown will be a rematch of the conference finals, albeit under vastly different circumstances. The Heat may have lost James, but they also brought in Luol Deng—someone fully capable of matching George on both ends of the court.
What this boils down to is how healthy Dwyane Wade is, and whether he can outplay the likes of Stuckey and C.J. Miles at the 2-guard spot.
This description from TNT's David Aldridge regarding Stephenson doesn't come to mind when thinking of Stuckey and Miles on the Pacers:
Wade ran out of gas in the NBA Finals to put it mildly after having a rather strong series against Indiana. The nagging presence of Stephenson may have lit Wade's competitive fire, so it will be interesting to see if he can get up for this regular-season contest.
Indiana figures to have an advantage, but that depends on the enigmatic Hibbert and how he performs. Hibbert could take over this matchup in the post on offense and as a paint defender—if he doesn't have another mysterious lapse in form.
As deep as the NBA is with point guard talent, these two prospective East contenders have some of the most mediocre in the game. The Pacers' George Hill is serviceable but isn't a star by any means. Miami will be counting on some combination of rookie Shabazz Napier and incumbents Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.
Indiana Pacers vs. Washington Wizards, Nov. 8
The team that beat Indiana twice at home in the conference semifinals has retooled and could be even better. Washington has arguably the most exciting young backcourt in the game with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Both only figure to get better, and Wall took a big step last season, asserting himself as the face of the franchise.
Beal was the one who showed up for the playoffs, though, as Wall struggled with his shooting and was exposed, contributing heavily to the Wizards' playoff elimination. The fact that Washington still got two games from the Pacers on the road speaks volumes to the balance this squad has.
Although they lost Trevor Ariza, the Wizards replaced him with savvy star Paul Pierce. They still have Marcin Gortat and Nene up front to deal with the likes of Hibbert and West, too. There is a superior chemistry there that can't be understated.
For such young cornerstones on the perimeter, Pierce will be an invaluable mentor to the likes of Wall and Beal. Pierce will share his wisdom accumulated over numerous playoff runs, one of which included a Larry O'Brien Trophy and NBA Finals MVP.
West does offer some necessary stability on a currently unstable Pacers team, but he doesn't have the championship pedigree Pierce boasts. Otto Porter, Washington's 2013 No. 3 overall pick, stands to benefit from learning his position from "The Truth" as well.
When these teams square off, the imprint Pierce has had on the Wizards' youngsters contrasted with how well Indiana is gelling will determine the outcome more than anything.
Losing players like George and Stephenson may be a crushing blow for the Pacers, who may undergo a coaching change if 2014-15 is a catastrophe. However, Vogel's job security shouldn't be on the line, given how much Indiana has lost.
George admitted that the Pacers lost focus because of how fast they started out in 2013-14, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Vincent Bonsignore:
Before we were hungry. We started the year off hungry, the bad taste from the year before was in our mouths and everyone was on a mission. Once we started to win, the game was coming too easy. We were running away from our opponents and we just kind of forgot that edge...It was a point where we came into games thinking we could just turn it on, regardless if we started bad or not. And I think that kind of put us in a funk to where teams were starting to really play us and get ready for us.
How could a team fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs lose their drive? There was such a vengeance factor to take down the Heat in the postseason, too. It all sounds fishy, hinting at a disturbing undercurrent that may derail the Pacers into decline this coming year—especially without George.
This is a definitive period of uncertainty Indiana hasn't experienced in recent seasons. It's vital for Hibbert, West and whoever else can step up to stick together and play at a more consistent level in order to carry the Pacers amid what should be a down year.
It's doable to be sure, based on the lack of quality conference adversaries. Predicting that Indiana will win the East for the second straight year, though, seems ludicrous based on the issues it had. Competitive fire is often what separates very good teams from great teams, and the Pacers fell into the latter category because their desire wasn't up to par last season.
All of that considered, Indiana won't come near its 56-26 mark that led the East last season. Still, they'll do enough to secure a lower playoff seed, where they could still be a tough out thanks to Vogel's penchant for preaching defense.
Regular-Season Record Prediction: 41-41