The Indiana Pacers may have earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference during the 2013-14 season, but that was almost entirely due to their success in the first half of the campaign. As the season progressed, the team declined and was almost eliminated by a No. 8 seed in the playoffs.
Had the Atlanta Hawks held on to their lead in the closing stages of Game 6, the claims of this article would seem quite a bit less hyperbolic, even though they're still steeped in fact. Indiana may have come back against the Hawks, dispatched the Washington Wizards and fallen out of the running at the hands of the Miami Heat, but it still wasn't a particularly dangerous team.
On March 2, the Pacers were sitting pretty with a stellar 46-13 record, taking advantage of a five-game stretch against the Milwaukee Bucks (twice), Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz. After winning the final three games by a combined 15 points, there were already warnings signs.
Then the wheels fell off, starting with a two-point loss to the Golden State Warriors on March 4.
Before the ensuing four-game skid, Indiana was on pace to win 64 games. Instead, it finished with 56 victories, which is a pretty big disparity over the course of just 23 games. In fact, if that 10-13 record were prorated to a full 82-game season, the Pacers would've gone only 36-46, finishing behind the New York Knicks in the chase for the final playoff seed.
Based on how the team—which was largely healthy, mind you—finished the 2013-14 season, played in the postseason and, most importantly, handled this offseason, it's now in danger of experiencing what would've happened last year without the prolonged excellence at the start of the campaign.
Missing the playoffs is a real possibility.
The most notable portion of the offseason involved the failed chase of Lance Stephenson.
After he declined to sign with the team that originally drafted him, turning down a five-year deal worth $44 million, "Born Ready" instead chose to take his talents to the Charlotte Hornets. He signed a three-year contract that will give him $27.4 million over the course of his time under Michael Jordan's supervision. By doing so, he upped his average annual salary from the Pacers' offer and gave himself a chance to hit free agency earlier, perhaps doing so with less antic-created baggage.
Stephenson averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game during his final season with the Pacers, but his impact goes far beyond his individual numbers.
While he worked as one of the best rebounding guards in recent memory, created offense for himself and played hard-nosed defense that allowed him to work his way under the skin of opponents, he also helped make his teammates better.
The Indiana roster simply doesn't have many players who can create their own shots on a consistent basis. Last year, Paul George and Stephenson filled that void, and the offense still stagnated far too often, finishing the season ranked 23rd in offensive rating, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Now, Stephenson is gone.
George is literally the only incumbent creator on the roster. George Hill certainly doesn't qualify as such, and David West isn't able to provide offense like he did back during the bayou stage of his career.
So, who's going to replace Born Ready?
That would be the uninspiring combination of C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey. While the former is largely a catch-and-shoot player at this stage of his career—Basketball-Reference.com shows that 79.2 percent of his makes were assisted in 2013-14—the latter isn't nearly on the same level as Stephenson.
During his final season with the Detroit Pistons, Stuckey averaged 13.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from beyond the arc. He doesn't bring the same level of rebounding or facilitation to the table and is simply not as talented as a scorer.
Plus, there's this whole defense thing, which Stephenson thrives at and Stuckey prefers to pretend doesn't exist.
The new Pacer's ability to thrive as a driving threat will be beneficial to the Indiana offense, but he and Miles can't possibly replace everything that Stephenson brought to the table, even if they're complementary talents. That's especially true because Born Ready made George so much better simply by serving as a second option who was always going to draw defensive attention.
Here's Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes, succinctly explaining just why the loss of the talented 2-guard is so problematic:
Indiana's greatest weakness—both with Stephenson and without him—is its inability to score efficiently. Only the Philadelphia 76ers—who were, without exaggeration, actively trying to lose games—posted a lower offensive rating than the Pacers after the All-Star break last year, per NBA.com.
George, a player whose offense is the shakiest part of his game, is now the unquestioned leader of a scoring attack that just lost its most dynamic creator. Yikes.
But let's dig even deeper.
Below you can see George's per-36-minute numbers with Stephenson on and off the court, as relayed by the statistical databases on NBA.com:
This is bad.
Actually, scratch that. It's really bad, and it's not just the result of a small sample, as George played 863 minutes without Stephenson over the course of the 2013-14 campaign.
Without his now-departed teammate accompanying him on the floor, George wasn't able to play efficient offensive basketball. Shooting below 40 percent from the floor and connecting on so few three-point attempts is not a recipe for success, especially when turning the ball over more.
And Stephenson's impact goes beyond George alone.
The Indiana offense scored an additional 4.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Without him, the Pacers scored only 101.3 points per 100 possessions over that span, per Basketball-Reference.com, which would've ranked them ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Indiana defense wasn't exceedingly dominant during the second half of the year.
While Hill is a solid point guard defender, George is one of the best point-preventing wings in the NBA and Roy Hibbert is a player capable of winning Defensive Player of the Year, teams just started to figure out Frank Vogel's system. Draw Hibbert out of the paint, and everything opens up against a team that doesn't like to make any adjustments to its original scheme.
The NBA as a whole realized how it could attack the Pacers during the second half of the year, and the Hawks took it to an extreme during the postseason, shooting more three-pointers than any team ever had in one series while stretching the floor with each and every position.
Take a gander at the team's defensive rating, as well as where it would've ranked over the course of the full season, for various parts of the 2013-14 season:
|Pre All-Star Break||93.6||No. 1|
|Post All-Star Break||102.3||No. 2|
|Final 20 Games||101.4||No. 2|
NBA.com's statistical databases (subscription required)
That's not a promising trend, especially when Stephenson—one of the better defenders on the team—is being replaced by a pair of players who don't exactly thrive on that end of the court.
Even during the portion of the season in which they struggled, the Pacers were anything but porous. They remained one of the best point-preventing powerhouses in the NBA, but they weren't transcendentally great, as they were before the All-Star break.
Given the inevitable offensive struggles, that's the type of defense Indiana has to play in order to remain competitive. If they're just one of the best units on that end—not the best—the Pacers don't have the offensive firepower necessary to win games on a consistent basis.
Not even with Born Ready on the roster, and we've already established that he's long gone.
"That's the defense we've been used to playing," George told NBA.com's Mark Montieth after a spirited comeback against the Dubs during that aforementioned March 4 game fell just short and led to the second-half unravelling. "Just climbing in and shutting teams down. We got away from that, so it's good to see we can get back to that—and that's how we have to start games out."
Problem is, they never got back to it on a consistent basis.
The Pacers' D was great, but it wasn't historically dominant.
Problematic Levels of Depth
Offense wasn't the only tough part of the game for the 2013-14 Pacers.
Whenever a starter needed to take a seat on the pine, it was problematic for the team, seeing as there weren't too many capable replacements. When multiple starters needed breathers, the lackluster bench tended to provide opponents with a great opportunity to make a quick comeback.
According to Hoopsstats.com, only the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers relied on their second and third units for fewer minutes per game throughout the year, and things get worse when you actually take production into account.
Even with Vogel's impressive defensive system in place, the Indy bench checked in at only No. 18 in defensive efficiency. That was still better than the offense, which ranked a dismal 29th, beating out just the much-maligned non-starters in Rip City.
Is it going to be any better this year?
Well, take a look at the projected depth chart at this stage of the offseason:
|Starter||George Hill||Rodney Stuckey||Paul George||David West||Roy Hibbert|
|Primary Backup||C.J. Watson||C.J. Miles||Chris Copeland||Luis Scola||Ian Mahinmi|
|Secondary Backup||Donald Sloan||Rasual Butler||Solomon Hill||Damjan Rudez||Lavoy Allen|
That's just not very impressive.
Even if Vogel starts Miles so the second unit can have Stuckey creating shots and leading the charge, the bench is going to be one of the worst in the NBA once more. Sure, Damjan Rudez and all of his stretch 4-ness will be intriguing, and there's a bit more depth in Indiana, but the roster is still rather weak.
Pointing to a standout on the pine is impossible; finding quality players is difficult, especially if Luis Scola—now 34 years old—continues declining and can no longer function as a creative offensive option in the frontcourt.
Barring quick rises to prominence from Rudez and Solomon Hill, it's hard to think of this group as one that's markedly better than last year's bunch. Plus, there won't be any significant late additions, as the books are just about capped out with a front office unwilling to pay the luxury tax.
Maybe one veteran can be added at a minimum contract, but given the dwindling nature of the free-agent market, it's hard to see any difference-makers coming to town this late in the game. Trading for depth is the only way to acquire it now, but that would require sacrificing the cohesiveness of the starting five.
Rising Teams in the East
At this point, it should take some serious homerism to think that Indiana is going to be at the same level it was last season. Even if George continues growing as he moves closer to his prime, Hibbert rebounds (figuratively and literally) and everyone else meets the expectations, there are too many holes.
Stephenson's absence is a massive void, one that can't be plugged by Miles and Stuckey. The defense was shakier at the end of the year and Vogel hasn't shown the ability to make significant adjustments, which means the blueprint to score on the Pacers is still out there. Depth is still a major concern.
Is it enough for Indiana to miss the postseason? Well, let's take a look at the landscape in the notoriously weak Eastern Conference.
At this stage, it appears as though there are a handful of locks.
The Chicago Bulls, especially after adding Pau Gasol and watching Derrick Rose do Derrick Rose things for Team USA, qualify as such. Any team with LeBron James on it does as well, particularly when filled with as much talent as the Cleveland Cavaliers have. The Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors, two young teams that are growing and keeping key pieces, should be in the category as well.
The near-locks would be comprised of the Miami Heat (featuring a new Big Three of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng), Charlotte Hornets (another young team getting better, especially after adding Stephenson) and Atlanta Hawks (a squad that was sitting at No. 3 before Al Horford was injured last year).
That's already seven teams.
The Brooklyn Nets have lost enough pieces that they may be in trouble, but that's still an extremely talented group of veteran players, especially if Brook Lopez and Deron Williams are healthy. Counting the New York Knicks out would be foolish now that Carmelo Anthony is back and Phil Jackson is running the show, even if they seem like long shots to make the postseason.
Then there's the Detroit Pistons, who have an abundance of frontcourt talent, added a coach who knows how to use it (Stan Van Gundy) and signed a bevy of floor-spacing shooters during the offseason. Throwing the Pacers into that mix, the East has four teams competing for that No. 8 seed, and the number could grow to five if the Boston Celtics make a move geared toward competing right away.
Are the Pacers the best of that bunch?
The answer is a rather definitive yes, and you could make a convincing argument they belong in the same tier as the Hornets, Hawks and Heat, assuming George's development somehow isn't hindered by Stephenson's departure. Unfortunately, that's probably a faulty assumption.
Where will the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers finish in the Eastern Conference?
Indiana is no longer in a position in which it can absorb a major injury or avoid succumbing to a cold spell. Just making the playoffs is going to be more challenging than previously thought, even if the Pacers should still be favored for that final berth.
It doesn't mean they will drop out of the postseason picture, but they are indeed in danger of doing exactly that, despite coming off a season in which they had the top record in the East.
Last I checked, wins in 2013-14 didn't count in 2014-15.