It's a good thing the Indiana Pacers know how to play some defense. They'll need a lot of it without their two most dynamic playmakers from the 2013-14 campaign.
Lance Stephenson opted to sign with the Charlotte Hornets in July after leading the league with five triple-doubles last season. The 23-year-old posted career highs across the board, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He also gave the Pacers another player capable of initiating offense and running the pick-and-roll.
As much as Stephenson will be missed, his absence has been markedly overshadowed by Paul George's season-ending injury.
George broke his right tibia and fibula in a disturbing crash to the floor when trying to block a shot during a Team USA scrimmage. Surgery on the leg was successful, but he's still expected to miss the 2014-15 season.
The good news is George should eventually return to form. Sports medicine surgeon Nick Grosso told USA Today's Adi Joseph, "I do think that unless something goes wrong in rehab, he could be the same player."
The bad news is it will probably take some time before he gets to that point.
And in the interim, the Pacers are in trouble.
The Washington Post's Neil Greenberg summarizes the problem aptly:
Small sample size caveats aside, without George and Stephenson in the lineup Indiana will have a problem scoring. With those two off the court, the Pacers scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions (OffRtg) and allowed 99.9 (DefRtg), which gives us an expected win percentage of .557, or 46 wins over an 82-game season. That would still be good enough for a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference but far short of the top seed Indiana enjoyed just a few months ago.
Numbers aside, predicting a No. 5 or No. 6 seed for the Pacers may be charitable.
Indiana hasn't done much to add talent to its roster this summer, and that only compounds the problem.
The organization inked swingman C.J. Miles to add some depth, but the nine-year veteran will immediately be forced into a more prominent role on account of Stephenson and George's absence on the wing.
Back in July, team president Larry Bird was optimistic about Miles' ability to contribute (per the club's statement on NBA.com):
We’re very glad to have C.J. and he really wanted to be here. He brings versatility to the small forward and shooting guard positions. He’s a great shooter and scorer. We think he’ll fit nicely with the culture of our team.
As IndyStar.com's Zak Keefer put it this way, "Miles was a shooter in search of a team, the Pacers a team in search of a shooter."
Indiana wanted another shooter a month ago. Now it needs one.
Miles has never averaged more than 25.2 minutes per game in a season, but that number could be stretched soon enough. He spent his last two years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, last averaging 9.9 points in 19.3 minutes per contest and converting on 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts.
Needless to say, this will be an opportunity for Miles to take his career to another level. He certainly won't replace George's or Stephenson's versatility and all-around production, but he'll bring some much-needed stability to a team that desperately needs someone to score a few buckets.
Miles' big challenge will be consistency. IndyStar.com's Candace Buckner notes:
Miles opened January with a six-game stretch in which he averaged 19.8 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the floor and 58 percent from 3-point range. However, on a wildly inconsistent team such as the Cavaliers, Miles also had his share of struggles; he languished through December with a seven-point average on 35 percent shooting.
The Pacers have to be hoping an increased demand for Miles' services will yield steadier play. He should have every chance to develop a rhythm and have a career campaign.
Indiana's other notable addition was guard Rodney Stuckey, who spent his first seven seasons with the Detroit Pistons. Stuckey has shown some flashes, averaging as much as 16.6 points per game in 2009-10.
His playing time and production have steadily declined ever since, but the 28-year-old still managed to put up 13.9 points per contest in 2013-14. He's not much of a shooter from distance, and he's one of those enigmatic combo guards who can confound head coaches. That said, Stuckey has proven he can initiate offense and find his teammates, averaging at least 4.8 assists in three consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2011.
He also gets the free-throw line with some regularity and—at 6'5"—has the size to check both guard positions.
Like Miles, however, the Pacers need Stuckey to play out of his mind. There won't be any room for second-best performances from Indiana's new talent.
Nor will there be much patience with center Roy Hibbert should he fall prey to another disappearing act.
The two-time All-Star averaged just 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds after last season's All-Star break, doing his part in what appeared to be an emerging team-wide identity crisis. He registered zero points and just two rebounds combined in Indiana's Games 5 and 6 against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
He failed to score or rebound again in Game 1 of the team's conference semifinal against the Washington Wizards.
It wasn't until a 28-point explosion in Game 2 of that series that Hibbert exorcised his demons. By then, he'd already cemented his status as a less-than-reliable cog in the Pacers' sputtering machine.
Nevertheless, it's worth recalling that Hibbert was averaging a fairly solid 11.8 points and 7.7 rebounds prior to the last season's All-Star break. There's a chance he could improve upon that with more touches.
Indiana needs regular double-double production from the 27-year-old this season. It also needs plenty of leadership and defensive dominance. To whatever extent the Pacers survive or fail this season, Hibbert will be largely responsible.
The other returning Pacers to watch are power forward David West and point guard George Hill.
Hill isn't an especially voluminous scorer but did average a career-high 14.2 points in 2012-13, his second go-around with the Pacers. If he returns to similar levels, that could ease some of the pressure on Indiana's newcomers.
Meanwhile, West increased his 14-point regular-season average to 15.1 points per game in the playoffs. He's 33 and probably beyond the prime of his career, but he's also demonstrated a knack for rising to the occasion. A vocal veteran with plenty of attitude, West will almost certainly remain this team's emotional leader when it needs one most.
Unfortunately, the Pacers can't live on good vibes alone. They'll need contributions from all corners, an ensemble effort for the ages.
And even then, it might not be enough. Pacers fans can certainly hope for the best, but they should be abundantly prepared for the worst.
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