Nonetheless, there's hope.
Pacers president Larry Bird told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth on Aug. 12 that Indy is not tanking. Bird believes the team's young nucleus will remain competitive in 2014-15:
We think we're going to put a competitive team out there. We think we're going to play hard and develop our young guys. Everybody's going to get an opportunity to show us what they can do. I think we'll be an exciting team.
We have a lot of things to look forward to. My goal is to win as many games as we possibly can and get in the playoffs. I know some of our fans would rather us go in the opposite direction, but we're here to win and we're going to try to win.
That's a bold statement coming from Bird. This early, several NBA experts disagree with him. They are not expecting big things from this new-look Pacers squad. Bleacher Report's Josh Martin ranked Indy just 21st in his post-Kevin Love trade power rankings while HoopsHabit.com's Shane Young predicts the Pacers will finish 11th in the East with a 31-51 win-loss record.
It will now be up to guys such as C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Damjan Rudez and Shayne Whittington to help the Pacers remain competitive. Should C.J. Fair or Chris Singleton (who both received non-guaranteed contracts from the Pacers, per InkOnIndy.com's Evan Massey) somehow crack Indy's roster, either player is expected to contribute in whatever way he can.
For the purposes of this article, only those new Indiana Pacers with guaranteed contracts will be discussed.
With shooting guard Rodney Stuckey and shooting guard/small forward C.J. Miles in tow, the Pacers will have a new-look backcourt. It will be the first time in three seasons Indy will feature a new starting shooting guard, as Stephenson was the one who aptly filled that role.
Montieth discussed the potential roles Stuckey ($1,227,985 in 2014-15) and Miles ($4,205,000) will be playing in 2014-15 in his July 21 featured article:
Stuckey's role in helping the Pacers reach the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season is undetermined, probably until things shake out in training camp. He and fellow free agent signing C.J. Miles are likely to contend for the starting position vacated by Lance Stephenson. Both say they're willing to 'do whatever,' as Stuckey put it. Start, come off the bench, whatever, just find a way to fit in. But they'll go about it in different ways.
Stuckey also told Montieth,"I'm not going to have a problem fitting in with these guys. I'm very humble, laid-back, respectful. We're not going to have a problem getting along."
While there should be no character issues with Stuckey, it remains to be seen if he'll be a seamless fit with Indiana. He is entering his eighth NBA season—his first with a team other than the Detroit Pistons.
Don't count on him to be a primary option from the three-point area (he's shot just 28.6 percent for his career). He will thrive in the running game—he slashes the lane pretty well and knows how to create his own shot.
While starting Stuckey at the 2 spot certainly is an option, it would be better for him to come off the bench. Stuckey provides a lot of much-needed energy and spunk to what has been an inconsistent second unit of the Pacers in recent years. That being said, expect him to chip in with 10 points and three assists per game.
NBA Jersey Numbers @NumbersNBA
PG/SG Rodney Stuckey will wear number 2, last worn by @Darren_Collison in ’12. #Pacers http://t.co/UqMwRon0S28/25/2014, 10:42:10 PM
As for Miles, he is the exact opposite of Stuckey on the offensive end. While he can handle the ball and create his own shot, he is known to be more of a spot-up and three-point shooter (he has shot 35 percent for his career).
When I was in Utah, I guarded the best wing player every night. People say things because early in my career that was one of the things I had to learn. Every 18-year-old needs to learn defense. Coach (Jerry) Sloan doesn't put anybody on the best player on the team if they can't defend. It doesn't make sense. I can defend my position and I've shown it.
The Pacers need Miles to be at his best on defense. In losing Stephenson and George, Indiana loses two players who combined for three steals per contest in 2013-14. Miles can start at the shooting guard spot, although Pacers head coach Frank Vogel can also start him at small forward. Either way, he should average 12-13 points per game for an Indiana team which badly needs a lift on offense.
Forward and Center
A little background on new Indiana Pacers forward Damjan Rudez: His first name is pronounced "Dam-yan" (although he is more commonly known as "Damo"), per Montieth, who notes Rudez entered the 2008 NBA draft but was not selected.
Six years later, he gets a new lease on NBA life as both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Pacers showed interest, bringing in the 6'10", 28-year-old Croatian national for workouts. Montieth adds Rudez "[impressed] the Pacers' staff with his ability to shoot off screens and handle the ball in pick-and-rolls."
While waiting for a crack at the NBA, Rudez played in Slovenia and in his home country of Croatia. He eventually signed with CAI Zaragoza of Spain for the 2012-13 Liga ACB season. According to RealGM.com, he averaged 10.6 points, 1.85 rebounds and 1.18 assists in 40 games. He shot 49 percent from the field and a respectable 42.2 percent from three-point territory.
Rudez, who will earn $1.1 million in his rookie year, spoke about his role with the Pacers with HoopsHype.com's Raul Barrigon on Aug. 30:
I'm very excited about my first season in the NBA. It's something I've worked for my whole life. I can't wait to start after the (FIBA) World Cup. I think I can contribute in many ways because it would be different if I went there when I was 20 or 22 years.
I'm ready to help the team and I'm ready for whatever might happen. I don't expect to play 30 minutes per game and I don't expect to sit on the bench all season. I've been a professional for 10 years in Europe. I realize that for any European player going to the NBA, the first year is a transition process and I'm ready for that and whatever might come along the way.
As seen in the above video, Rudez can definitely light it up from just about anywhere on the court. He can also finish well on the break. He is expected to give the Pacers bench a lift, although his biggest question marks are the other intangibles: passing, rebounding and defense. Rudez must improve on the other facets of his game in order to be a bigger factor for Indiana. Count on him to chip in with around eight points and, say, two to three rebounds per game off the bench.
Tom Lewis @IndyCornrows
Damjan Rudez reveals that Larry Bird's presence translates loud and clear in any language. http://t.co/t4l4EUXffa9/2/2014, 12:22:00 PM
Meanwhile, Indy signed former Western Michigan Bronco and undrafted free agent Shayne Whittington on July 2. Although he is just 6'10", the Pacers listed him as a center in their official press release.
DraftExpress.com's Jonathan Givony describes Whittington, who will earn $507,336 in the 2014-15 NBA season, as a player who "moves well for his size, most evident by his footwork and ability to shoot on the move." Whittington also increased his scoring output every year he was at Western Michigan, culminating in a 16.1 points-per-game average in 2013-14 on a solid 52.7 percent shooting clip, per Sports-Reference.com.
Givony says a potential drawback is Whittington's struggles to defend bigger players down low with his limited athleticism. Whittington should focus on this aspect in training camp, what with the Pacers missing the services of backup center Ian Mahinmi, who is expected to sit out two to three months with a shoulder injury.
Whittington will certainly see his share of playing time in Mahinmi's absence. If he can contribute six points and five rebounds a night, it would definitely go a long way.
The Parting Shot
With several new players in tow like Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Damjan Rudez and Shayne Whittington coupled with no Paul George and Lance Stephenson, the Indiana Pacers face a daunting challenge to remain competitive in the 2014-15 NBA season.
Stuckey and Miles' strengths on offense complement one another. These make up for the departure of the versatile Stephenson. Stuckey would be better-suited off the bench because of his energy while Miles will be counted on to shore up Indy's perimeter shooting. Rookies Damjan Rudez and Shayne Whittington are both good shooters, but the NBA's physical game is something they must adjust to.
The Pacers got themselves several decent players to help make a run for the playoffs next year. There are still holes which need to be plugged (a playmaking point guard in particular), making a trade candidate such as Rajon Rondo appealing.
In any case, Indiana needs to get maximum production from all of its newcomers in order to surprise many people next season.