It’s a scary thought: a team that came within one game of downing the Miami Heat and reaching the Finals last season has gotten way better.
Against LeBron & Co. in the conference semis, we got a clear idea of the Indiana Pacers’ sky-high ceiling—one of the only true threats to Miami’s reign atop the East. In that Heat series, the Pacers were able to exploit the champs’ lack of size with their brand of relentless and physical post play. It’s an advantage they’ll continue to hold over much of the NBA, thanks in large part to the imposing frontcourt combo of Roy Hibbert and David West. Couple that with breakout seasons from George Hill, Lance Stephenson and superstar-in-the-making Paul George, and the Pacers were a hard out every night.
But there was one glaring weakness: their bench kind of sucked. And that’s a very generous assessment. (Raptors fans might want to skip this next part.) A team with very real championship aspirations shouldn’t have to rely on the likes of Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi (the Pacers’ leaders in minutes per game off the bench last season) for production. Pacers president Larry Bird acknowledged as much this summer, pointing to the lack of bench depth as a glaring weakness following the 2012-13 campaign. So every name mentioned above, save for Mahinmi, was let go, replaced by a seriously impressive haul of reserves that will take Indiana one step closer to beating the Heat.
Couple that with the return of a healthy Danny Granger, who boasts career averages of 18 points and nearly two threes per game (and who will enjoy the luxury of easing himself back into basketball without the expectations he faced as the team’s star player), and there is a lot to like about the Pacers this year.
A passionate and knowledgeable fan base, a region that has produced more than 150 NBA players over the years, and a franchise with a history of winning dating back to their days in the ABA. The Indiana Pacers have the pieces to remain contenders for quite some time. It just feels right.
Additions: Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill
Departures: Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Jeff Ayers, Miles Plumlee.
Talk about an upgrade. Scola remains very effective as a low-post scorer and is the kind of reliable, steady veteran hand that the club lacked off the bench last year. Meanwhile, C.J. Watson is likely the most underappreciated backup point guard in the NBA, a role perfectly suited for a capable defender and dangerous shooter who prefers to distance himself from the spotlight. Solomon Hill is a terrific rebounder and deep sleeper for rookie of the year honours if he can crack the rotation, while Chris Copeland broke onto the scene as a rookie late last season with the New York Knicks as a versatile shooting threat. Each piece is nice individually, and collectively they’ll make up one of the strongest second units in basketball.
- How much better can Paul George get?
2010-11 (rookie year): 7.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 threes per game.
2011-12: 12.1 pts, 4.8 rbds, 2.4 asts, 1.6 stls, 1.4 threes per game.
2012-13: 17.4 pts, 6.5 rbds, 4.1 asts, 1.8 stls, 2.2 threes per game.
If the 23 year old has already reached his apex as an NBA player, the Pacers will still be in very good shape, trotting out arguably the NBA’s best small forward (factoring in the defensive end of the floor) not named “LeBron.” But if his game continues to develop at anywhere near the pace it has thus far, then Indiana will be flat-out scary.
- Danny Granger’s health, and how he handles returning to a club that once relied on him heavily will be important to monitor throughout the season. Does Granger get his starting spot back, moving George to shooting guard and sending Lance Stephenson to the bench? Will Granger accept a role as a microwave-type scorer off the bench? Those answers will go a long way toward determining how far the Pacers go.
Breakout player: Roy Hibbert. Sure, Lance Stephenson seems primed to build off his strong campaign in 2012-13, but Granger’s presence suddenly makes his role unclear. As for Hibbert… I mean, did you see in the Eastern Finals!? The seven-foot-two centre (and technically a former Raptors pick, swapped on draft day in 2009 for Jermaine O’Neal) doubled his season scoring averages, posting a dominant 22.1 ppg to go along with more than 10 rebounds and a block per on 56 percent shooting. Hibbert spent the summer in the weight room and training with Tim Duncan in San Antonio (look how he dwarfs Duncan, Mahinmi and Tiago Splitter in this photo, and now clocks in at an absurd 290 lbs. Factor in the confidence he gained from the Heat series, and Hibbert is poised to claim his place amongst the league’s best at the position.
Scale of Decency: Mad decent. After an eventful and productive summer, the Pacers have the makings of a title contender. Paul George alone makes this an exceedingly watchable club, and another trip to the Eastern Conference Finals seems likely at this point.
NBA team previews: Wizards | Magic | Mavericks | Grizzlies | Rockets | Spurs | Lakers | Clippers | Suns | Kings | Warriors | Thunder | Trail Blazers | Pelicans | Nuggets | Jazz | Timberwolves | Heat| Hawks