NBA Central Preview: Indiana Pacers

By Robert Magobet

The Pacers (38-44) were as close to clinching a playoff birth in 2015 before being knocked out of playoff contention by the Grizzlies as they were to an NBA Finals date with the Spurs in 2013. When all was said and done, there was a huge disparity between how they finished in 2015 and how they finished between 2012 and 2014, causing a source of great anguish for Pacer fans.

If you’re looking from a glass half full perspective, they were a Paul George compound fracture away from building on a competitive playoff foundation started in 2012. The organization has begun building a new core which includes ardent Paul George who is looking to prove he is still one of the best young players in the NBA and newly signed veteran shooting guard Monta Ellis, who agreed to a four-year deal worth $44 million over the summer.

If you’re looking from a glass half empty perspective, Paul George has had two injuries in the past year at just 25 years of age. The team has lost defensive anchors Roy Hibbert and David West, with the former blocking shots and giving you occasional buckets, and the latter instilling fear in penetrators, moving players off the block, and giving you consistent scoring. These dramatic roster changes mean the team has gone from championship aspirations to playoff aspirations—a step back from a year ago.

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If head coach Frank Vogel can work in Ellis, Chase Budinger, and some other newcomers onto a roster that won just 38 games last year (keep in mind the Pacers had West and Hibbert last year, but lost George to injury), this may be a team to compete for a playoff spot, especially in a weak Eastern Conference. And if that’s the case, Vogel should be coach of the year.

Or they can easily fold and blame George Hill’s boy band, blondish look. The real pressure won’t heat up until the Pacers reach the second half of the season, when teams star jockeying for playoff position.

2014-2015 season in 140 characters or less:

Paul George suffered a gruesome lower right leg fracture during the U.S National Team’s intrasquad scrimmage at UNLV in 2014. The Pacers season came to an end on that single play.

Did the summer help?

I’d certainly say so. Joining the Pacers roster this past summer were Jordan Hill, who signed a one-year, $5 million deal, Ellis and Budinger, who was traded from the Timberwolves for former Pacer Damjan Rudez. With the 11th pick of the draft the Pacers selected 240-pound Myles Turner from Texas—who averaged 10.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and, 2.6 blocks in his only season in college. The Pacers addressed a glaring hole because of the departures of West and Hibbert.

Go-to offseason acquisitions:

Monta Ellis is the acquisition that has the most fan recognition by far. He is an explosive two guard with one of the best first steps in the league. He can single handedly take over a game offensively with his aggressive driving ability along with his streaky mid-range shooting. Only James Harden bested Ellis in clutch points, scoring 135 clutch points in 2015.

Another key acquisition is Jordan Hill. In 57 starts for the Lakers last season, Hill averaged 12 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game. This bodes well for the Pacers as they look to fill the shoes of long time center Roy Hibbert, who is now on the Lakers.

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To compliment Hill in the post, Pacers traded Damjan Rudez for small forward Chase Budinger from Minnesota. Budinger can sprint up and down the court in transition, find the soft spot on the floor, and knock down threes. He shot a career best 40 percent from the field in his last season with the Rockets in 2012, last season he shot 36 percent for the Timberwolves.

Glaring weakness:

The one definitive weakness will be the defense of the Indiana Pacers. With all the scoring and shooting the Pacers have added, look for defensive deficiencies. Monta Ellis is a prime example: Yes he averaged 19 points per game over his career; however, defensive stoppage isn’t exactly a specialty for Ellis.

“He’s not a great defender,” Bird said to the Indy Star. “We know that, but the pluses outweigh the minuses.”

Contributor with something to prove:

Paul George is coming off of a major injury—before this—George was one of the best young upcoming players in the game (2013 and 2014 NBA All-Star)—bar none—both offensively and defensively. Remember all those big time playoff matchups with the Miami Heat, back when they had LeBron James?

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George was at his best increasing his playoff average from 2011 to 2014. George seemed to be very much motivated every time competing against LeBron James. It would be hard-pressed to believe this motivation disappeared, especially since LeBron is back at home, with the Cavs, a division foe. Look for George to bounce back.

Best Case Scenario:

The Indiana Pacers will make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, and muzzle off all the doubters, who see the same drastic changes as the rest of the nation. This philosophical change from David West’s rough, rugged, and bully ball to high tempo, pick and pop offense, due to David West’s decision, is one that will work.

Budinger , if healthy, will add a run and gun three point option, thanks to new addition Hill drawing defenders inside. With Budinger stretching the defense and Hill commanding respectability in the paint, driving lanes galore can be open for slasher Ellis.

George will work to be at his 2013 level, and Rodney Stuckey will show flashes of brilliance. This balance will allow George Hill to succumb to his primary role of being a limited contributor at the starting point guard position.

Worst Case Scenario:

Paul George will play power forward for the Pacers. It is to be determined if the majority of his play will be at the four-spot—it has already been reported George has trepidation about playing the position.

It probably isn’t good for George because he has to play the likes of Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin who are rebounding machines. George’s frame isn’t necessarily sculpted for the power forward duties. Also, George’s defensive talent has shined against wing players in the NBA, not against bulky, inside players.

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If coach Vogel continues to play George at the four and George keeps on venting his frustration to the media, there could be internal strife. This could very much affect winning tendencies, and ultimately may cost the Pacers a trip to the playoffs.

Also, Budinger and George could get hurt, again; Monta Ellis could play great offensively but he may lag in defensive duties; Rodney Stuckey will only show flashes of brilliance; Jordan Hill will play more games and teams will figure him out offensively; and the script is flipped—the Pacers are no longer one of the top eight teams in the Eastern conference.

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