It’s terribly painful to come so close to ultimate success, and yet be so far from achieving it.
The Indiana Pacers have experienced this in the last few years. Twice.
Reaching the Conference Semi-Finals in 2012, and doggedly competing against the pinnacle of the Heat ‘Big 3’ era. They’d lose this series, but not before giving an almighty scare into Miami, and sounding notice that a new power was rising in the East.
They’d surpass their 2012 effort by reaching the Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, before ultimately falling to…Miami. Again.
The gritty Pacers were only a couple wins away from an NBA championship. Unfortunately, as quick as success was to manifest itself, it was just as fast to evaporate for the Pacers over the last season.
Paul George suffered the most horrible basketball injury since Andrew Bogut’s arm fracture and dislocation for the Bucks.
Losing George – a newly minted superstar – for the year was a monstrous blow to a franchise ready to take the next mini-jump and overwhelm the East – and a recently formed LeBron James-led Cleveland, still finding its feet – and establish itself as the dominant power in the conference.
The Pacers had already allowed starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson and his wild displays of talent, histrionics and knuckle-headed behaviour to depart to Charlotte. Now the question wasn’t whether the Pacers would challenge for a championship, it was whether they could even make the playoffs. Unfortunately, they’d fall just short – equal wins with the 8-seeded Brooklyn, but losing the head-to-head matchup.
Veteran teams find a way to manufacture wins. They’re stronger, more physical, more mentally prepared, and understand their game-to-game duties better than a squad of talented guys on rookie contracts.
A prime example this past season was the Denver Nuggets. Their veteran players (Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye, Ty Lawson etc) were good enough to build a lead or maintain equal footing with most squads in the League. When the relatively green bench played extensively though (Gary Harris, Jusuf Norkic), those leads evaporated, deficits compiled, and losses were taken.
Indiana now finds itself in a similar predicament of mediocrity. Not enough veterans throughout the roster to push for 45 wins and a guaranteed playoff berth in the East(Brooklyn was the 8-seed with 38 wins, Milwaukee with two more wins was the 6-seed, and Washington in the 5 spot was comfortably secure with 46 wins), and not bad enough to completely bottom out and be rewarded with a top 5 pick in the 2016 Draft. Sacramento and Charlotte also find themselves in the same position.
The departures of David West, Roy Hibbert and Luis Scola really hurt. Not only their front court depth, but their leadership and consistent locker-room presences.
West and Scola are on the down side of their careers, their peaks well-behind them, but are still very serviceable players capable of helping a solid team for 20-28 minutes a night. That’s part of the reason League observers were shocked at seeing West take the veterans minimum for San Antonio several weeks ago. It was not only a huge pay reduction but and a bench role to boot. West was still a double digit scorer last season, and was third on the team with a healthy 3.4 assists per game, especially noteworthy with such a grinding offense.
But, as West said, he just wants a chance to win a championship. That wasn’t going to happen with the Pacers.
Hibbert was their defensive bastion. Ridiculed for his lack of scoring and rebounding prowess (10.6ppg, .446FG% and 7.1rpg), Hibbert was the target of ire for many fans, despite being once again a phenomenal interior defender. The Pacers defensive strategy was aimed at funnelling drivers towards Hibbert defensively, allowing him to contest vertically, discouraging and disrupting shots. Most teams are ‘ICE-ING’ pick and rolls these days – sending the ball handler away from the screen and down the sideline to the corners – the Pacers did this too, except they had a giant 7’2 260 pound man waiting to destroy your attempt at the rim.
So where do the Pacers go from here? They’re not good enough to be a championship team, and not bad enough to be a pitiful ping-pong ball Lottery winner, and the last thing you want is to be stuck on the fringes of the Playoff race, with no clear way of improving – just ask Brooklyn.
Their primary additions were the signings of Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill with the newly available cap space, but those two don’t move the needle much.
Winning 38 games last year was a monumental feat, as coach Frank Vogel squeezed as much as he could from a talent-starved roster, as the Pacers struggled to score – losing Stephenson and George, your two most dynamic play makers and first and third leading scorers will do that – and simply grinded opponents down and scratched out wins.
It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. Living off a bevvy of mid range jumpers and garbage points doesn’t have the same appeal as watching Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson launch 3 after 3, or seeing Russell Westbrook try and bend the rim every time he assaults the basket.
Ellis will help with ball handling , scoring and shot creation. He was once again amongst the league leaders in drivers per game last year. But he’s always been a below average defender. A thin, undersized 6’3 shooting guard presents problems for any roster. Playing with a defensive-minded Pacers team will help cover up his deficiencies, but without the rim-protection of Hibbert behind him, it’s a tough task. Jordan Hill was mired in Los Angeles last season, playing for a Lakers team going nowhere. Perhaps a new change of scenery will help reinvigorate the former lottery pick, who has become an NBA journeyman.
Paul George is finally healthy, and it was pleasing to see him return to action late last year, despite the Pacers missing the playoffs. He’s only 25 and his peak is still a year or two away.
Perhaps the Pacers biggest cause for optimism is the drafting of 19 year old Myles Turner in this seasons lottery. A legitimate 7ft, with athleticism and a budding offensive game, Turner will help fill the interior void, and, if he develops as hoped, will provide a strong piece for the Pacers re-development plan. Turner looked solid in the Summer League, but, like most big men, will probably take 2-3 years to really find his feet and contribute on a night-to-night basis in the regular season.
George Hill returns as the starting lead guard, his ridiculous wingspan and calm control of the offense in tow. Hill was forced to play the unfamiliar role of star player last year, averaging over 16ppg, while leading the team in assists.
Rodney Stuckey had a career resurgence last year, averaging double digits in scoring and should figure to play major minutes as the third guard behind Hill and Ellis.
The key question is whether Paul George starts at the 3, or if the Pacers decide to play him as a small-ball power forward. Playing George at the 4 would juice up their offense with speed, dynamism, outside shooting and play-making; there won’t be many bigs capable of sticking with him on the perimeter or in transition, and switching him on pick and pops presents opposing defences with more poor options. Its whether the Pacers can survive defensively that will be interesting. George is an All-NBA level defender when healthy, but he’s primarily a wing defender. He’s 6’9, with good length and athleticism, but isn’t the most powerful of players. Much will depend on whether he can take the physical pounding on rebounds and interior play.
CJ Miles or Solomon Hill will most likely present as the starting small forward if George starts at the 4.
The Pacers have three centres to roll out on Opening Night, with Hibberts career back-up Ian Mahimi, Jordan Hill and the rookie Turner.
Turner clearly has the most upside, but with the Pacers potentially starting George as a “big man”, Mahimi looks the most likely to start. He’s been in the Pacers system for several years, and is physically a lot more intimidating than Hill or Turner. Lavoy Allen will back up the 4 and 5 spots.
As the Pacers head towards their next several years, it will be interesting to see how Indiana develops. Will Paul George return to his best – a borderline top 10 player by Playoffs end in 2014 – or will his health prevent a return to true stardom? Does Frank Vogel remain as coach? Does Turner develop quickly enough? Do they upgrade their point guard and power forward spots?
The Pacers have the contracts, role players and the cap space to be a significant player in trades and free agency over the next couple of years, but whether anything eventuates will remain to be seen.