NBA Preview: Indiana Pacers

Last Year: 56-26, 1st in the division, lost in the Eastern Conference Finals; leading scorer– Paul George (21.9), leading rebounds– Paul George (7.6), leading assists– Lance Stephenson (4.6)

Changes: Added– C.J. Miles (signed), Damjan Rudez (signed), Rodney Stuckey (signed) Shayne Wittington (signed); Lost– Evan Turner (free agency), Lance Stephenson (free agency), Paul George (injury), Raseul Butler (free agency)

Positions

Point Guard: George Hill, C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan

George Hill is an average starter at point guard.  His three point shooting and shooting in general are solid, and he plays pretty solid defense.  He fit well for the Pacers when he was playing alongside Paul George, but without that kind of creator on the wing Hill is going to look a lot worse off this season.

Watson is a decent back up.  He has shown tenacious defense, and a high motor in the past (notably in his 49 games including 25 starts in the Bulls ill-fated 11/12 campaign) but has failed to make any real impact in Brooklyn or Indiana the last two years.  He will definitely need to be playing a decent chunk of minutes here, and there shouldn’t be too steep a fall off from an average to below average starter and a decent to average bench guard here.

Sloan is going into his fourth year without ever breaking 7 point per game average, despite several stints at over 20 minutes.  He’s bounced around and been traded several times and generally not made an impact.  He probably won’t get much of a chance, because while Hill/Watson aren’t an impressive tandem of point guards they represent one of the Pacers deeper positions.

Shooting Guard: C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey

Miles is a journeyman backup.  He would be a decent addition to a contending team as a backup, but as a starter he leaves a lot to be desired.  Stuckey has more upside, but he has proven to be a below average starter on a string of bad Pistons teams.  Overall this is a very weak position for the Pacers this year, and their back court looks to be an overall near league bottom in terms of production.

Small Forward: Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill

Losing Paul George here obviously hurts a lot.  This is a serious season destroyer for the Pacers. Copeland is only going to be in his third year, and has been a high efficiency player in limited minutes for his first two.  Barring a trade he projects to start with Paul George out, but will need to show a lot more than he has for this to be a position of even average production for the Pacers.

Hill (last year’s draft pick) didn’t show much in 8 minutes last year, but with the complete lack of depth here he will get a decent shot with minutes. Overall, we basically have very little idea what the Pacers have here post-George injury.

Power Forward: David West, Luis Scola, Lavoy Allen, Damjan Rudez

This may be the only position the Pacers are actually deep at.  David West was the only member of this team that showed any heart in the East Finals last year.  He’s been a solid player for years, scoring at will on the post, rebounding at a good rate, and in general a good player.  Scola has been an average starter in the league in the past, which leaves him well equipped to be a very good backup.

Lavoy Allen doesn’t project to have many minutes, and I cannot make sense of signing Rudez to a 3 year deal to come over from Europe and play behind a pair of established starter/backup in West/Scola– unless the Pacers are hedging against losing or trading one the other or both, the spending more money on a prospect at a deep position seems like a luxory that they can’t afford considering how thin they are in the front court and without George at the three (unless they think Scola or Rudez can shift down to three to free up more minutes.)

Center: Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi, Shayne Whittington

Hibbert’s struggles have been well documented in a lot of forums.  The fact is, he is still a plus value starter at center.  He brings serious rim protection, which bends entire other teams offenses and changes the scope of the game.  Unfortunately, at this point his serious limitations in offense and rebounding simply cannot be ignored, which leaves the Pacers in a pretty unfortunate position in relying on him as their de facto “best player” (he’s not the Pacers’ best player– West is, but Hibbert is the “face of the franchise” with Paul George out).

Mahinmi is your run of the mill 6’11” all defense, no offense, low impact backup center that you find on most rosters.  He won’t bring a lot, but he won’t be a complete disaster in the minutes that Hibbert is out.

Wittington is an undrafted rookie out of Michigan.  I do not expect many if any minutes barring injuries.

Outlook: How the Pacers do this year will have a lot to do with the heart of the players.  It would be very easy to simply pack it in from the start, play for a low seed/high draft spot, write this entire campaign off as a lost cause– its easy to envision this future, George Hill’s production goes down without the Stephenson/George combo on the wing, the unproven starters at the two and three don’t pan out, Roy Hibbert looks like the guy at the end of last season instead of the beginning of last season, and David West calls everyone else “gutless” and “heartless” so many times while playing in “eff you” mode all year to no effect till his head explodes.

But, this is the East and 40 games very well might do for an 8 seed. If Hibbert recovers some of his game, if the pacers get any production of the either wing spot, and if Hill’s shot maintains his percentages they could eek out a playoff spot in the weaker conference.  After all, the Bulls pulled off this feat without Derrick Rose twice, so why couldn’t the Pacers?

Honestly?  Because their coach isn’t Thibodeau, because Hibbert isn’t Noah, and because their defensive prowess was built around Hibbert and their wing player’s individual athleticism and skill– both of which are gone now.  I’m predicting they fall somewhere in the 8-10 range in the East.

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