The season started with the P needing George Hill heroics to eke out a win over the lowly Raptors. The season ended with a sadly familiar disappearing act in Miami. In between, a lot of stuff happened. It was either a disappointment, a pretty good season, or a great season, depending on your perspective. The general consensus is that it was pretty good, and I'm down with that. Just don't expect David West to get all gushy over it.
If, at the start of the season, you told me the Pacers would go to the playoffs, dispatch the Hawks and Knicks with reasonable efficiency, then take the Heat to seven games in the conference final, I would have been very happy with that result. A conference final, and playing the Heat close to even in the finals, would have been considered the next step the Pacers had to take in the rebuilding process . . . and they got it done.
On the other hand, they should have won the series against Miami. When they were playing "Pacer ball", they controlled the series. Unfortunately, they pulled their infamous disappearing act, an act that was as likely to show up against the Milwaukee Bucks (split 2-2 in the season series) as it was Miami (split 5-5, including the playoffs). They controlled vast stretches of most of the Miami playoff games, and they were able to dictate their own game most of the time: only in games 3 and 7 were the Heat totally in control. They had a golden opportunity to go to the finals, and no matter how bright the future looks for this team, there are no guarantees that fate won't up and slap you back down (in the form of injuries, losses on the free agent market, etc.). These opportunities are fleeting, and the Pacers blew a golden opportunity. From that perspective, the season was a disappointment . . . and hopefully, that's how they see it. One look at David West, and you know he's feeling it. At the end of the day, the Pacers have evolved into a good team, though probably not as good as Miami made them look. The Heat are still (at this point) a better team than the Pacers by a fairly wide margin, even if the Pacers will always play them close. They are still not quite at the "contender" level.*
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Don't get me wrong, the news is plenty good for this Pacers team. They took the first definitive step to the finals by establishing a rock-solid identity: they are going to be a brutal, defense-first team** able to dictate the terms of any game they are in. With the exception of David West and Danny Granger, they are ridiculously young and ridiculously athletic. Unlike the last Pacer team to emerge as a contender (O'Neal,
Their weaknesses? Yes, they have a few. The bench is pretty bad: they actually took a step up in the playoffs from "abominable" to "weak". Besides that special kind of psychosis that Tyler Hansbrough brings into the game, there isn't much there. D. J. Augustine provided some good minutes in the playoffs, including some really big-time shooting that helped the P steal game 1 in the New York series; but he isn't that far removed from the days when he was replaced as the back-up point by Ben Hansbrough. Ben Hansbrough. Love Ben's game, but he's got European/Turkish/Israeli/Chinese league written all over him. Let Ben travel, for the love of god! But, back to D. J., you can't be comfortable with a guy who can't even keep Ben Hansbrough off the court. And then we have Gerald Green, one of the top five dunkers in the league, a 2 guard who can bang his sternum on the rim . . . but who can't, apparently, play basketball. Sam Young has a great defensive attitude, and he seems to be a keeper, but still tends to break down at very inopportune times: for all the talk about Vogel's benching of Hibbert at the end of game 1 in Miami, for all of the Vogel apologists who blame Paul George for over-playing James on defense, almost nobody pointed to Sam Young's slow defensive rotation as part of the problem (Young should have been there at least soon enough to foul LeBron and make him earn his points at the free throw line). Ian Mahinmi looked lost most of the time, but he demonstrates enough athleticism to convince me that he will someday become a reasonable time-killer for Hibbert, at least on the defensive end. Other than that . . .
So, going forward, how do you fix the bench? Well, the team did well this year without Danny Granger, who up until this season was generally considered to be their best player. That makes the answer obvious to most of the talking heads: move Granger, his repaired knee, and his big contract for some help off the bench. Maybe you could find a good player, just starting to head into the downside of his career. If you are lucky, you can find a guy who was an all-star, maybe a guy who led his team in scoring, and if you are really lucky, a guy who was a demon on the defensive end as well. And while the sky is the limit, maybe that guy was a leader in the locker room and an asset in the community. Maybe what you need is a guy like . . . wait for it . . . DANNY GRANGER!!! Yes, trading Granger for help off the bench is a little like trading David West to get more size under the basket. I think Granger has a small enough ego to accept the "first guy off the bench" role, especially if he takes the same "instant offense" role that James Harden had with OKC. The unfortunate ball-stopping tendencies that Danny was showing on the offensive end in 2011-2012 aren't a problem if he's coming off the bench, because who's he going to bother passing the ball to? Sam Young? Ian Mahinmi? Please. He can hog the ball as much as he wants, because he's the only one who can score. And bonus points for allowing Tyler Hansbrough to concentrate solely on offensive rebounding and drawing fouls, since that's really the only offense that Psycho T can generate consistently.
Seriously, though, there are some really good reasons to keep Granger: one, he completes a second five (Augustine, Young, Granger, Hansbrough, and Mahinmi) that would actually be pretty respectable defensively (remember, team identity!), even if Augustine is a liability, and Hansbrough is often overmatched in the post. And speaking of defense, how cool would it be to have a George/Granger/Stephenson/Young defensive rotation to guard those high-scoring wings? It would be brutal, I tell you: four good-to-great wing defenders, 24 fouls to give. But, the main reason to keep Granger is actually very simple: there is no way, given his contract and the uncertainty following his knee surgery, that you will get value back for him. While it may be useful to get his contract off the books, the team will be better with him on the court. He was once an all-star player, and had the look of a good second option on a top-level team. He was always a great team mate and a great person. He could be an indispensable piece of a championship team . . . and that's what we're talking about here, right?
The other big problem for the Pacers is the aforementioned tendency to disappear. It happened way too often during the season, and it happened against bad teams as much as good teams. The reasons? 1.) TURNOVERS. 2.) The inability to properly trigger the offense. A small part of that has to do with the callow youth that characterizes this Pacers team. Another small part of it has to do with the fact that, with the possible exception of Augustine, nobody on the Pacers has a very good handle. But primarily, as Reggie Miller pointed out while killing television time during the game 7 blowout, the Pacers are working without a true starting point guard. George Hill guards the point as well as just about anybody, but he's only average as a point at the offensive end. His handle is only so-so, and he doesn't do a particularly good job at triggering the offense. He does much better offensively as a 2, where he can take the ball after the offense is already in motion, where his lack of a handle or explosive quickness doesn't really hurt him. George Hill has the potential to be a scoring machine as a two guard, given his usually reliable jumper paired with his ability to finish at the rim in traffic, but the problem is that the Pacers are stacked at the two guard, and have no points. Hill manages to be a middle of the pack point guard, even if the two is his natural position. So, by default, he is the Pacers point guard.
So, how do you solve this problem? Well, given the log jam at the two guard, maybe you move one of them for a point. Or you move Danny Granger for a point. Problem is, I don't see any scenario that gives the Pacers an upgrade at the point position for what they are willing to move. Granger doesn't buy you an upgrade over Hill. Neither does Stephenson. If Hill's contract were more attractive (i.e., if he were undervalued, which he is not, since he just signed an extension last summer), you might be able to trade him straight up for a point, but that won't happen. And there's no way in hell they're trading George. The fact of the matter is that an upgrade over Hill would have to be Mike Conley level or better, and there's no way the Pacers can make that move without disrupting the team they have built. At the end of the day, even though Hill is playing out of position, he's not a terrible point guard. The price of the upgrade would be too high. The best option, though it goes against every fiber of the NBA GM DNA, is to just hold tight and hope that Hill learns to be a better point guard.
Besides, Hill is an Indianapolis native with a map of the state of Indiana tattooed on his freaking torso. You can't trade the guy for that reason alone.
And therein lies the theme of the Pacers' offseason: keep calm, stand pat, don't panic. For the first time in a long time, it seems like growth is the best option for the Pacers' roster. The 2013 Pacers demonstrated a rare chemistry, and front office mucking around is more likely to do harm than good. Obviously, tweaking the bench is a good idea, but moving any big parts to do so (including Granger) is a bad idea. Find a way to resign David West without breaking the bank, and you go into next year with a very good lineup.
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So, what has to happen next year for the Pacers to be a top contender for a title? We here at TDOE would need to see most (or maybe all) of these things happen to put them on the level with the Heat, the Spurs, and the Thunder:
- A full season's worth of the 2013 playoffs version of Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is not the best player on the Pacers, but he has the rarest set of skills, so he may be the most important. Roy took the biggest step in his development during the season: he learned to maintain his presence as the best rim protector in the league**** without always getting into foul trouble. In the playoffs, he stepped up his game offensively as well . . . and for all the (justified) comments about his taking advantage of the Heat's weakness in the middle, it needs to be pointed out that Roy also dominated Tyson Chandler, the player that most people pick as the second best true center in the league. If Roy becomes a 17/10 guy next year, then the Pacers will be a very good team. Likelihood: Hibbert will remain a force on the defensive end, but is prone to lose his confidence on offense. Ultimately, this will be one of Frank Vogel's primary coaching challenges: keeping his mercurial big man near the top of his game.
- Re-sign David West. West's size and tenacity can be replaced. Everything else he gives to the team can not. He is the leader of these young Pacers, and needs to be here for a couple more years as the youngsters mature. Without him, the rebuilding is set back a couple seasons. Likelihood: Both parties want to get this done, so it seems like it will get done.
- George Hill get better at running the offense. There are ways to cover Hill's weaknesses . . . I especially like it when Paul George and Lance Stephenson take turns triggering the offense just so defenses trying to stop the ball at the point can't focus too much on Hill . . . but, as pointed out above, the team's inability to get cleanly into its offense is one of the biggest problems they have. Unlike George and Stephenson, I think Hill is pretty close to his ceiling as a player, so any improvements will likely be incremental, which is okay: a little improvement will go a long way. Likelihood: Hill is not going to wake up one morning with an extra step, or with a God Shamgod handle, so most of the improvement will be mental (recognition, improved reaction time, etc.). Hill is a serious, conscientious player, so you know he'll put in the time. Problem is that sometimes a player gets it, sometimes he doesn't. Fingers crossed on this one.
- The continued emergence of Paul George. George has all the tools to be a very special player. He has frequently played at a level that makes him not just an All-Star, but a potential All-Pro. Next season, he needs to make the step from good player to franchise player. To do that, he needs to be able to take over games AT WILL (as opposed to just whenever he happens to get into the flow, which is what happens now). For years, the question has always been "Can the small-market Pacers ever attract a big star?" Well, now they just may have one without having to go shopping. Likelihood: Again, George has all the tools, but the final step to dominance is the most difficult; and for every Bryant, James, Wade, and Durant, there's an
ArtestWorld Peace, Boozer, Joe Johnson (and yes, Danny Granger) who can't quite take the step to the next level. George is close, very very close, but there are no guarantees that he will ever become the guy who can take over any game whenever he wants to.
- The return of Danny Granger, and setting a shooting guard/small forward rotation that will work without hurting team chemistry. As noted above, the return of a fully healthy Danny Granger goes a long way to fixing the bench (even if he starts and Stephenson comes off the bench), but it also has potentially troubling issues for team chemistry. If the average observer were to list the primary strengths of this team, it would probably start with size, youth, and athleticism. Chemistry, however, needs to be at the top of that list: it is the unique chemistry of this team that allows them to be as resilient as they've been all season, it is chemistry that allows them to get into each other's faces without hurting each other's feelings. It is chemistry which keeps everyone focused, and helps minimize the damage that mood swings (primarily from Hibbert and Stephenson) do to the team. The problem is this: between Granger and Stephenson, who starts? Stephenson started all year, and has shown himself to be an important piece of the team, so he's not going to be happy about sitting. Add to that the fact that, as much as he's matured, he's still emotional and has a hair trigger. Granger, for his part, doesn't have a big ego, but it will be hard to finish one season as your team's best player, miss a season due to injury, and then be asked to come off the bench. I prefer Granger off the bench for the reasons above, but anyway it pans out, Vogel has a hard job selling everybody on the plan. Likelihood: For one year at least, I think Vogel can keep everyone on board. At that point it will be clear that either Stephenson or Granger deserves to start. If both are starting caliber players, then one obviously will have to go . . . with Stephenson being the most likely in that case, since he is more likely to bring back full value than Granger.
There are a few other things, like the continued improvement of Lance Stephenson and the development of a couple bench players, that would help, but this is the main agenda.
There are, of course, a lot of factors which change the landscape of the NBA (like, I'm still waiting for Minnesota to blow up). Among other things, it is very possible to buy a title in this league (see: Heat, Miami, and Celtics, Boston), and with at least one game-changer available in the form of Chris Paul*****, the one thing that you can guarantee is change. For the Pacers, though, it's time to hold: the future looks very bright for this team as constituted.
So yes, it was a good season. A very, very good season.
* Though they are a hell of a lot closer than such media darling "contenders" as the Knicks and the Clippers.
** Frank Vogel has made a few comments about tinkering with a zone defense over the summer break. This should be startling news to the rest of the league: it means he believes that the Pacers, who almost never resort to zones outside of inbounds plays, can get even better on defense, even though they are already the best defensive team (as well as the best man-to-man defenders) in the NBA. Or, is he preparing to add an offensive-positive defense-negative piece to the lineup, and making advance plans to cover for him on the defensive end? Either way, I can't wait to see this new wrinkle.
*** Per the discussions that attended his performance in the playoffs: I think it's clear he has all the tools, and he's made giant strides this year in confidence and basketball intelligence. He's not quite there yet, however. He occasionally takes over games, but he doesn't seem to be able to do it at will like true superstars can. Right now, he's about equal to Granger at his peak, but he's got the potential to go much higher.
**** He is one of the few players who really change things in the lane.
***** I will not grant Dwight Howard game-changer status. He has not earned that.