As David West said on Media Day, the Pacers have to embrace reality which means no longer thinking about competing for a championship.
The playoffs? Why not.
The Pacers do play in the Eastern Conference, so while Chicago and Cleveland begin as elite teams with Washington, Toronto and Atlanta all improving to join Brooklyn and Miami as solid playoff contenders, there remains room in the ugly middle of the East for a team to surprise and jump in the playoff fray.
No doubt the Pacers will begin this season with a goal to make the playoffs. Paul George is hoping if his rehab continues going well, he may be back by the playoffs. Hard to say which is a bigger stretch -- the Pacers making the playoffs or PG returning to the court this year.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
1st in Central Division - 1st in Eastern Conference
The Pacers were absolutely dominant throughought the entire first half of the 2013-14 season. Frank Vogel's troops were connecting on all cylindars, one of the best defensive teams in the league both on the perimeter and interior, they were hungry, and they exhibited a virtually flawless level of cohesiveness as their team chemistry shined through.
After a message-sending 42-10 start to the season, Indiana looked as confident and ready as ever to give the Miami Heat all they could handle in an attempt to dethrone the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions. Paul George had established himself as one of the elite all-around players in the NBA and joined Roy Hibbert, who was arguably the frontrunning candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, in the All-Star game in February. On top of that, Lance Stephenson had himself one heck of a year as well and was often regarded as the most notable Eastern Conference All-Star snub.
Things were looking good at the All-Star break.
For whatever reason, Larry Bird and his team upstairs didn't think it was enough. At the NBA's trading deadline, Indiana decided to shake things up by sending the expiring contract of nine-year Pacer Danny Granger to Philadelphia in return for Evan Turner. Turner had been having his best individual season with the 76ers, averaging 17 points and six rebounds per game at the time of the deal, but this move would turn out to be one that Bird would regret.
Granger was certainly a shell of his former self and despite Indiana's team success, he was shooting just 35% from the field before the trade. However, he certainly made more sense within what the Pacers were trying to accomplish in ways Turner was incapable, as Turner's one-on-one nature along with his lackluster perimeter shooting turned out to be a disaster in terms of fit in Indiana. Not only was Granger's versatility and leadership presence sorely missed, Turner's role was limited to small-minute spurts and would only play an average of 12 minutes per game in the entire playoffs.
As the Pacers struggled to alter their rotation in the middle of the season, the entire tone of the locker room was shifted in a negative way. Rumblings of inflated egoes and the team's overall dissatisfaction with the mid-season shake-up affected the team's mentally, and for whatever reason, they never fully recovered.
Indiana finished the regular season winning just 14 of their final 30 games and a team that once looked like a championship contender was no longer perceived in that light. Don't get me wrong, Evan Turner did not singlehandedly destroy the Pacers season. Although that trade didn't help, there were other glaring factors. After the All-Star break, Roy Hibbert completely fell apart for reasons we may never figure out in our lifetime. After being named to the All-Star squad, Hibbert went the rest of the season shooting 39% from the field while putting up 8.9 points and just 4.7 rebounds per game. For some reason, his head was no longer in it and that is probably the number one reason for Indiana's struggles in the second half of the year.
Even with all of that said, the Pacers still ended the season with 56 wins and locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but this was simply not the same team we saw from November through February. In the first round, they got pushed to Game 7 by an eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks team that didn't even have their best player, Al Horford, who was out with a torn pec. Thanks to a combined 49 points and 25 rebounds between Paul George and Lance Stephenson, they were able to stay alive and took care of business to advance.
After a resurgence of their defensive tenacity in the second round, they were able to eliminate the up-and-coming Washington Wizards in six games and despite all of their controversy, Indiana earned a rematch of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals against Miami. After winning Game 1 by double-digits, the Heat flipped the switch and would be too much for Indiana to handle as they went on to win four of the next five games to send the Pacers home in six.
Look, it could have been worse, but what the hell happened? Why did the front office mess with a good thing at the trade deadline? How did Roy Hibbert go from an All-Star to a nuisance in the blink of an eye in the same season? If Granger was never dealt, would things have turned out differently?
At this point, what's done is done and there's nothing anyone can do to change the past. Still, opportunities to win a championship don't come around every year and it is maddening to think that this team internally ruined their own chances at a ring for reasons nobody can comprehend. Sure, they rebounded somewhat and still advanced to the Conference Finals, but "what could have been" will always be in the back of the mind regarding last year's Pacers squad.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Damjan Rudez
Key Losses - Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner, Rasual Butler
Last year was a roller coaster ride for the Pacers, but this offseason was an even tougher pill to swallow. First off, they lost one of their top performers via free agency in mid-July when Lance Stephenson inked a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Stephenson played at an All-Star level last year, averaging career highs in scoring (13.8 PPG), rebounding (7.2 RPG), assists (4.6 APG), field goal percentage (49.1%), three-point percentage (35.2%) and minutes played (35.3 MPG). "Born Ready" established himself as one of the best all-around guards in the NBA, as well as one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball. George Hill may have been the point guard by label, but Stephenson created off the dribble as much as anyone on the team. His departure may have ultimately come down to dollars and cents, but the Pacers are going to miss his presence on both ends of the floor in a big way.
Roughly two weeks later, the most devastating possible scenario took place as Paul George suffered a gruesome broken leg in the USA Basketball pre-tournament scrimmage. Not only would he lose his opportunity to represent his country and earn a gold medal, there's a strong possibility that he could miss the entire 2014-15 NBA season. What an unfortunate turn of events for a guy who was starting to come into his own as one of the top players in basketball. As for what this means for the Pacers, well, good luck establishing the same identity without George.
You might be able to plug in bits and pieces of Stephenson's game by committee, but there is no replacing Paul George's impact. Larry Bird did all he could this summer, as he landed combo guard Rodney Stuckey as a free agent surprisingly one a one-year, $1.2 million veteran's minimum contract. Stuckey may not be an All-Star caliber ballplayer, but he is a very skilled creator with the ball and will provide a much-needed offensive spark this season. He'll also be able to take some pressure off of George Hill in terms of handling the ball and running the pick n' roll.
To add some shooting on the wing in order to space the floor a bit, Indiana signed C.J. Miles to a four-year, $18 million deal with the final year being a player option. Miles is a 6'6" swingman that can play either wing position and is a lights out shooter from the outside. Like Stuckey, he will be looked at to provide a large portion of Indiana's perimeter scoring this season and the way he spaces the floor allows you to plug him into almost any kind of lineup Vogel wants to throw out there. He can play off of anyone and when he's hot, he's hot.
The Pacers also brought in an interesting European prospect in Damjan Rudez, who may get a chance to get some run in Paul George's absence. Rudez is a lanky 6'10" combo forward with a sweet stroke out to three-point territory and while he has never played in the NBA, the 28-year-old Croatian has plenty of professional experience in Europe. Throughout 52 games for CAI Zaragoza last season in Liga ACB and Eurocup, Rudez scored over 10 points per game and shot 45.6% from beyond the arc. If that perimeter game can translate to the NBA, he could become a quality contributor for the Pacers off the bench this season.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Roy Hibbert / Ian Mahinmi
PF - David West / Luis Scola / Chris Copeland / Lavoy Allen
SF - Solomon Hill / Damjan Rudez / *Paul George*
SG - C.J. Miles / Rodney Stuckey
PG - George Hill / C.J. Watson / Donald Sloan
* Could miss the entire 2014-15 season.
X-FACTOR - Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert's catastrophic downfall in the second half of last season is something that everybody wants to forget about. It was difficult to watch, especially considering how much of an impact it had on the entire team, but that doesn't mean that he can't bounce back. He's got it in him, we have witnessed it before.
When Hibbert is locked in and on top of his game, he is a game changer and one of the best defensive bigs in the NBA. If the Pacers want to make the playoffs this season and avoid lotto land, Hibbert has to play his best basketball to date. Indiana is counting on the big fella to deliver as much as ever, and this is a giant opportunity for him to restore his reputation. If he comes into this season the way he closed out last year, it's going to be tough for the Pacers to compete at a respectable level.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
You can't lose guys like Paul George Lance Stephenson and expect to play anywhere near the same level. Not only were they Indiana's top two creators with the ball in their hands, they were also two of their better defensive forces. The loss of their two-way impact is going to be very difficult to overcome.
Indiana will have a chance to make the playoffs if everything goes right, but don't be surprised if the Pacers attend their first NBA Draft Lottery since 2010. If the Pacers can't come together to overcome this stage similar to how the Bulls stayed strong through Derrick Rose's injuries, Frank Vogel may be on the hot seat. Plain and simple, this will not be the same team in 2014-15. Hope for the best, Pacers fans, but manage your expectations.
4th - Central Division
11th - Eastern Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the Portland Trail Blazers team preview, coming later today.