Losing Lance Stephenson in free agency meant that this upcoming season was not going to be easy for the Indiana Pacers, but when Paul George broke his leg during a Team USA scrimmage, it all but guaranteed a major step back for a team that has been elite in the Eastern Conference for several seasons now.
How will they fare without George and Stephenson?
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers
Five Guys Think
It’s hard to know where the Pacers will end up this season, but we can at least say this with a fair amount of certainty: no team loses its two best players and gets better. Having lost Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to a freak leg injury, Indiana will start the season without 40 percent of its starting lineup, and what remains doesn’t exactly elicit a ton of confidence for a return to the postseason. The mercurial Roy Hibbert is now the team’s best player, but his inconsistency is pretty well-documented. George Hill, David West and a cast of so-so bench players won’t be enough to survive what looks to be an absolutely barbaric Central Division this year. The Pacers have been a feel-good story for a few years now, an easy group of guys to like, but they probably won’t even make the playoffs this year.
4th Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
The Pacers are in serious trouble. Heading into training camp there are no more mentions of Eastern Conference dominance or a potential run at an NBA title. The 2014-15 campaign for Indiana is simply one about pure survival until the cavalry is ready to return. The Pacers have been one of the league’s better teams the past two seasons, but two integral parts of those units aren’t available. All-Star forward Paul George suffered a gruesome leg injury while playing with Team USA during the summer and is out for the season. Talented swingman Lance Stephenson bolted to Charlotte in free agency. Without those two players, the Pacers essentially lost their top two scorers, top two playmakers and top two perimeter defenders. The Pacers have a strong program and system in place so their fall in the rankings won’t make them serious players for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 draft. However, the decline in talent is enough to question if even a playoff spot is attainable this season.
4th Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
One year ago, when the Indiana Pacers convinced many (including me) that they were a legitimate threat to the Miami HEAT’s reign atop the Eastern Conference, it would have been difficult to imagine that they would have fallen so far, so fast. With Lance Stephenson opting to take his talents to Chatlotte and Evan Turner signing on with the Boston Celtics, Paul George’s heart-wrenching injury leaves the Pacers as the third-best team in the Central Division, at best. Now, all of a sudden, Chris Copeland and Rodney Stuckey will both be counted on for heavy contributions, or else the only ticket the Pacers will be punching by the end of the season is one to the draft lottery. Discounting them from the playoffs seems unwise, but Frank Vogel will certainly have his work cut out for him. In the end, the Pacers will probably end up in the second class of teams battling for one of the Eastern Conference’s final few playoff spots, but will probably ultimately fall short. It may not be the worst thing in the world, though. Paul George’s return and a lottery pick in June 2015 may further the championship cause in Indy for 2015-16.
3rd place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
I believe this is going to be a rough year for the Pacers. They managed to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, but I expect them to take a big step backward this season and maybe even miss the playoffs. The Pacers were awful in the second half of last year and that was while they were at full strength. Now, they’ll be without their two best players from a year ago – Paul George and Lance Stephenson – for the 2014-15 campaign. Their offense was bad enough as is last year, but it will likely be even worse without two of their best scorers. Indiana will likely have trouble creating shots, and I think their defense will take a step back as well without George and Stephenson. It’s unfortunate that George injured himself while scrimmaging with Team USA, but I think it (along with the questionable decision to let Stephenson walk as a free agent) will lead to Indiana missing the playoffs one year after winning 56 games.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
The Indiana Pacers made a grave mistake when negotiating with Lance Stephenson. Rather than throwing their best offer out immediately and saying take it or leave it, they should have let him explore the process a bit, see what the market is like and then come with an offer. Perhaps then he would have been more inclined to accept and not felt disrespected by their unwillingness to negotiate. As they endure this grueling season without Paul George and watch Stephenson thrive with a rising contender in the Eastern Conference in the Charlotte Hornets, they’ll likely regret how they handled his free agency. As constructed, this is a team that should strongly consider blowing it up. Their post players are aging, their one elite talent is out for the year and the playoffs are virtually out of the question. They’d be better off with a high draft pick to pair with Paul George moving forward. Look for this team to be active at the trade deadline if they struggle as badly as they’re projected to.
4th Place – Central Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: With neither Stephenson nor George scoring points for the Pacers this season, it’s hard to pinpoint who, exactly, will take the reins for this team offensively. George Hill seems like as good a guess as anybody since he’ll have the ball in his hands more often than anyone else, though David West is a much more consistent scorer and probably will be the guy that sees the biggest bump in scoring numbers in George’s absence. West was, in fact, the team’s second-leading scorer last season with 14 PPG, and there’s little reason to believe Indiana won’t feed him the ball once again this year. As their most reliable veteran, he’ll have no choice but to shoulder even more of the offensive load this year.
Top Defensive Player: At his best, Roy Hibbert is easily one of the most gifted defensive players in the entire league. At 7’2”, he’s taller than everybody in the league not named “Hasheem” or “Sim,” which means he’s got the height and length to be as physically imposing as anybody, and he’s proven that many times in the past by stifling even the league’s biggest stars around the rim. Of course, as is always the case with Hibbert, his play on the court is directly related to his confidence level. When he’s good, he’s really good, but when he loses himself, he’s just another guy. Particularly with George out, though, he’s far and away the best defensive presence the Pacers have, though he’ll have to improve on the 1.4 BPG he averaged last postseason.
Top Playmaker: As the point guard and one of the team’s best scorers, George Hill will be the player expected to make things happen offensively for this team. While West is likely to be the team’s top scorer, nothing will get done offensively here if Hill doesn’t find ways to attack the basket and hit open three-pointers. If ever there was a year where George would be asked to rise to the challenge, this would be the one.
Top Clutch Player: There really aren’t any players here known for knocking down big shots when they matter. This is probably a task that will be handled by committee this year. Hill is likely to be the one that gets the ball off the inbounds pass, but West or even C.J. Miles or Rodney Stuckey could end up being the guy who takes the last shot. It’s all going to depend on the situation and who’s open. With no Paul George, this team has no closer.
The Unheralded Player: C.J. Miles played for a really bad Cavaliers team last year that nobody really spent much time watching, so it’s understandable if some casual fans aren’t really aware of how good he actually is. He always has scored well despite only playing around 20 minutes per game, though that role should increase for him this year now that he’s a likely starter. His career-high is 12.8 PPG, but this could easily be a season in which he surpasses that mark.
Best New Addition: Miles, for all the reasons listed above, though Rodney Stuckey for the veteran’s minimum could end up being quite a bargain, as well. This is a team that’s going to need scorers, and both Stuckey and Miles are the most likely new players to step up in that area.
– Joel Brigham
Who We Like
1. David West: While it’s true that the Pacers have really grown up over the course of the last few years, West has to be given a ton of credit for the role he’s played in that maturation process. He’s no longer in the prime of his career, but he will be featured offensively this season unlike any other season with Indiana. He may be a step slower than when he signed his first deal in Indiana, but he’s due for a huge season.
2. Roy Hibbert: Indiana has always gone as Roy Hibbert has, and it was really no coincidence that his own personal collapse in the latter third of last season coincided with the rest of the team having fallen, as well. However, when Hibbert carries the swagger he’s capable of, he’s an easy player to love. He may also get some added offensive touches this year with George out and Stephenson gone, and despite his height he’s a much better mid-range shooter and free throw shooter than one would expect.
3. C.J. Miles: Miles is a sneaky-good player on a team where he could play more minutes than he’s ever played. He may not be on the fantasy radar yet, especially splitting time with Stuckey, but he should score 10-13 PPG this year, and they’ll need it. They’ll probably need even more.
4. George Hill: The Indianapolis native is adored by his community for the work he does in and around it, but his game on the court can be occasionally frustrating. Despite that, this year is set up nicely for him to have a monster campaign. His assist numbers have never really been all that impressive (his career-high is 4.7 APG), but he could end up with a career high in scoring thanks in large part to the bigger offensive role he’ll be expected to have this year as one of the team’s only remaining perimeter scoring options.
5. Frank Vogel: While it’s easy to blame the head coach for what proved to be an epic collapse last season for the Pacers, Vogel has been a pretty solid coach for Indiana his first few years in the league. Before last season, he had gotten his teams to advance one round further in the playoffs every single year, obviously culminating in back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances that may have gone differently had LeBron James never been born. This is the last year of his current contract, so the pressure’s obviously on, but he’s a good dude and the players love him. If he can coach through this season, he can coach through anything.
– Joel Brigham
Defensively, the Pacers were one of the strongest teams in the league last season, and while they lost a couple of really talented two-way wings, there’s still plenty of reason to believe they’ll be a respectable defensive team again this season. They were second in the league last year in opponents’ PPG at 92.3, and they were first in opponents’ field goal percentage at .420. They also were sixth in the league in team rebounds and fifth in blocks. A lot of that has to do with Hibbert and West, who are still there and still healthy, and Vogel knows how to coach defense. Put simply, the games they win this year will be won because they dominated defensively. It might not be exactly the same as last year, but they’ll still be plenty formidable on that end of the floor.
– Joel Brigham
Indiana was 24th in the league in team points per game last season, scoring only 96.7 PPG, and this year should be even worse, as they lost two of their top three scorers in Paul George (22.6 PPG) and Lance Stephenson (13.6 PPG) without getting the kind of replacements that can duplicate those numbers, let alone exceed them. Expect it to be another long, grueling year watching disjointed offense from the Pacers. What already was ugly just got uglier.
– Joel Brigham
The Salary Cap
The Pacers have 19 players under contract but only 12 are fully guaranteed. Luis Scola’s deal is partially guaranteed and the veteran forward appears to be a lock to stick, leaving just two spots for the six remaining. Only Shayne Whittington has a partial guarantee ($25k), while Donald Sloan, Chris Singleton, Adonis Thomas, Arinze Onuaku and C.J. Fair have no financial promises from team. The Pacers are hard-capped at $80.8 million after using their $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception on C.J. Miles and Damjam Rudez. Indiana used their Bi-Annual Exception last season on C.J. Watson, so it isn’t available this season – although the team gained a $5.3 million Disabled Player Exception for Paul George (expiring 3/10/15). The bigger issue for the Pacers is avoiding the luxury tax altogether. With Scola, the team’s payroll is already at $73.3 million — $3.5 million under the tax threshold. Indiana also has a $4.3 million trade exception for Danny Granger (expiring 2/20/15) but that may too go unused with the tax in mind.
– Eric Pincus
Indiana’s defense stays in the league’s top five, as it turns out Hibbert, West, and most importantly Vogel were the key to Indiana’s defense the last few seasons. Rudez proves playable and opens up the spacing, while West also adds a three-point shot. Hibbert manages a more effective season in the post with more touches. With better ball movement and spacing, the Pacers manage to equal last year’s offensive performance despite the losses of George and Stephenson. George comes back for the last two months of the season and is reasonably effective.
The offense, never particularly fluid, totally falls apart without anyone who can drive to the basket. Hibbert shows that last year’s second half was no mirage and continues to struggle. With no great three-point shooters, postup threats, drivers, or passers, Indiana resembles a worse-passing version of last year’s Bulls, finishing 29th in the league ahead of only Philadelphia on offense.
On defense, the lack of wing stoppers somewhat exposes Hibbert’s lack of quickness in the pick-and-roll and in help defense, as drivers go right to the cup before he can rotate over. The Pacers finish about 10th in defense.
The Burning Question
Fresh off of back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances, are the Indiana Pacers even a playoff team anymore?
The theme in this entire season preview is that the Pacers lost a lot of what made them successful last season thanks to injury and free agency. The expectation is for them to drop off precipitously, and with a shift of power not only in the conference but in the Central Division, the road ahead of them looks very daunting. Obviously Chicago and Cleveland will finish ahead of them in playoff seeding, and Washington, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Toronto and Miami all have a lot more talent than the Pacers do. That’s seven teams, leaving Indiana one spot that they’ll fighting over along with other respectable East teams like Atlanta, Detroit and New York.
In other words, it’s possible, but the road ahead isn’t pretty. Even if they do make the playoffs this year, a first-round exit looks likely considering they’ll likely end up pitted against the vastly improved Cavaliers or Bulls.
– Joel Brigham
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