The Indiana Pacers had a rough 2014-15 season, missing their superstar Paul George for much of the year and then missing the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Now, George is back to full strength, but the team has made some significant changes. Roy Hibbert and David West are gone, but they managed to add players like Monta Ellis and Myles Turner. This new-look Pacers team will be interesting to watch, and we’ll see if they can make noise in the East.
Basketball Insiders previews the Indiana Pacers’ 2015-16 season.
The Pacers quickly plummeted from Eastern Conference contender to bottom of the standings following the injury of Paul George last summer. A healthy George returned toward the end of last season and showed he is ready to bounce back to form. The Pacers traded Roy Hibbert to the Los Angeles Lakers and added bigs Jordan Hill through free agency and Myles Turner through the draft. Pacers president Larry Bird said this offseason he would like the Pacers to run more in the upcoming season. That approach lessens the need for a dominant big. As a result, there is talk of George playing at the four spot. If the team goes small, watch for guard Monta Ellis to bring an offensive spark to the backcourt. The Pacers can get back in the playoff mix this season. It won’t be as easy as it was in the past with a healthy George, Hibbert and David West on the squad, but having one of the league’s top talents can propel a posteason push.
4th Place – Central Division
This Pacers squad will look significantly different when they take the floor this season, but I expect them to once again be competitive in the Eastern Conference. Getting Paul George back is obviously huge for them, and players who have worked out with George this summer say he looks just as excellent as before the injury, which is good news for Indiana fans. While losing Roy Hibbert and David West (often described as the “heart and soul” of the team) is somewhat tough, I love the additions of Myles Turner and Monta Ellis. This won’t be the same Pacers team that we’re accustomed to seeing, but they’ll still be very talented and capable of returning to the playoffs in the East.
4th Place – Central Division
The Pacers fought valiantly down the stretch last season and just missed clinching a playoff berth. Let’s put this success into perspective. Former All-Star forward Paul George played in just six games after returning from a horrific leg injury suffered the previous summer. George heads into training camp completely healed but his supporting cast endured some monumental shifts. Gone are big men and former all-Stars David West and Roy Hibbert. Veteran forward Luis Scola also departed via free agency. The Pacers will play faster and the transition will be aided by the addition of high scoring guard Monta Ellis. Head coach Frank Vogel always has his troops ready to fight but overtaking Cleveland, Chicago or Milwaukee in the Central Division’s standings will be a tough task.
4th Place – Central Division
From the minute Paul George broke his leg last summer, everybody knew it was going to be a rough year for the Pacers, but that front office did some good work in the offseason despite losing David West and shipping off Roy Hibbert to L.A. for practically nothing. Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger were solid free agency pickups, but Monta Ellis brings a level of offensive stability the team hasn’t had in years. A healthy Paul George and a burgeoning Myles Turner offer plenty of excitement and athleticism, giving Pacers fans optimism for the season to come. More than last year, certainly.
4th Place – Central Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Monta Ellis
Last year, Ellis led the Dallas Mavericks with 18.9 PPG while chipping in 4.1 APG, which is respectable in its own right, but Ellis has scored as many as 24 PPG in a given season, proving just how capable he is an NBA scorer. Even when Paul George is healthy, he’s not as consistent a scorer as Ellis, who is easily one of the better NBA players in the league to have never been named to an All-Star team. He brings offensive stability to team that hasn’t had it in years, and that should make head coach Frank Vogel’s job a heck of a lot easier.
Top Defensive Player: Paul George
With an 83-inch wingspan and a tenacious approach to defense, George is an absolute nightmare for opposing wing players the league over. In the 2013-14 season, he broke out as one of the nastiest defensive wings in the league, breaking into passing lines and hounding the opposition with his unfair length and athleticism. That season, he was second in the league in defensive win shares with 6.4, and he’s good enough to tackle a number of different players at a number of different positions. He’s versatile and aggressive, but most importantly he’s healthy again. Especially with Roy Hibbert gone, George is unequivocally the team’s best defensive player.
Top Playmaker: George Hill
From the moment the Pacers traded the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio for George Hill, the man has faced nothing but criticism for his ability (or inability) to the play the point guard position “the right way,” but that’s not fair to a player who has become a much better facilitator in the last five years. Hill is an aggressive scorer, but he’s gotten better at finding the open man, and it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t make his teammates better; the Pacers were 23-13 last year with George in the starting lineup. The Pacers still don’t have a traditional point guard, but Hill was a good enough distributor to lead the team to the Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons. He’s still good enough to skipper a winner in Indy.
Top Clutch Player: Paul George
While Ellis may be the more natural scorer, George is a mismatch at almost any position he plays. Especially if he plays the four this year, he’ll be given the opportunity to either create with a stretch four on him, or create for some other player on the floor with a mismatch. That sort of advantage added to George’s innate ability to rise to the challenge in big moments makes him a monster in crunch time. His last-second three-pointer in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals comes to mind right away, but he’s just as good in lesser situations, too.
Top Unheralded Player: Rodney Stuckey
As bad as Indiana was last season without George, they did have some bright spots and Stuckey was certainly one of them. During the team’s seven-game win streak in February, he averaged 19.4 PPG while shooting just shy of 50 percent from the floor. His three-point shooting has steadily improved over the course of the last several seasons, and his ability to work as a backup point guard for the Pacers was good enough to warrant him a three-year contract this past summer. Having signed that $21 million deal, Stuckey is likely with the Pacers through the last years of his career, and if he plays as well as he did last year, that’s a very positive thing.
Top New Addition: Myles Turner
Larry Bird is a wizard when it comes to finding talent late in the lottery, as he’s done it with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and now rookie center Myles Turner, a 7’0 big man with a 7’4 wingspan who may be young but certainly is talented enough to make an impact almost immediately. The former Big 12 Freshman of the Year was the star of the Vegas Summer League this past July, averaging 18.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG and 4.3 BPG amid tepid competition. That obviously won’t immediately translate to the big leagues, and at 19 years old he’s still a bit of a project, but the talent with this kid is legit and he should be a fun addition to a Pacers team in dire need of some stability and youth in the frontcourt.
Who We Like
Paul George: While he only appeared in six games last season, it would have been easy for George to appear in zero of them to ensure that he was fully healthy following that nasty leg break a little over a year ago. He enters the season fully healthy, however, and just by getting him back the Pacers should be a markedly better team in 2015-16. He’s a rare dominant force on both ends of the floor, and as long as his athleticism is still intact there’s little reason to believe he won’t return to All-Star form this season.
Monta Ellis: Indiana’s biggest problem a year ago was scoring, and Ellis certainly brings plenty of it. Perhaps more significant is the fact that he signed on for four years at only $11 million a season, a completely reasonable contract in a summer that was chock-full of crazy ones. How he fits in the locker room is still a question, but without a doubt what he brings to the court is a perfect fit for this transitioning Pacers team.
George Hill: While Hill is often criticized for not playing like a “true” point guard, this Indianapolis native is a fan favorite that reportedly enters the season in the best shape of his life following an offseason that left many who worked with him impressed. He’s never going to be John Stockton, but he’s always been better than people have given him credit for. With Monta Ellis running alongside him this year, he may feel less of a burden to be responsible for as much of the team’s offense.
Chase Budinger: In today’s NBA, teams need guys that can knock down three-pointers, and that’s precisely the skill that butters Budinger’s bread. With athletic wings like Hill, Ellis and George penetrating and breaking down defenses this year, Budinger and his deep ball should be able to do some damage. He’s a perfect role player for the latest iteration of the league, and Pacers fans should love him.
Myles Turner: He’s young, he’s huge and he’s exciting, which is why it’s not crazy to believe that he’ll eventually leapfrog Ian Mahinmi and take charge of starting center duties for the Pacers at some point this upcoming season. Even if he doesn’t, he should get plenty of minutes as the main backup. Clearly, he’s an important building block for this team moving forward.
While the recently-departed Roy Hibbert was a big part of this, the Pacers have hung their hat on defense the last few years, and that really shouldn’t change this upcoming year. In 2014-15, Indiana finished tied for third for opponents points per game with only 97 PPG allowed and tied for fourth in team rebounds with 44.9 per game, and that was with Hibbert having a down year and George spending most of the season in street clothes. Adding Turner and getting George back healthy should help that (even if Monta Ellis ultimately hurts them defensively a bit) and keep them among the top defensive organizations in the league.
The biggest issue for the Pacers, at least early on, is going to be figuring out how to play together. Only George Hill, Paul George and Ian Mahinmi are still around from the teams that made back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances just a few years ago, and even those that were around last year, like C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey, didn’t get much time playing alongside George because of his limited appearances. Adding seven new players is something that will require some adjustment and probably cause the Pacers to start off the year a little slowly. Lack of continuity and familiarity with each other could very well be a huge problem for these guys this year.
The Burning Question
Can Paul George get his groove back?
In those six games that George played at the tail end of the 2014-15 season, when really all hope was lost and the Pacers weren’t playing for much else other than a lottery pick, the team’s lone All-Star looked like a shell of his former self. Granted, there was no reason for George to kill himself in meaningless games when in fact he probably was just trying to get some minutes in at the end of the year to shake off rust then rather than do it this October. Despite his struggles, the team still has every expectation that he lead the team and work his way toward All-Stardom this year. His injury was a scary one, but the Pacers aren’t particularly exciting if PG13 doesn’t find his way back to form.
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