The Indiana Pacers were a middle-of-the-road team in the Eastern Conference last season that changed coaches and about a third of its lineup. Larry Bird wanted an on-court product that runs more, plays smaller and scores more often, and acquiring Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young this offseason should help that. Hiring Nate McMillan as Frank Vogel’s replacement, however, is a little more of a head-scratcher.
Either way, the consensus is that Indiana made a bevy of strong moves this offseason and could very easily make some vertical movement in a wide-open Eastern Conference this year.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Indiana Pacers.
FIVE GUYS THINK
I like that the Pacers went out and added impact veterans in Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson. I don’t like that they let go of Frank Vogel – a top notch defensive coach – to implement a more up-tempo offense. I don’t disagree with wanting to increase the tempo, but if that was the goal, I don’t understand why they replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan. McMillan runs a methodical, generally slow offense like Vogel. Unless McMillan is completely committed to picking up the pace on offense, this hire simply doesn’t make much sense. Nevertheless, the Pacers added impact players to complement Paul George, who played out of his mind last season. The Pacers should be a top-level team in the wide open Eastern Conference this upcoming season.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
There are half a million puff pieces out there praising the work Indiana’s front office did this summer in overhauling the roster, and there’s a very good reason for that. They really did get markedly better, and they really did walk away from just about every single one of their offseason transactions better than when they started. They already had an elite two-way player on the roster in Paul George, but they actually upgraded in loads of places by adding Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson. Myles Turner was one of the league’s top rookies last year, and his improvement should help this team along too. Cleveland is still king in this division and this conference, but Indiana now is in the conversation for second-best. The Eastern Conference Finals are definitely in play for these guys.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
I really liked the Pacers’ offseason and I honestly believe they could emerge as one of the top-three teams in the Eastern Conference. Paul George was a monster last season and he should be even better this year now that his confidence is back to 100 percent and the supporting cast around him has improved. I had the chance to interview Jeff Teague in early July and Myles Turner in early August, and I think both of those guys are poised for huge seasons. Teague is loving the change of scenery since he’s back home, surrounded by weapons and no longer looking over his shoulder at Dennis Schroder. Turner is coming off of a great finish to his rookie campaign and I think he could emerge as one of the better young big men in the league during this upcoming season (he’s certainly saying all of the right things). The East is wide open after the Cavaliers; I think Toronto, Boston and Indiana can occupy that second tier right below the defending champs if all goes as planned for each of those teams.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
Fed up with the Pacers’ plodding and visually unappealing offensive style, team president Larry Bird shifted gears this summer in an attempt to spark an immediate turnaround. Bird relieved Frank Vogel of head coaching duties shortly after the season and then made a series of moves aimed at bringing more offensive firepower to Indiana. The additions of veterans Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young – three proven double-digit scorers – provides more offense next to All-Star Paul George in the lineup and will alleviate some of his burden on a nightly basis. But the Pacers sacrificed defense for more scoring, so the question is whether the club can create a defensive identity? If they can, another trip to the playoffs awaits. If the Pacers can’t, they’ll be more fun to watch, but probably sitting home watching the playoffs come April.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
After the Pacers were able to sign Al Jefferson to what seems to be a great value contract, I was fairly certain that they had cemented themselves as the second-best team in the conference – at least on paper. Paul George is quietly coming off of what could be argued as his finest season yet and the Pacers upgraded their point guard position tremendously by adding Jeff Teague. Myles Turner came in ready to contribute from day one and, without singularly listing each player on their roster, I think the Pacers can go 10 deep. The wildcard in the equation is Nate McMillan. I have a lot of respect for McMillan and the work he did with the Portland Trail Blazers and was told by a source, years ago, that Carmelo Anthony supported him as the successor to Mike D’Antoni in New York. Obviously, that never panned out, but it’s good to see McMillan back as a head coach. I think he will have success with pulling all the potential out of these Pacers and having them ready to play from the beginning. They are a fair mix of veterans and players whose best days are ahead of them, so I think I may be higher on them than most. I think they will have a legitimate shot of pushing for the conference’s second seed.
2nd Place — Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Paul George
After missing all but six games in 2014-2015 following a leg injury that has to be one of the top five stomach-turning things any modern NBA fan has ever witnessed watching a basketball game (somewhere in between Shaun Livingston’s blown knee and Joakim Noah’s jumpshot), George came back last season with a vengeance. Not only did he post career-highs in points per game, games played, free throws attempted and three-pointers, but he also spent a good portion of the season in talks for MVP consideration. He didn’t have much of a shot at actually winning it with everything Stephen Curry accomplished, but his versatility, athleticism and all-around devastation placed him squarely back among the league’s elite. Not only is he the best offensive player on this team, he’s also one of the best offensive players in the league.
Top Defensive Player: Paul George
He’s one of the best defensive players in the league too, for that matter. The only time in the last four seasons that George hasn’t made either the All-Defensive First or Second Teams was the year he had the broken leg. Additionally, his nearly two steals per game last season showed he quickly returned to being one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders. He’s got long arms, huge hands and quick feet that help him recover from almost any offensive move. On and off the ball, he’s elite, and he’ll anchor this Indy defense yet again this season.
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
It’s been a couple of years since Teague was named an Eastern Conference All-Star, but he has shown in the past that when he is let off the chain he can put the ball in the basket in a handful of truly devastating ways. He’s an upgrade over George Hill in that he’s faster and craftier in carving out his own shot, which could work wonders for the Pacers’ offense. Assuming Nate McMillan lets Teague play his type of game and doesn’t try to slow him down, he could be the second option on offense Indiana hoped they were getting in Monta Ellis last season. Teague keeps defenses honest and is a much better fit at point guard this season than George Hill has been. Hill was no slouch, but Teague should be an upgrade.
Top Clutch Player: Paul George
This is one of those teams with a clear alpha dog, and that means when the game is on the line, George will be the one with the ball is hands. He’s creative enough offensively to make magic happen in crunch time, and he already has had more than his fair share of game winners. Others may touch the ball in a tight game’s waning moments, but it will be shocking if George isn’t the one actually taking the big shots.
The Unheralded Player: C.J. Miles
While Miles isn’t necessarily an irreplaceable guy in terms of his talent, he is a guy who really holds the locker room together and is a ton of fun for the rest of the team to play with. He averaged just shy of 12 PPG last year, which is more or less par for the course over Miles’ last six NBA seasons. He also is capable of starting for the Pacers, having done so in 24 contests last season. He has an occasional big game, but his impact on the locker room is immense. He’ll help make all the new guys feel at home and smooth things over in a locker room that features a lot of new faces.
Top New Addition: Thaddeus Young
While the Pacers added plenty of talented players this summer, none came at a better price than Young, who only cost Indiana the 20th overall selection in what amounted to a pretty weak draft. Caris LeVert could be a perfectly good player for Brooklyn before everything’s all said and done, but Young already has established himself as a hard-nosed, versatile forward with playoff experience. There’s a 100 percent chance that Young will provide more this season than anybody selected at pick No. 20 would have, so while Teague could easily be considered the “best new addition,” in terms of what the Pacers gave up, Young was by far the better value.
– Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
- Myles Turner
In some ways, the Pacers’ success this upcoming season will be determined by how effective Myles Turner can be, which of course is asking a lot of him. Still, in his rookie season Turner proved to have the ability to both protect the rim and shoot from all over the floor. His 3.3 blocks per game led the NBA in the first round of this past spring’s playoffs. As soon as the calendar rolled over to 2016 last season, Turner pushed himself into the starting lineup after averaging 18 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game during a huge six-game stretch in January – including one game where he scored 31 points and pulled in eight rebounds. His skillset is perfect for a team that wants to play smaller and faster, and if he takes a big leap forward this season, so too will the Pacers.
- Al Jefferson
As the only Pacers player other than Turner over 6’10, Jefferson injects some size into the lineup as a projected member of the Indiana bench. He doesn’t in any way fit the profile of a player that works in an uptempo offense, but his low post scoring can still be an asset as an anchor to the reserve unit, and his $10-million-per-year contract makes him a steal even as he approaches the back nine of his career. He’ll be a strong veteran presence in the locker room and a nice safety blanket for the second unit.
- Aaron Brooks
Essentially the “Lite” version of Jeff Teague, Brooks is a budget backup that should help Indiana’s bench unit continue humming along even when the starting point guard is getting a breather. Brooks is quick and loves to push the pace, which fits well with what Larry Bird would like to see happen with this group, but he also can create and score well despite his diminutive nature. He’s a perfect backup for Teague and perennially one of the league’s more underappreciated players.
- Thaddeus Young
The likely starter at the four, Young is the sort of guy who can score like a swingman but defend a number of positions, including some of the bigger, stronger fours. They’ve wanted a stretchier player at that position for a couple of years now, and Young will fit the bill. He was only one of three players in the NBA to average at least 15 points, nine rebounds and 1.5 steals last year, and those are qualities the Pacers absolutely are going to appreciate in him throughout the 2016-2017 campaign.
- Paul George
In the first round of last year’s playoffs, George led his team in points, rebounds and assists. Things weren’t all that different in the regular season where he led all Pacers players in points, steals, minutes and almost topped the rebound category, as well. He does everything well, and he’s coming off a gold medal where he surely learned a lot about winning at an elite level. He’s a top-ten player in the entire league. How could anybody not love him?
– Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Pacers are still under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with as much as $4.3 million in remaining room. That’s enough to restructure and extend Paul George’s contract, should he be interested when eligible (as of Sep. 25). Indiana has 16 guaranteed players, so someone has to go before the start of the season. The Dallas Mavericks paid the Pacers $3.2 million to take on the $1.2 million contract of Jeremy Evans, who could be the odd-man out. Even if Evans is cut, that doesn’t open up roster space for camp invites Julyan Stone, Alex Poythress or Nick Zeisloft.
Next summer, the Pacers could have roughly $27 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale option on Myles Turner before the end of October (an easy decision). It also presumes the team decline’s Lavoy Allen’s team option, and that that both Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles opt out of their contracts. Indiana’s spending power in 2017 might shrink by about $4 million, should George restructures his deal this season.
– Eric Pincus
Under Frank Vogel, one of the team’s biggest strengths was defense as they finished last year eighth in the league in opponents points per game, sixth in opponents field goal percentage and third in opponents three-point field goal percentage. While there certainly is a real possibility that Indiana takes a hit with so much turnover both on the court and on the sidelines, players like Paul George and Myles Turner should keep them somewhere toward the front of the Eastern Conference in terms of defensive efficiency.
– Joel Brigham
Consistent scoring has been a problem for the Pacers for years, and while it’s nice to think that the addition of Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young will solve that problem, many thought the same thing about Monta Ellis a year ago. How good Indiana is offensively depends entirely on how quickly McMillan can get his players to push the ball. If he can’t do that, it could be another year in the bottom half of the league in terms of points scored and scoring efficiency.
– Joel Brigham
THE BURNING QUESTION
Was Nate McMillan the right coaching hire for a team that wants to speed up the offense?
When the Pacers decided to let Frank Vogel walk, the search for a new coach was supposed to end with putting someone in charge that would play smaller and push the pace. There were, of course, plenty of options in hiring someone like that, but the team instead stayed in-house and hired Vogel’s lead assistant, Nate McMillian. Oddly, as a head coach McMillan has only ever finished inside the top 20 teams in the league in terms of pace a single time, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for a major change in offensive philosophy this year.
The team downgraded a bit defensively with their personnel changes this offseason, so for the team to be at its best they’re absolutely going to have to play fast and lively. The players Bird has brought in are meant to get out and run, so despite McMillan’s reputation he’s going to have to figure out how to pick up the pace in a very literal sense. He almost certainly swore up and down in his interview with Bird this past summer that he could do it, but we’ll have to wait and see if that’s actually true.
– Joel Brigham
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