Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Indiana Pacers.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
This is the team that put up 144 points in a game last year. This is the team that made an on-paper one-sided series against the Chicago Bulls interesting last April. This is the group that played to four-figure audiences way too many times last season, but seemingly had all of the League Pass junkie eyes set squarely on the Pacer game on channel 753. This is the group that gave Frank Vogel a chance, this is the team that just added David West, and this is the squad that might play in the sweetest stadium in the whole of the NBA.
These are the Pacers, and there is room to be cheerful, 'ere.
The squad is still bereft of a marquee star. Danny Granger comes closest, and we enjoyed his mini-resurgence last season, but there is nobody on the roster that Larry Bird wouldn't trade for someone larger on someone else's payroll. This doesn't mean the Pacers, a crew that could work as something larger than the sum of its parts, can't work its way up the Eastern Conference's playoff bracket. At absolute worst, this is a team that will win 33 of the 66 games scheduled and remain appointment viewing for League Pass freaks in spite of the absence of the much beloved Stacy Paetz (a sideline reporter who actually puts most national cable TV analysts to shame with her game) and Clark Kellogg. Chris Denari and Quinn Buckner remain, those two are fantastic, and you can glean the giddiness in anticipation from these pages.
Yes, the Pacers are going to be fun. Sure, they're shooting for the fifth seed, as has been Bird's modus operandi for too long, but with Jim O'Brien's three-point heavy offense out of the picture this team will be as aesthetically-pleasing as their home arena.
Hoops? They have a few.
Roy Hibbert's work from the low and high post will hopefully be the showcase this year, as he and West can run the odd 5/4 screen and roll for easy jumpers. Hibbert and West won't knock you out with their rebounding numbers, but that's sometimes the price to pay for frontcourt workers that won't make you want to tear your hair out while you watch them attempt to function offensively.
Granger is growing, and Paul George is literally growing -- and at some point those whispers about his supposed attitude issues have to be dealt with as whispers and little else. Darren Collison is a waterbug we love, Tyler Hansbrough appeared to stop biting at every head fake for minute-long stretches at a time last year, and George Hill … well, he went to IUPUI.
Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor, and actual basketball analysis is for suckers. Six months removed from our last NBA game? We're going into full-on fan mode. And though my allegiances lie with my team in my city by the lake, I can't help but feel chuffed at the prospect of an entertaining Pacers team working in my adopted home state. About damn time, I'd say.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Indiana Pacers
I'm really looking forward to seeing what Paul George does with the opportunity to enter the season as the Pacers' primary off-guard. The first-round pick out of Fresno State took over the starting slot late in the regular season, making 19 starts and averaging 7.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 turnovers in 23.5 minutes per game. George's play (and the absence of another suitable option at the position, save Brandon Rush) won him the chance to hold on to the starting gig into the postseason, where Indiana put up a surprisingly spirited first-round fight against the Chicago Bulls.
George didn't set the world on fire in the Pacers' matchup with the Bulls; he contributed six points, five rebounds, two blocks, one assist, 1.4 steals and 1.4 turnovers in 26.4 minutes per night in the five-game defeat. But still shy of his 21st birthday, George showcased elements of an all-around game that could make him a unique weapon at the two, including fantastic length, quickness and athleticism that ought to help him make life difficult for attacking wings for years to come. (That he apparently grew two inches this summer and is now 6-foot-10/basically Mothra only increases his chances of being a defensive nightmare.)
The import of David West to pair with Roy Hibbert ought to give the Pacers a fearsome high-low combo that will demand additional attention around the key, which should open up some opportunities for Indy's wings to get clear looks on passes out of the post. You'd expect Danny Granger to be the first look in those situations, but George -- who posted well-above-league-average marks shooting from 10 to 15 feet (46.9 percent) and from 16 to 23 feet (43 percent), according to Hoopdata -- could benefit, too.
If George can knock down those perimeter looks, improve his long-range accuracy over last year's 29.7 percent mark to help stretch defenses, use his length to stifle opposing twos and improve his ball security a bit (he turned the ball over on 13.7 percent of his possessions a year ago, which is right at the league average, but is high for an off-guard), he could have a very solid season as the fifth option on what may be the most improved team in the Eastern Conference.
The big worry, for me, would be that prize acquisition West -- coming off a torn ACL in March that required surgery and extensive rehabilitation -- has a tougher time coming back from his injury than fans anticipate.
While he was never an explosive leaper in New Orleans and he doesn't require a whole lot of elevation to get his mid-range jumper off, West hasn't been able to really push the knee in the run-up to the season. As a result, the Pacers "plan to bring him along slowly and closely monitor his movements on the court early on," according to Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star.
Even for a player of West's talents, a slow return could mean a bit of rust on his game, as well as increased difficulty getting acclimated to his new surroundings. Coach Frank Vogel says the team runs "very simple" offensive and defensive systems that West will pick up easily, but knowing the system and knowing how your teammates play within it are two separate matters. With the 66-game schedule severely limiting days off and practice time, the longer it takes for West to get back on the court for extended stretches of live game action, the longer it could take for the Pacers to start seeing an optimal return on their two-year, $20 million investment. And in a sprint to the postseason, a dropped game here or there in the early going could wind up having huge postseason repercussions come the summer.
REMINDER: Playing 'Basketball Frankenstein' is Jeff Foster's favorite
Never forget that, when he is not making and saving all of the money and then investing it wisely, Jeff Foster loves nothing more than playing "Basketball Frankenstein." Probably because Frank's skin's green, just like that paaaaaaaaaaaper, kiiiiiiiiiiiid. Jeff Foster loves money.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
INDIANA PACERS: "American Pie 2"
A few weeks ago, Frank Vogel said that his players need to take the next step. It's a worthy goal for a team that snuck into the playoffs last season, because the next step of getting a higher seed or making a serious challenge in a playoff series should be fairly attainable. The problem is that this team is fairly similar as the one we saw in April (plus a recovering David West), and without a true star in their midst they might have reached their peak. The challenge isn't just to step up — it's to maintain the status quo.
At the end of the 1999 teen sex comedy "American Pie," a group of newly unvirginized high school seniors make a breakfast toast to the next step. Unfortunately for them, in the 2001 sequel they appeared to have made few, if any, strides. Jason Biggs kept getting his privates stuck in weird places and obsessing about an Eastern European goddess, Chris Klein still acted like a lobotomized elk, and the kid from "Rookie of the Year" couldn't get over Ivy League student Tara Reid. They hadn't progressed at all. To make matters worse, they were locked in a retread movie full of the same jokes that turned stale the second time anyone saw the first installment. The next step turned out to be backwards.
The Pacers should be watchable than "American Pie 2" this season, because only Tyler Hansbrough seems likely to get superglue in places where it shouldn't go. But if they can't get to the next level, things might get lucky. No one wants Frank Vogel to turn into the Eugene Levy of coaching.