For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the suddenly-relevant Indiana Pacers.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The up and coming Indiana Pacers have taken in a real pat-on-the-head treatment of late, and this is something that the team is just going to have to endure. The idea of the Pacers as a second round staple was jarring enough to NBA fans last season, even after the team's strong showing in a first round loss the year before, and within days that same slack-jawed fandom we associate with suddenly had to get used to the idea of the Pacers possibly knocking off a Miami Heat team that eventually turned into a champion. The Heat put a dampened comforter on that brush fire, but not before Indiana got pretty rowdy for a while.
The noise was deserved, and the offseason was pretty damn goofy for a team that seemingly just needed to keep it together from May until November.
Casting out Larry Bird and David Morway can't accurately be described as a regime change, not when the replacements in Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard worked with both and appear to think along the same lines as Bird and Morway, but it is a change above all caveats. Pritchard seems a passionate personnel man, but questionable practices and decisions in Portland plague him; and his salary cap work during the 2012 offseason was strange to say the least — as he weirdly let go of Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones in order to sign and trade for a player in Ian Mahinmi that he could have just signed outright.
Collison had disappointed as a Pacer, and Jones was going to be never the over-the-top addition Bird championed him as back in 2009, but they were respected NBA rotation parts that the team just needlessly gave away. It's possible that the two could have been spiking the Gatorade and throwing dry clothes in the showers behind the scenes, but why not wait for an honest-to-goodness transaction/trade involving the two, once you've picked Mahinmi up with the cap space you've cleared?
George Hill's contract extension sounded good until we heard about the $8 million yearly price tag, not the worst news for Pacer fans but a little unsettling. And D.J. Augustin's recent devotion to the art of finding others must sustain, if he's to ably fill in at times for Hill at the point guard slot.
Beyond this, however, cheer abounds.
Roy Hibbert won't be counted on to pump out 20 points a contest on the reg, and the big fella may never be able to average 35 minutes a night, but he is a center who is very good and YOU GIVE CENTERS THAT ARE VERY GOOD ALL OF THE MONEY ALWAYS. It was shocking to see Hibbert fall so far during the 2008 draft, odd to see coach Jim O'Brien treat him as an afterthought at times (though his fouling and stamina didn't help), and wonderful to see the center change Miami minds in the paint last May.
The team's offense isn't pretty, but it works at times with lots of isolation dribble penetration performed by superior athletes. Of course, this could all change for the better.
Because new coach Frank Vogel will get a full training camp this year, for the first in a career that is already in its 21st month. We don't expect a soothing solve to take place, and for Danny Granger and Paul George to effortlessly utilize their skills and athleticism in ways that will vault Indiana to the top of the heap in both aesthetics and offensive efficiency, but the orthodox preparation (and Vogel is way into preparation) can't hurt.
George, as most have noted, is the key; but he's also an on-court enigma of sorts in ways that daunt somewhat similar players like Nicolas Batum on one end and Scottie Pippen on another.
Can the third-year wing put together a package that can be counted on, near-nightly? We're not suggesting that Vogel rely on George in the same way that the Pistons seemed to put every possession plus whatever you're having in Grant Hill's hands 15 years ago, but the best way to tame a floater is to charge him with breaking everything down. Is George ready for that sort of role, while being asked to work on his sometimes-there defensive instincts?
It could be the difference between 45 and 57 wins. Or, perhaps, the second or third round of the playoffs. Big men, sadly, can be countered in the modern NBA. All-around cats? Swingers of the highest order that can drive and dish and still knock you backwards with a quick post and spin? Those people can rescue waffling point guards, aging power forwards, and too-tired centers.
Chicago's out, Boston's has a lot to figure out, Brooklyn hasn't memorized first names yet and the Heat are fat and sassy. This is Indiana's year to pounce on what will be a strange Eastern conference.
Projected record: 53-29
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: The fact that nobody really thinks you're scary. This is something I covered when we previewed as Indiana was wrapping up the NBA's fifth-best record last season and just before the Pacers' first-round playoff matchup with the Orlando Magic back in April -- there was something eerily quiet about the way Indy went from a sub-.500 lamb to the first-round slaughter in 2010-11 to a team that could give the Miami Heat in pretty serious trouble midway through the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring. They just sort of slowly and steadily bludgeoned their way to a No. 3 seed, and in an Eastern Conference where pretty much every team besides the Miami Heat has key pieces to replace and big questions to answer, they could make a similar, even deeper trudge this year.
Indiana's two big offseason moves before the lockout-shortened campaign -- signing power forward David West off a torn left anterior cruciate ligament prematurely ended his time with the New Orleans Hornets, and trading a first-round pick (later used on Kawhi Leonard) to the Spurs for combo guard George Hill after a relatively undistinguished performance in San Antonio's first-round upset at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies -- didn't really seem like earthshaking additions. But as each had throughout their NBA careers, the two perfectly Paceresque dudes provided smart, tough, efficient, reliable offensive execution of coach Frank Vogel's sets that helped catapult the Indy offense from ninth-worst in the NBA in points scored per 100 possessions all the way up to a tie for eighth-best overall with the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
Those quiet but effective signings were bolstered by a pair of critical internal developments -- rising star Paul George becoming a deep threat (improving from 29.7 percent on 3s as a rookie to 38.5 percent in Year 2) and an in-shape and active Roy Hibbert sharpening up on both ends of the floor en route to his first All-Star berth. With just-south-of-stardom swingman Danny Granger to lead but not dominate the offense, a steady improvement on the defensive end (giving up three fewer points per 100 possessions, by NBA.com's numbers) and a team-wide dedication to not beating themselves -- they tied for the NBA's seventh-lowest turnover percentage, allowed the league's third-fewest points off turnovers, took the league's third-most free throws and hit them at the third-best percentage -- they just sort of methodically kept being better than most of the teams they played.
They return virtually the same crew this year, with the exception of ex-Bobcat D.J. Augustin taking over at Darren Collison's role alongside Hill in the Pacers' point guard tandem and ex-Maverick Ian Mahinmi providing a true backup center in a spot filled mostly by overmatched power forwards last year -- neither's a home run of a move, but both should fit well, and Hill seemed to have taken the reins from Collison by late last season anyway. Reborn jumping jack Gerald Green has reportedly really impressed Vogel in training camp, and his teammates have sure seemed to like seeing him go up and get it this preseason; he could be a difference-maker backing up George and Granger off the Indy bench. First-rounder Miles Plumlee is gripping it kind of tight now, but all he needs to do is learn and provide spot minutes as a fifth big to count this rookie season as a success.
The Pacers have continuity, depth, a legitimate candidate for a breakout year (George, who could rank among the league's best two-way shooting guards by season's end) and, given the likelihood of Derrick Rose's injury knocking the Chicago Bulls down the mountain, what appears to be a clear shot at the Central Division title and possibly the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, as long as they stay steady and keep working Vogel's plan.
What Should Make You Scared: Less injury luck. The Pacers were very fortunate not to be bitten much by the injury bug last season, losing the league's fourth-fewest player games to injury, according to one analysis. Eight of their top nine players appeared in 60 or more of the team's 66 regular-season games, including their entire starting five, with George and, somewhat amazingly, the just-past-ACL-rehab West starting all 66. Not only did the Pacers' starting five play more minutes together than any other five-man unit in the NBA -- they played 241 more minutes, or five full games, together than any other five-man unit in the NBA, according to BasketballValue.com's lineup data.
All that shared floor time provides an opportunity to develop familiarity, rhythm and cohesion, and to be sure, the Pacers took advantage, building a balanced and efficient attack that send them soaring up the standings. They were good, not just lucky, to be sure. But injury luck like that tends to be inconstant, and while the Pacers are a young team with only two likely key contributors above the age of 26, those two -- West, 32, and Granger, who'll turn 30 at the start of the first round of the playoffs -- are pieces Indy's offense can ill afford to lose if a run to the No. 2 seed and a postseason rematch with the Heat are to be in the offing.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Pacers are a really, really good team, and with the presumed deficiencies of the Bulls they could even better their third-place finish in the East last season. After years of steady improvement, they're now a real playoff team with hopes of doing more.
The bad news, insofar as something like this can be bad, is that they're roughly the same team they were in 2011-12. Their biggest changes were relatively minor, and in truth might actually have made the team worse (which isn't to say they'll finish worse, of course). What the Pacers have now, apart from one of the best teams in the East, is a good team with a ceiling. Over time, that can be frustrating. Iti's nice to be good, but a few years near the top will make everyone wonder why they're incapable of taking the next step.
The issue for the Pacers, in short, is that they don't have a superstar. Players like Roy HIbbert and Danny Granger are All-Star-caliber performers, but they also don't bend games to their will with the regularity most top-tier stars do. That structure doesn't doom the Pacers to playoff irrelevance, and with a few breaks — like, say, Chris Bosh's injury in the last spring's Eastern Conference Semifinal vs. Miami — Indiana could very well make a breakthrough. But relying on luck to defeat more talented teams is a tough proposition. For the Pacers to move to the next step, they might have to break apart this carefully assembled roster and take a risk.
To be clear, that idea would have the potential to blow up in the Pacers' faces. The franchise is in a very good place right now, following up years of irrelevance with a status roughly similar to the one they held before the infamous Malice in the Palace brawl in 2004. Being a good playoff team, particularly after that long period of pain, is a sensible goal and the sort of achievement that can satiate fans for a very long time.
It's just that it's not contending for a championship. If that's a team's ultimate goal, then winning a playoff series or two every season might not be enough. The Pacers need to ask themselves what they ultimately want and go about attaining it as best they can. If they've already done just that, then they should be comfortable with their decisions and enjoy the moment. Because, no matter what they choose, this team is worth enjoying.