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After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.
The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.
Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise
Since the Indiana Pacers fell just short against the eventual champion Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last June, their return to that stage has almost been treated as an inevitability. In spite of Derrick Rose’s return and the additions to the billion-dollar Brooklyn Nets lineup, many analysts have gone ahead and penned the Pacers in for the NBA’s final four, especially after a whirlwind offseason that saw personnel el jefe Larry Bird add significant depth to the Pacer rotation.
Of course, we’ve 82 games and a month and a half’s worth of playoff games to go before the Heat can set up shop in a Game 7 rematch, which makes the summer’s worth of back-slapping sit a little uneasy with the team’s most important player, 2012 All-Star Roy Hibbert. “You can’t just fast-forward to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals,” Hibbert recently told Grantland, “you have to go out there and earn it.” Which is as enervating (“man, seven months to go before the playoffs”) as it is true.
To a man, the various Pacers particulars seem to be doing their part. Hibbert trained extensively during the offseason, hoping to avoid the early season swoon he came through with last year, leaving some fans uneasy about the massive contract their team had just signed the big fella to. Paul George signed his own massive contract extension over the offseason, and said all the right things about the organization in the press conference that followed. The same went for Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson, a former All-Star pitched against a plucky undersized off guard while waging for that starting gig at shooting guard. Both have pledged to do whatever is best for the team when it came to accepting the starting or bench designation.
From there, you have a litany of additions that are looking to buy into what the Pacers are selling, fresh off the heels of Indiana acting as everyone’s second-favorite team while battling against the heel-ish Heat in the third round last year. Not only did Bird bring in one of the best backups in the game in C.J. Watson to run the show at point guard, but he plucked Luis Scola straight out of central casting. The offense can run through Scola off the bench at times, as he sets up shop in the high post, while new forward Chris Copeland should provide additional spacing should his jumper jump back on the tracks.
This is a legitimate 10-man rotation run by one of the smartest young coaches in the league, someone who clearly has the Pacers’ ear, in Frank Vogel. A sharp uptick from a Pacer team that had to trade in the most effective starting lineup in the game for a bench unit that failed them miserably last season, Vogel now has options galore on both ends of the ball.
Should things hold up, of course. As Hibbert reminds, we can’t just skip to the first week of June.
One shouldn’t worry about Roy, because despite those early-season shooting woes in 2012-13, his game will be on point. The Paul George/Danny Granger wild card is to be studied, though. Because though George hit his fair share of tough shots for the Pacers last season, those were still tough shots. He still isn’t altogether there when it comes to creating sound looks off the dribble, though it’s clear that he has the ability to go in and outside consistently. Granger is more adept at creating things when healthy, but he was never an easy go-to option in the mold of, say, Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson.
Toss in the knee issues and rust from Danny, and this could be an uneasy alliance in the early going whether Granger starts or comes off the bench. Because while the Pacers may consider Granger off the bench to be a sort of luxury, Watson and Scola’s presence on the pine might make it so Granger has to start to keep the starters afloat offensively.
At least there are options, though, and one can credit Bird for that. The abyss years in the wake of the disastrous 2003-04 season can rightfully be pinned on Bird making mistakes as a personnel chief, but his return to prominence this summer has provided Vogel with a fantastic rotation, an enviable lineup that will give the Pacers every opportunity to make it until June.
This doesn’t seem to be the sort of team that would want to fast-forward through the season anyway.
Projected record: 57-25
Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine
While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.
Tune into the Pacers for … Paul George in Year 1 as a recognized superstar.
When I talked to George about the experience of being a first-time All-Star and what it meant to him, he first deflected with a quick joke: "Well, I mean, I know now that I can't really have an off night. You know what I mean?" Then, he offered a determined statement of self-confidence and purpose:
"But I mean ... I feel like I was made up for this. You know, this is who I wanted to be. That's the stage and that's the level I have to be on now. I'm ready to take the jump."
Take it he did. While his individual numbers dipped a bit post-All-Star, he kept providing strong two-way play for a Pacers team that went 17-11 down the stretch and finished with a 49-32 record (they didn’t play their 82nd game) that secured the East’s No. 3 seed. That work earned him recognition as the NBA’s Most Improved Player; George was just getting started, though.
With the responsibility for serving as Indiana’s top scorer and perimeter defender in the postseason, he averaged just under 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game in quieting sharpshooter Kyle Korver and besting eventual Piston Josh Smith during a first-round win over the Atlanta Hawks. He then put up 19.5, seven and five while dampening league scoring champ Carmelo Anthony in Indy’s second-round triumph over the New York Knicks. He saved his best for last, though – 19.4, six and 5.1, but on sterling shooting percentages, while going toe-to-toe on both ends with league MVP LeBron James (and, at times, top-flight off-guard Dwyane Wade) in a star-making seven-game turn against the world-champion Miami Heat that came up just one win short of the finals.
Even All-Stars’ performances tend to decline a bit when constantly competing against top-flight competition with the opportunity to scout you for two straight weeks. George’s per-minute offensive productivity largely held fast in the playoffs, though, and did so without a demonstrable drop-off in his ability to act as a long-armed, quick-footed, possession-busting defensive stopper. It was sensational work in ways both loud (George’s mammoth dunks on Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh) and quiet (his incredibly-hard-to-screen and [for the most part] positionally sound defense, whether on the ball or in a helper’s role), and it served notice that out in the middle of the country, away from the eyes of a basketball-consuming populace (and media) that didn’t always find the grind-it-out, defense-first Pacers to be the most compelling watch, a star had been born.
Indiana responded to the performance by giving George a four-year maximum contract extension; when the new deal kicks in after this season, the Pacers will be paying George to perform as one of the NBA’s very best players on both ends of the floor. If they hope to surpass last year’s conference finals run, though, they’ll need him to accelerate his growth curve this year, not next.
It was understandable for George’s field-goal and 3-point accuracy to tail off last season after he was thrust into the unfamiliar role of primary option by Danny Granger’s knee injury; not only did he have to take more shots, but he had to take different shots, and often with more defensive attention devoted to him. With those growing pains behind him, though, he’ll need to nudge those shooting numbers back north, to return from the capable long-distance option he was last season (36.2 percent, just above league-average) to the consistently dangerous one he was in his second NBA campaign (38.5 percent, solidly above-average). Any gains he can make as a high-level floor spacer will make the Pacers’ punishing interior duo of Roy Hibbert and David West that much more difficult to defend.
He must take the next step in using his athleticism off the dribble to get into the teeth of opposing defenses, draw fouls and get to the free-throw line, which he did brilliantly during the playoffs but infrequently during the regular season. (That would go hand-in-hand with reducing the number of field-goal attempts he takes from mid-range; those comparatively low-value tries made up nearly a quarter of his shots last season, according to NBA.com’s stat tool.) If he’s to continue serving as a high-usage supplementary playmaker, he has to – has to – tighten up his handle and curb the turnover issues that saw him cough the ball up on nearly 23 percent of the possessions he finished as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data. And this time around, he’ll have to do it all with every pair of eyes trained squarely on him, the ascendant All-Star, the two-way terror, the main man.
We now know what George told me back in February – that he is, was and always has been “made up for this.” Now we start to find out just how high his ceiling really is. Few individual storylines in the NBA figure to be as intriguing.
Honorable mentions: Whether Indy’s starting lineup – either Hibbert-West-Danny Granger-George-George Hill (the NBA’s most-used five-man unit back in 2011-12, outscoring opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions) or Hibbert-West-George-Lance Stephenson-Hill (the league’s No. 2 most-used group last season, smacking opposition by 12.1 points-per-100) – can continue to play huge, dominating minutes together; whether Stephenson, who’s headed for free agency next summer, can follow a breakout 2012-13 with a strong contract year or if the drive to cash out short-circuits his wonderfully complementary game; how Granger adjusts to not being the unquestioned top option on a team that evolved beautifully in his absence.
Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion
NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.
The Pacers’ run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals was an impressive feat made all the greater by the fact that they did so without the services of the man who up until last season had been their highest-profile player. With wing Danny Granger missing all but five games last season, Indiana nonetheless improved significantly and now deserves mention alongside the handful of potential (though not necessarily likely) title contenders. With Granger back in the rotation this season, they would figure to improve, or at least have more scoring options against top-tier defenses.
The trouble for Granger is that his spot in the rotation looks a lot less clear than it did a year ago. In his absence, the Pacers developed a rough hierarchy, with Paul George and Roy Hibbert at the top. While it’s feasible that Granger could work his way back into that group, the emergence of George suggests it’s unlikely that the Pacers will want to pay two perimeter scorers major money moving forward. So Granger, now entering a contract year, is likely playing to decide the shape of his basketball future.
It seems a foregone conclusion that Granger will make substantially less than his current $14 million yearly salary, if only because the new collective bargaining agreement and his recent injury would make such a deal a terrible business decision. At the same time, Granger may feel as though his relative demotion in the Pacers hierarchy was not particularly earned — a player isn’t supposed to lose his spot due to injury, and he’s been an important part of this Indiana resurgence. On the other hand, it might not be the worst thing if he settles into a secondary role. At 30 years old, Granger can expect to see his athleticism diminish soon. Given his position on a quality team, it’s entirely possible that he can use this season to establish himself as a first-tier role player. He won’t be considered an All-Star, as he once was, but stability and the ability to compete in the playoffs every season can be pretty darn attractive.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Bobcats • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors