The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
Lost in the ha-ha feigned outrage behind Courtney Lee’s decision to amplify his New York Knicks into “contender” status was the similar sentiment shared by Indiana Pacers big (or, at least, “tall”) man Myles Turner.
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Even after an up and down rookie year as a pro, following a disappointing stint in the NCAAs, Turner is looked upon as the Pacers’ next great cornerstone. A do-it-all center/forward perfectly set to act as the combative force helping to push Indiana’s move into the future.
And, as Turner sees it, a move back into the upper echelon of the East, following a two-season absence:
“As a team, we want to finish top three in the East and I feel like we’re very capable of doing so. On paper, we’re very talented, but it’s about how we put stuff together. I do feel like the East will be a lot stronger next year with some of the moves that have been made in our conference, but I feel like we can go out there and get the job done and finish in the top three.
“That’s the goal, and then we want to go make a deep playoff run. And obviously, we’re all chasing rings; that’s a big goal of mine. I don’t see why we can’t do it next year. I know that ‘sounds good’ and anybody can just say that, but I’m a very confident player and with that confidence comes ambition.”
As the too-sweaty plains sees its summer run droll on, it isn’t too tough a task to get behind Turner’s sense of zeal.
His “disappointment stint in the NCAAs” likely had more to do with the untenable situation he was presented with during his lone year at the University of Texas at Austin. And his “up and down rookie year” was unavoidable after an early-season hand injury coupled with former coach Frank Vogel’s (at-times understandable) decision to present him with an inconsistent rotation role.
Turner started in half of his 60 games, notching averages of 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just under 23 minutes a contest. By the time the playoffs hit the sometimes-starter (four out of seven games) led the postseason in blocks per game (3.3, despite playing just 28 minutes a contest) and block percentage in Indiana’s first round dismissal at the hands of the Toronto Raptors.
If Turner and his Pacers want to hit top-three status, they’ll have to provide that just-about-even postseason showing with the Raptors over the course of an 82-game season. Cleveland is a given for the top three, even if injuries and malaise hit following quite long 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns. Boston is looking to edge its way into that theatre, and any number of Eastern surprises could take flight.
Four teams tied for third place last year, with these Pacers and the similarly champing Pistons just a few games behind that mess. Meanwhile, hopefuls in Chicago and Washington are pining to return to fjords form, with younger squads in Milwaukee and Orlando setting sights on an unforeseen one-year jump. The East hardly any prettier, as we gear for 2016-17, and nobody is scaring Cleveland, but that hardly means the thirst for that top three placement isn’t real.
Would a crashing Myles Turner and too-good Paul George be enough to lift the Pacers into that 50-win realm?
To begin, Myles don’t crash.
For someone with his length, athletic gifts, and sometimes-there offensive game, it would seem like Turner would have bounded into this league as a typically raw offensive rebound-first, figure everything else out-later sort of youngster. Instead, for whatever reasons, he stayed away from caroms on that end of the floor for both the regular and postseason. Any hopes for him to consistently turn into a lights-out splash maven from the perimeter may have to wait – his stroke fundamentals are sound and his long two-point percentage is impressive, but Turner missed 13 of 16 three-pointers in his age 19 season.
This is where Paul George and to a lesser extent Jeff Teague – two locked-in scorers from behind the arc when a hand isn’t inching too close to the schnoz – come in.
George took seven three-pointers a game last year, which is a lot even in the glorious modern era that we find ourselves in, making 37 percent of his looks. Teague hit a robust 40 percent from out there, even as the line of thinking in defending his pick and roll game started to recognize his iffy finishing touch on contested drives to the hoop. Together the fully-healthy stalwart and new addition (working with one year left on his contract, in his hometown) will be charged with providing the veteran heft needed to turn the Pacers into something consistently formidable.
That is the core. You can be fearful of Monta Ellis’ odd Sleepy Floyd impersonations or respectful of what Al Jefferson might bring to this group off the bench (or as a starter) down low, but George, Teague and Turner will act as the core.
Will that be enough?
In the East, potentially.
George hardly dipped his toe into things during his first full year back from a broken leg, establishing career highs in points and free throw attempts per game. At age 26, and with Teague around to take more chances with the ball than George Hill ever did (but not too many chances with it), he should thrive.
As should Teague. The longtime Atlanta Hawk only seemed to have but one comfortable year in Georgia, not co-incidentally his 2014-15 All-Star turn, either staving off nagging injury or role (too young, youngster behind him, contract year, etc.) limitations while stuck trying to find offensive balance.
The sense of give and take between Teague’s handling of Nate McMillan’s offense is better left for a season preview or, more appropriately, a year-end summation, but for now the 28-year old would seem to be in the catbird seat. The “McMillan doesn’t really run fast offenses” revelations just about hit by the time Nate was even done with his introductory press conference alongside Larry Bird, and as a result of that outcry (to say nothing of the obvious adaptation to the talent given him) McMillan likely will not ask Teague to act as a pinpoint, get-out-of-the-way type to remind of Luke Ridnour or Steve Blake.
Which would be a warming start, because the Pacers will need an all-out Jeff Teague attack to help the team turn the corner in the wake of the respected-yet-boxy stylings of George Hill. He’ll have the screenin’ friends in the frontcourt to aid him in his turns – Thaddeus Young will be a boon on both sides of the court, and Jefferson can still crash for rebounds defensively – and few excuses in a contract year.
The Pacers will play the bulk of their contests against Eastern Conference counterparts and it’s possible that spots No. 2 through No. 13 (or 14, we see you Bojan) could be considered a coin-flip matchup. The Pacers have to take a healthy chunk of the pairings placed on their side of the Mississippi while working against counterparts that have seen Teague before, opponents that know what Paul George just did in Rio, and coaches that have been waiting for Myles Turner to bust out.
“Top three” isn’t just ambitious, it’s a real possibility. That core, however, will have to play to the brink of its capabilities for the Indiana Pacers to join the East’s sub-elite. Good-to-great is still a hell of a jump.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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