An outsider would be forgiven for seeing the Indiana Pacers’ 2015-16 season as something of a return to normalcy. After narrowly missing out on a postseason berth the previous season as Paul George played only a handful of games, Indiana rebounded with 45 wins, the No. 7 seed in the East, and a top-three ranking in points allowed per 100 possessions. A seven-game elimination at the hands of the Toronto Raptors suggested that the Pacers were not terribly far off from rising back to their former position as top challengers to Whichever Team LeBron James Plays For, albeit with clear needs to become more consistent and add new offensive wrinkles.
Team president Larry Bird responded with more serious changes intended to reform the roster and its poorly rated attack. Head coach Frank Vogel did not have his contract renewed in an effort to inject fresh ideas, Indianapolis native George Hill was dealt shortly before the draft, and starting center Ian Mahinmi was allowed to leave in free agency. Previous assistant coach Nate McMillan has been promoted to the lead job, 2015 All-Star point guard and Indianapolis native Jeff Teague was acquired in the Hill trade, combo forward Thaddeus Young was obtained for the No. 20 pick in the draft, and veteran big Al Jefferson was brought in via free agency. The result is a team that has more scoring options and a higher ceiling, if also plenty of defensive frailties.
At the same time, it’s not entirely clear that the Pacers have any better of a chance of finishing with a top-four seed than they did last spring. While George now has more scorers around him than he did a few months ago, questions regarding the sophistication and construction of Vogel’s offense won’t go away entirely now that his lead assistant has taken his job. For that matter, McMillan has a reputation as a defense-first coach just like his predecessor did. Who’s to say the same issues won’t persist, no matter if George thinks they can average 115 points per game with ease?
Or maybe the odds just aren’t on the Pacers’ side. No fewer than 10 teams can concoct decent arguments for serving as the most worthy challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers next postseason, and five of them finished ahead of Indiana just a few months ago. Did the Pacers really improve that much? And what’s keeping other teams from progressing at the same pace even if they do take steps forward?
This is the challenge of building from the NBA middle without a game-changing draft pick or the lure of a big market for free agents. Indiana made changes that should improve their performance but still looks most like a mid-seed playoff team. Whether that changes their postseason fortunes could depend more on matchups than anything else. Luck can often do more to boost a team’s profile than any measurable advantage over the competition. There are simply too many variables to go into this season with the utmost confidence that everything will be better.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
I am simultaneously amazed this Pacers team even won 45 games AND also didn’t win more.
— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) April 29, 2016
— Jared Wade (@Jared_Wade) April 29, 2016
Tough loss for Indiana. But a solid season for the Pacers. Paul George was tremendous post injury and Indy found a gem in Myles Turner.
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) May 2, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Maybe? It’s difficult to answer this question when each of the Pacers’ offseason moves seems neither wholly good nor bad. Trading defense for offense can have unforeseen effects.
Not bringing back Vogel was a controversial move that Bird has arguably not yet adequately explained. The NBA legend has said many times that he believes coaches have a three-year shelf life before players begin to tune them out, and Vogel was in the job for five full seasons and nearly half of another. Bird must have thought it was right to make the change based on that criterion alone.
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It’s not as if he did not have other reasons to make the decision. While Vogel has shown elite ability to create solid defensive units throughout his career, his offenses often left plenty to be desired. The Pacers scored less efficiently than any other playoff team last season and usually depended on George, a terrific but sometimes-streaky scorer, to their own detriment. Indiana would have had to reform its offense substantially with or without Vogel, and it’s usually easier to install something new with a different coach.
That said, most teams looking for substantive change do not hire the new head coach from within the existing staff. That’s not a knock on the new guy. McMillan is a respected coach with two Olympic gold medals as a member of Mike Krzyzewski’s Team USA staff and five playoff appearances in 12 seasons as head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers. However, he was known as a defensive specialist and does not seem to represent a change in philosophy from Vogel. Players have responded to him well so far, and coaches can certainly learn plenty and adapt to the trends of the day. For now, though, the coaching change seems more like a rearranging of parts than a full remodel.
Major changes are more likely to come from the new players in blue and gold. That’s especially true of Teague, who replaces fellow Indianapolitan Hill as the team’s starting point guard. Hill was a popular player whose shooting will be missed. But Teague has more potential to reform the way this offense runs, particularly if the Pacers are serious about pushing the pace. His progress stagnated after a terrific performance in the best season in Atlanta Hawks history, but it’s possible that had more to do with environment than anything else. One of Teague and Dennis Schröder had to go, and both could benefit from it.
Teague will at minimum take pressure off George to create shots. Though more scorer than prototypical point guard, Teague was an effective floor general in an Atlanta attack that depended on ball movement. The Pacers have lots of ball-stoppers, including combo guard Monta Ellis, so even a slight boost to playmaking at the point could have an exponential effect. Teague will need to maintain last season’s 40 percent mark from the outside to replace Hill’s talent as a shooter, but that’s not an outlandish expectation in a league that places more emphasis on three-pointers than ever.
The Pacers went for more veterans in trading the No. 20 pick for veteran forward Thaddeus Young, another player who should offer scoring. Young is a talented face-up four who has shot better than 50 percent from the field in five of his nine seasons and logged a sub-15.0 PER just once. He will score, rebound, and play power forward in plenty of quick lineups. He’s also under contract for two years (with a player option on a third) at a rate well below what similar players earned this summer.
Veteran big Al Jefferson rounds out the Pacers’ list of big offseason additions after inking a three-year, $30-million deal. Jefferson has played only 112 games combined in the past two seasons but could be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate if everything goes according to plan. Jefferson has stayed relevant as a back-to-the-basket scorer with marginal defensive talent when that style has become almost entirely unpopular, but he’s still a better fit for the bench at this point in his career. He’s not an ideal player for Indiana if Myles Turner does not develop as hoped, but most teams are beggars when it comes to choosing backup big men.
Other moves deserve some attention, too. Wing Solomon Hill did not have his fourth-year rookie option picked up before last season and understandably left in free agency, which was an avoidable decision Bird probably regrets. Center Ian Mahinmi was allowed to leave for the Washington Wizards with little hubbub because the Pacers believe in Turner. Aaron Brooks is in town to be a backup point guard, as well, although he might not see many minutes with Monta Ellis able to fill in at the position.
Potential breakout stud:
It’s tempting to list Paul George, who returned to the ranks of the NBA’s All-Stars last season and could make a serious leap towards superstardom this year.
But Myles Turner is too obvious to avoid. The No. 11 pick in the 2015 draft impressed in his rookie season as a rim protector and capable mid-range shooter. A player who only turned 20 three weeks before the end of the regular season showed a nice feel for the game and looked like a potential star. He could be a player teams kick themselves for passing on a few years from now.
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Yet the stats suggest a player who still needs to grow into a bigger role. Turner’s per-36-minute numbers were quite good — 16.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks with a 15.4 PER. However, Turner missed 22 games due to injury and still hit the rookie wall hard in March. It’s also arguable that Turner only looked as good as he did because of Vogel’s preference for starting two big men, which provided cover he won’t have this season. At this point, he’s more promise than reality.
The Pacers are not treating him that way. Jefferson and career backup Kevin Seraphin are the only other players who can reasonably be asked to play center, and Turner is going to play lots of minutes in lineups in which George is the only other capable defender. That’s a lot to put on a player who can’t legally drink. All those offseason moves to add offense won’t work so well if the team’s defense worsens precipitously.
Turner very clearly has the talent to make the leap in his second season. The worry is that all his new responsibilities could set him up for the kind of disappointment that derails a career. He’s the Pacers’ potential breakout stud and biggest X-factor by some distance.
Paul George establishes himself as a no-doubt superstar mentioned in the same sentences as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Turner makes the leap, holds the defense together and earns serious Most Improved Player consideration. Teague thrives in his hometown and makes Atlanta’s decision to keep Schröder look questionable. Ellis, Jefferson and C.J. Miles serve as one of the best collections of tertiary scorers in the league. The Pacers move into the top 10 in points per 100 possessions and stay in the top 15 for defensive efficiency. Indiana wins 50 games, earns a top-three playoff seed and returns to the conference finals for the first time since 2014.
If everything falls apart:
George settles into a very nice career as an All-Star, though clearly not one of the league’s best. Turner proves unable to take on so many responsibilities and finishes the season in need of a reset. Teague does well enough, although his All-Star season looks more like an aberration than ever. McMillan doesn’t bring any more offensive acumen than Vogel did. The Pacers contend for a playoff spot all season but get eliminated in the final week of the season.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
44-38, 6th in the West
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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