Monday, November 1, 2010

Indiana Pacers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 32-50
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Darren Collison, Paul George, James Posey, Lance Stephenson
Key Losses: Troy Murphy, Earl Watson, Luther Head
Projected Rotation Players: Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert, Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Tyler Hansbrough, Dahntay Jones, James Posey, Paul George, Jeff Foster

After years of disappointment, look for optimism and excitement to return to Indiana, as the 2010-11 Pacers emerge as one of the NBA’s rising teams.

Both on and off the floor, the last half-decade has not been an easy one for the Indiana Pacers and their fans. On-court failure, off-court misbehavior, overpaying for mediocre talent and rumblings of possible relocation in the coming years, not to mention the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression, have unfortunately combined to alienate what has historically been one of the NBA’s most enthusiastic and supportive fan bases.

On the morning of November 19, 2004, the Pacers ranked among the NBA’s elite teams, with an outstanding young core that was poised to become a perennial title contender. That night, in the dying seconds of a 15-point Pacers win, Detroit’s Ben Wallace initiated a scuffle with Ron Artest (and somehow shoulders none of the blame for the incident), after which Artest laid down on the scorers’ table, got pelted with a drink from the stands and, well, you know the rest.

Of course there’s a chance that had it not been that night, the wheels would have come flying off anyway but prior to the brawl at the Palace, the Pacers figured to be a significant factor in the NBA for years to come. As a result of the events of that night, the Pacers lost three of their best players for a total of 131 games (15 for franchise big man Jermaine O’Neal, 30 for Stephen Jackson and 86, 73 regular season and 13 postseason, for Artest) and had the direction of the franchise unfathomably altered.

It would be ridiculous to blame the misfortune of the intervening years- the antics of Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley and Shawne Williams, Larry Bird’s penchant for making (or assuming, from other team) sizable long-term commitments to mediocre, injury-prone players, the credit crunch and subsequent recession and rumors of relocation- on the events of that night, but chronologically the brawl at the Palace did serve as something of a starter’s pistol for has been a brutal six years (and counting). For the first time since, the Pacers and their fans can envision the dawn of a new era.

Scoring machine Danny Granger heads up the solid young rotation. Granger’s as physically gifted a wing player as there is in the NBA and a safe bet to be an All-Star any time he’s healthy, but has room to increase the efficiency in his offensive game. First, he might want to lay off the 3-pointers a bit (he attempted 9+ 3s 17 times in 62 games last season, including nine times in the his first 18 games) and focus more on attacking the paint. He’s an excellent finisher at the basket and has averaged 6.9 FT attempts per game each of the past two seasons, while jacking up 6.7 and 7.1 3s per game. With minimal effort, he could average 10+ FT attempts per game- not a bad thing given his 84% career FT percentage.

Additionally, Granger’s got too many physical gifts to not be a better perimeter defender- improvement at that end will be key as well. The length and mobility are already there in spades, as long as Granger refines his technique and ramps up the effort, there’s no reason to think he can’t be an excellent defensive player.

Joining Granger as the face(s) of the 2010-11 Pacers are last season’s surprise breakout rookie, newly-acquired Darren Collison, and one of the league’s best truly old-school centers, Roy Hibbert.

Collison averaged 18.8 ppg and 9.1 apg in 37 starts as a rookie. He’s an excellent shooter and combines his dual role of scorer and playmaker extremely well. He has shown a tendency to be turnover-prone (4.1 per game as a starter) and should look to penetrate more, but these are areas in which he’ll be sure to improve as he gains more experience at the pro level.

Meanwhile, in the middle we have Hibbert, who made significant strides in his sophomore season, and enters the 2010-11 season in excellent shape and fresh off a summer spent working with all-time great big man Bill Walton. The biggest knock on Hibbert has been his lack of athleticism, which has limited him on defense and on the glass. Based on preseason form and very early regular season returns (18.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 4.7 apg and 2.7 bpg), he seems to have addressed this issue. If he can maintain this form over the long run, he’ll be a franchise cornerstone.

Rounding the Pacers’ young core are a pair of Tobacco Road bangers (Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough) at the “4”, super-athletic and defensively capable rookie SG Paul George, defensive specialist Dahntay Jones and a pair of talented PGs- T.J. Ford (wants to start) and Lance Stephenson (consistent behavioral problems)- though Ford’s greatest value to the Pacers is as an $8.5 expiring contract.

Add in the solid veteran influence of James Posey, Jeff Foster and Mike Dunleavey, the latter also representing ~$17 in expiring deals (Jamaal Tinsley’s $5.5 million deal finally comes off the books this year as well) and there’s some real cause for optimism in Indy.

While they carry a tiny fraction of the expectations of the Pacers teams of the past two decades, the 2010-11 team has something has been little more than a fantasy in recent years: a young, talented and likable core. This, in turn, offers hoops fans in Indianapolis excitement, optimism and the opportunity to re-embrace their Pacer fandom.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Pacers at 33.5. While this is probably not too far from where they’ll end the season, if the nucleus gels and perhaps an expiring deal or two are parlayed into a starting PF, there’s a case to be made for this team making a run at 40 wins. Either way, it feels fairly safe to assume that the Pacers will eclipse 2009-10’s win total of 32.

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