To recap: I rank each team from 1-10 on their projected starters, bench, coach and watchability, using a 1-10 scale, and rate them overall based on a (starters x 5) + (bench x 2) + (coaching x 2) + watchability to give them an overall score. Why does watchability matter? Because we're not robots here, that's why.
I'm breaking down these previews into small, bite-size chunks to make them more palatable to read, around 1,000-1,500 words each, obviously spending more time on the contenders than the minnows. Enjoy and leave me all kinds of comments about why I'm terribly wrong.
Indiana Pacers: 79
Projected Starters (8): C Roy Hibbert, PF David West, SF Paul George, SG Lance Stephenson, PG George Hill
Last season's most successful starting five, particularly on the defensive side, figures to get less playing time together thanks to the return of Danny Granger and a bolstered bench unit. Hibbert reportedly worked out like a maniac with and without Tim Duncan, so that he could take on a bigger minutes load this season, but ultimately these guys will go only as far as the starting guards will allow them to.
Granger's presence could be insurance in case the inconsistent Stephenson flames out, but the bigger problem is Hill, an excellent third guard shoehorned into a starting role despite his lack of handle or court awareness. If they could flip Granger for a stud point guard like Rondo, they should jump at it, but considering that they've already given the Suns next season's first-round pick and Granger is older than you think (30!), that's not happening. Maybe Goran Dragic instead?
Granger was mostly a disaster during the preseason and when he finally appeared to turn the corner in the final game, he picked up a calf strain that will cause him to miss at least the start of the season. That gloomy news aside, the Pacers radically made over a bench that was their Achilles heel last season, giving up a first-round pick for a declining but still capable scorer in Scola, a streaky shooter in Copeland and a steady veteran hand in Watson, who's a marked upgrade over the departed D.J. Augustin, who may have been a Miami mole. The early nick to Granger should give Solomon Hill, their rookie from Arizona, a chance to impress, but he's been abysmal during the exhibition games too.
Coaching (8.5): Frank Vogel got the absolute maximum out of this crew during last season's playoff run and they may well have upset the Heat with some better (read: any) defense at the end of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Like division rival Tom Thibodeau with the Bulls, Vogel's main task will be trying to work a main cog back into the fold without disrupting the overall chemistry, but he'll have some shiny new bench toys to play with as well. The Pacers may be a work in progress all season long, at least until the trade deadline passes and they know what their final team will be. Vogel lost his top two assistants Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen to Denver and San Antonio, respectively, and has replaced them with Nate McMillan and Popeye Jones.
Watchability (7): They don't quite have the charisma and across-the-board athleticism of the Bulls, and their arena looks kind of drab. Still, I like most of the pieces on the roster and the Pacers should be a decent enough watch on those nights where none of the other contenders are playing anyone worthwhile.
Best-Case Scenario: They jell immediately, earn home court advantage, pummel the overmatched Wizards in round one, out-slug the Nets in round two, and finish off the battered Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, after Miami had to expend too much energy in shaking free of the Bulls. They go on to capture the franchise's first title against the Thunder in the lowest-rated Finals in history.
Worst-Case Scenario: Granger never recaptures his past form, the regular season is a series of fits and starts, and not having one true superstar catches up with them and they get upset by the upstart Cavs in the first round, with Kyrie Irving completely undressing them.
Realistic scenario: They make the Finals after outlasting both the Heat and the Bulls, but have nothing left for the Spurs and are thumped in five brutal games, with ABC threatening to put the telecasts on tape delay if either franchise ever makes another Finals.
Degrees of All-Time Best Player to Manu Ginobili: 2 (Reggie Miller played with Austin Croshere on the 2004-05 Pacers, who played with Ginobili on the 2008-09 Spurs.)
Projected Starters (7): C Andrew Bynum, PF Anderson Varejao, SF Alonzo Gee, SG Dion Waiters, PG Kyrie Irving
Another one of those "these five guys may never play a second together" things, and head coach Mike Brown (I know, right?) has been starting Tristan Thompson at center and seven-foot Earl Clark at small forward during the preseason to give them the requisite size. If Bynum can ever get healthy and give them something like 50 games and 25 solid minutes per, they should really consider dealing one of their four credible power forwards for a real three, since they have a smoking crater at that spot at the moment. Regardless, I love the backcourt and I'm all aboard the concept of a starting lineup where four of the five guys are injury-prone and the fifth one stinks. If they are forced into using their preseason starting five, then expect Pistons-ish spacing problems because I'm not buying Clark as a three.
The Cavs sure have a lot of depth for a potential lottery team, but these things happen when you've got an unsettled starting lineup. Clark, Thompson, Miles, Zeller and even Bennett, the most random first overall pick ever, have potential to start before it's all said and done, with Thompson, whose life would've been far less confusing if he took up soccer, the best bet of the bunch. Meanwhile, Jack was playing crunch-time minutes for the Warriors all last season and figures to do so again this season for the Cavs in three-guard lineups since, again, they have no real small-forward. He's not really credible insurance though, if Irving were to go down again because he's not really a distributor.
Coaching (5): Brown can scheme defense with the best of 'em and having Irving in charge of the offense as a point guard should work a bit smoother than when LeBron had to do everything for his old Cavs teams. Still, I don't trust Brown at all to figure out a competent rotation with all these fours on the roster and I I doubt he'll be able to solve the Bynum enigma either.
Watchability (7): Would be higher if not for Bynum, whom I despise, their terrible announcers, and their uggo uniforms. Other than that, they've got a lot going for them.
Best-Case Scenario: Everyone stays relatively healthy, they get a combined 145 games or so from Bynum and Varejao, zoom past the Knicks to a fifth seed, shock the veteran Nets in a first-round upset thanks to their young legs and give the Heat everything they can handle in a seven game series in round two, impressing LeBron James so much that he decides to return to Cleveland in the off-season.
Worst-Case Scenario: It's Cleveland. Whatever "worst case scenario" we can think of can and will be eclipsed. Bynum, Varejao and Irving all get injured, they don't even make the playoffs and James decides he wants no part of this cursed lot.
Realistic Scenario: 115 games out of Bynum and Varejao, a sixth-seed and a respectable showing in a first-round loss to the Pacers, with just enough Irving highlights along the way for James to decide he's worthy of being his next sidekick.
Degrees of Best All-Time Player to Manu Ginobili: 2 (James played with Drew Gooden on the 2006-07 Cavs and Gooden played with Ginobili on the 2008-09 Spurs.)
More from Pounding The Rock:
- Stampler's NBA Predictions Part 4: The Bulls
- 30 preseason predictions: Detroit Pistons
- Stampler's NBA Predictions Part 3: The Celtics and 76ers
- 30 preseason predictions: Cleveland Cavaliers
- Stampler's NBA Predictions Part 2: The Knicks and Raptors