Since joining the league in 1976, three things have entrenched the Indiana Pacers in NBA lore:
and, most importantly,
This Pacers squad is looking to make its own history. They took the Heat to seven games before being eliminated in last year's conference finals, and might be even deeper this year -- but so are the other contenders in the East. Here's my prediction for what's 2013-2014 has in store for Indiana.
I like this team. I like the chip on the shoulder that many of their players have; I like the improved bench with C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, and a bounce-back-year Danny Granger; I really like that they traded us Kawhi Leonard; and I love that the guy who made this Luis Scola tribute video quickly gives up on finding any on-court highlights he's had and instead shows him playing the worst game of Pictionary you've ever seen:
But if this team's going to contend again this year, it's going to count a lot on Paul George and Roy Hibbert.
George broke out last year, getting his first All-Star nod as well as taking home the Most Improved Player award (side note: the Pacers have taken home this award four times since 2000 - is there a better benchmark for internal player development?), with averages that jumped to 19.2 points, 7.4 boards, and 5.1 assists in the 2013 Playoffs. And for all of the leaps in his offensive game, he was also an excellent wing defender, receiving Second-Team All-Defensive honors last year.
Like George, the 7'2'' Roy Hibbert is finally starting to grow into the dominant force he can be, and was crucial in the Pacers' pushing the Heat to seven games last year. He's not much of an offensive player, scoring between 11 and 13 points per game the past three seasons, but his impact on the other end of the floor is quickly garnering league-wide attention, as Hibbert finished right behind George in the top 10 in DPOY voting. Hibbert's ability to contest shots in the paint by going straight up and not fouling - a practice that has earned the name 'the Hibbert' - is a key component to his defense.
Hibbert's improvement upon his ability to stay out of foul trouble has coincided with a jump in blocked shots, going from 1.1 to 1.6 to 1.8 to 2.0 to 2.6 last year. He also worked out with Tim Duncan this summer, which can only help his already-elite defense.
On the other side of the ball, however, Hibbert and the Pacers still leave something to be desired.
Big Roy, as mentioned before, has not been a focal point of the offense, usually ceding his spot on the low block to David West. As good as West is, this would seem a waste of a huge guy like Hibbert who possesses a surprisingly soft touch. As a result of this, his scoring actually dropped last year from 12.8 to 11.9 points per game.
Paul George is starting to embrace the role of the team's offensive go-to guy, but he needs to be more efficient. That means shooting the ball better (41.9% from last year) and using his athleticism to get to the line more (only 3.5 attempts per game last year). Luckily for the Pacers, George has not come close to reaching his potential, so improving in both of these areas seems very possible.
Part of George's inefficiencies are due to his lacking a true playmaker alongside him. For all of point guard George Hill's virtues, a per-36 average of under five assists normally won't result in much help for your wings.
Last year, Indy ranked 23rd in the league in points scored. Some of that had to do with their grind-it-out pace, but the 43.6% team field-goal percentage was also a big reason -- and should be a concern with pathological chucker Danny Granger coming back into the fold.
Because of their offensive struggles, I don't like the Pacers to finish higher than their Central Division rivals, the Bulls. A healthy Derrick Rose (and Rose is looking really good so far) will push Chicago to the giant-killer status they once had, and I see the Bulls potentially running away with one-seed in the Eastern Conference as the Heat pace themselves for the long haul.
Of course, come playoff time, anything can happen. I think the Pacers continue to pose a real threat to Miami in a seven-game series, just as Chicago and Brooklyn do. All three should make for a number of interesting postseason matchups as the defending champs look to three-peat this year.
- The Pacers will shop Danny Granger
- David West will write not a children's book