The dawn of a new NBA season always brings about new questions for teams as well. No squad can avoid them completely –– the natural aging process and restrictions of the NBA salary cap guarantee that even the most kept-together teams will face uncertainty regarding at least part of their roster.
Generally speaking, however, teams that maintain strong continuity from year to year do have fewer questions to answer than teams that have undergone significant offseason changes.
This season, the Indiana Pacers are an extreme example of the latter category, having overhauled both their strategy and their roster during the offseason to be smaller and faster. Such drastic changes in such a short time has left the Pacers staring down myriad key questions prior to the season. However, the move of star player Paul George to power forward has created one big question that’s loomed over all others for Indiana so far, and not many of the team’s B-list issues have been touched on so far.
In the interest of looking beyond George’s ambivalence and dissecting some of those other issues, this post will attempt to avoid writing directly about the relentless back-and-forth that’s taken place during the preseason so far between George and the Pacers brass and will instead try to discuss them on their own terms. That’s only possible to a certain extent obviously, since virtually everything about this team will revolve around George, and most of them are designed to make his new job and transition as easy as possible.
Do the Pacers have another “power faux-ward” to spell George?
George will be expected to shoulder the majority of the scoring load and general responsibility of the power-forward position, but Vogel has emphasized that he wants to be cautious with the impact on George’s body, so we’ve seen C.J. Miles pick up some of the defensive responsibilities against non-threatening power forwards during the preseason.
That type of sharing seems like it’s going to be common for Indiana this season, and it makes sense given George’s importance to the franchise and his ongoing injury recovery. Miles is already a starter, however, and when he’s not on the floor, Indiana will need another option to go small alongside George.
Enter Chase Budinger, Glenn Robinson III and Solomon Hill. None of the three inspire supreme confidence, although Budinger’s concerns are health-related, so if he can stay spry, this spot might figure itself out. But if Budinger goes down or looks washed up, Robinson and Hill will be forced to step up in a very big way, a prospect that could be trouble for this team considering Robinson’s lack of experience and Hill’s proven mediocrity.
Since they’ll be sharing some of George’s responsibilities, this will be a critical middle-of-the-bench development for the Pacers.
Can George Hill not disappear?
Back when the Pacers were falling apart during the spring of 2014, George Hill disappeared. Not in the literal sense of the word, obviously, but in terms of his on-court production, he barely existed. Hill felt marginalized both personally and strategically by the mercurial Lance Stephenson, who was dominating the ball and seriously frustrating Hill during games. Hill wasn’t entirely without blame, but there’s no question the team strayed too far from his opportunities, and during the team’s final half-dozen games, his usage percentage was an anemic 11 percent.
Indiana added Monta Ellis during the offseason, another ball dominator who’s never seen a shot attempt that didn’t warrant consideration, and he’ll join Hill in the backcourt for this year.
Ellis isn’t Stephenson –– the latter has distinguished himself for the worse since leaving Indiana. But he does have a dicey reputation and a proven penchant for overshooting. Hill must effectively negotiate the pair’s relationship and ensure he remains a factor, especially since he’s a far better outside shooter than Ellis or backup Rodney Stuckey.
Can Frank Vogel build an offense?
During his four-and-a-half years at the helm in Indiana, coach Frank Vogel has buttered his bread on the defensive end of the floor, creating what was once one of the league’s elite defensive units and the strategic anchor for the Pacers’ pair of runs to the conference finals.
With all of Indiana’s changes during the offseason, Vogel will now have to switch gears, as the Pacers’ new strategy obviously emphasizes offense. The influx of talented offensive players will make the job easier, but he still has a lot to prove. Under Vogel, Indiana has finished among the league’s top 10 in offensive rating only once, in 2011-2012. That’ll be the necessary baseline for his team this season in order to be competitive.
Vogel has shown a flourish for drawing up effective inbounds plays during the past, but those are the smallest of potatoes compared to crafting an entirely new system from scratch. Vogel’s personnel limited his possibilities in the past, and this team has too much talent not to score points. The question is whether the defensive-minded Vogel can help them do it effectively enough to force other teams to adjust to them, then still have enough left in the tank on the other end.
Will a big man step up?
With the move of George to power forward, the Pacers’ frontcourt looks much different. It’s a bit thin by traditional NBA standards and largely unproven, with career bench player Ian Mahinmi slotted as the starter, career underachiever Jordan Hill leading the bench unit and rookie Myles Turner serving as the X-factor.
Vogel likes to play with a rim protector as much as possible, a practice he’d like to continue. Any lineup with Hill at center makes this impossible, but he’s there for his offense mostly, and he’s the only big who can also play power forward. He’s better suited to come off the bench than anchor a starting unit.
Mahinmi and Turner fit more of the mold that Vogel will be looking for: an athletic, mobile big man who can defend on the back line and the pick-and-roll while avoiding becoming an offensive liability. So far, Mahinmi has played well in preseason and drawn rave reviews from teammates, and if that continues, he’d be serviceable or better as a starter, depending on how well he catches the ball and shoots free throws. Turner would be the ideal candidate, though, considering his great range, defensive instincts and serious investment from the Pacers.
Still, if either one of them can step up and fortify their defense without killing their flow on offense, that would be a huge bonus for Indiana.