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Frank Vogel Teases Pacers’ Potential Starters, Preaches Patience for Paul George

Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

After their summer transformation from “big and strong” to “small and fast,” the Indiana Pacers head into next season as one of the NBA’s biggest question marks. Defense and size had been the hallmark for Indiana during the last few seasons, and such a drastic change in such a short period of time has begged many questions but very few answers.

On Thursday, Pacers coach Frank Vogel addressed the media and offered the first taste of how lineups might unfold for the new squad, including the question of playing Paul George at power forward, the polarizing proposition that’s been at the center of any talk about Indiana’s new style.

The Indy Star’s Candace Buckner has already updated her story, but here was Vogel’s early assessment of a potential starting lineup:

“An idea on paper is to have a starting lineup of George Hill, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, Paul George and Ian Mahinmi,” said Vogel, listing the starters in order from point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center.

The idea of George as the Pacers’ starting power forward is pretty big news, given that Vogel and Larry Bird’s initial comments about the possibility were fairly vague, only indicating that George would see “some” time at the power-forward position. Slotting him as the potential starter would seem to indicate a more significant change.

Prior to Vogel’s comments yesterday, Indiana’s star player hadn’t spoken much about the new plan, only telling the Indy Star’s David Woods in July, “If I’ve got to play a couple of minutes at the power forward, I’m fine with it.”

Following Vogel’s address yesterday, George had a lot more to say, telling the same throng of media members that his coach’s comments were news to him, since he said the pair had yet to discuss possible starting lineups even between each other.

George had already gone on an Indianapolis radio show, “The Ride with JMV,” earlier Thursday to express his “not thrilled”-ness with the new situation, and while he dialed back his thought when addressing the media, his reluctance remained obvious:

“I don’t think I’m at that point in my career where I should be changing positions. I think guys do that later in their career. They put on weight, (begin) lacking physical attributes as far as being quick, so I don’t necessarily feel the need to play a different position, especially coming back into a new season and starting fresh again. So it’s a change, it’s definitely a change. We’ll see how it goes.”

Obviously, this isn’t a great start to a very important transition for Indiana. However, it’s still the middle of September, not even time for training camp yet. The last part of George’s comments underscore the most important element of this situation, which is that it’s still fluid. Vogel even said as much after outlining the potential starters:

“They’re all variable in terms of how things play out during camp,” Vogel said. “Not just with certain positions but we intend to go in and be effective playing with a small lineup. Obviously, training camp tells you a lot about your team. We’ll see how it plays out.”

These comments make the pair sound far more on the same page than those about who will start at what position, which is a relief for the team and fans. While Larry Bird has been a bit more bullish on George’s switch, Vogel has also seemed tentative from the beginning, and that’s probably a good thing, considering his reputation as a “player’s coach” who listens and responds well to his players. That type of approach should make things easier for the clearly apprehensive George.

Vogel sounded wholly on-board with the small-ball switch for the first time yesterday, and the starting lineup he mentioned shows that all members of the franchise are serious about playing faster more often and gives us an idea about how bench rotations might shake out as well.

A starting lineup of Hill-Ellis-Miles-George-Mahinmi would leave Rodney Stuckey, Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Myles Turner as the first guys off the Indiana bench, and with the team’s new pace-based approach, each of those guys will probably see run at multiple positions.

Stuckey is coming off a career year and will act as the Pacers’ de-facto backup for both guard spots behind Hill and Ellis. Depending on the lineup, both Hill and Turner will probably slide back and forth between power forward and center, since each of them prefer to face up rather than post up on offense. Budinger, like starter Miles, should see time at three positions: shooting guard, small forward and perhaps some power forward in super-small lineups. That pair’s size and shooting will be keys to Indiana’s new “positionless”-style rotations, since they’re the only members of the team outside of George (and maybe Turner) who are above 6-6 and possess real outside range.

All of this positional fluidity and yet-to-be-made decisions only further emphasize how much learning George and the Pacers have in front of them with their new approach. George is right: it’s not like he’s going to be playing 30 minutes a night at power forward, especially since Indiana has several other guys who should see time there, including Hill, Budinger, Miles and Lavoy Allen, who Indiana re-signed this offseason over Luis Scola.

Even if he DOES play more power forward than he expects, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll always be matched up against every other power forward on both ends of the floor. One of the biggest reasons behind putting George at the 4 would be to create mismatches by taking advantage of his athleticism and versatility. When he’s at that position, it’s more than reasonable to expect some strategic creativity in order to take advantage of George’s advantages. This includes defense, where Vogel does his best work and is surely concerned about preserving George’s body over the long haul.

This type of miscommunication, if you want to call it that, might sound alarming coming so close to training camp, especially since George is the Pacers’ franchise cornerstone. It’s also a part of life in the NBA, however: players aren’t always going to agree with every decision a coach or front office makes. In the case of George, the more important long-term hope is that Indiana hasn’t alienated him with the way they’ve handled the transition.

So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case, since George is a pro who understands how this all works. To his credit, despite some super-negative public talk, he’s ultimately been a good sport and kept an open mind about the possibilities of the position. He’s a smart player and acknowledged that he understands some of the potential advantages a “pace-and-space” style could offer him. He even admitted during his radio appearance that he’s been playing power forward in pickup games, and that both he and his teams have been killing it.

That’s encouraging for Indiana, who’s put the right type of team around George –– full of versatile shooters and big men –– to allow him to switch positions and placement on an almost possession-to-possession basis if necessary. Vogel’s suggested starting lineup shows that he’s ready to embrace the team’s new identity, while his tentativeness shows that he’s ready to deal with some of George’s understandable hesitations.

This is going to be a learning process for everyone involved. Based on that potential starting lineup, it’s clear that the Pacers are going to have some very interesting lineups and rotations, and George will be the fulcrum that determines how they play on any given night.

The only thing that’ll bear answers is time, and after yesterday, Vogel and his team are probably ready to get into camp and figure some things out. While they lack top-end talent, there are some effective players on the roster who fit the mold of what Indiana is trying to accomplish. That’s important.

Despite George’s skepticism, even he admits there are some intriguing possibilities waiting to be discovered in his new role. Vogel clearly agrees and is ready to try some new things. If everything works out like the Pacers hope, all this talk will surely be forgotten soon.

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