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New-Look Pacers in Thick of Next Year’s Eastern Conference Playoff Chase

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers made a lot of moves this offseason, practically swapping out last year’s team for an entirely new squad, especially if you’re counting the return of Paul George.

Each maneuver was calculated in the context of shedding excess size to fit team president Larry Bird’s decision to embrace the “pace and space” revolution of today’s NBA.

During this summer alone, Indiana lost David West, Roy Hibbert, Luis Scola, Damjan Rudez, Chris Copeland and Donald Sloan, then replaced them with Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill, Myles Turner, Joseph Young and Chase Budinger. The Pacers also kept Rodney Stuckey around and acquired some young players to give the end of their bench a lift in Rakeem Christmas and Glenn Robinson III.

That’s certainly a smaller and faster group, one that should be a carnival on offense compared to the smash-mouth Indiana teams of the last few seasons. Even if the Pacers’ new direction flops, this team will feel like a complete about-face from last year’s lurching 38-44 squad after their busy offseason.

Indiana wasn’t the only active team in the Eastern Conference, however. Basically all of the Pacers’ Eastern Conference peers shook things up this offseason, with Cleveland and Chicago being the notable cap-strapped exemptions (although they both brought back key free agents). The Wizards and Raptors were busy in free agency and seemingly also moving toward small-ball-oriented lineups and rotations. Signing Greg Monroe could be a turning point for the Bucks’ rebuilding process, while Monroe’s old team in Detroit re-signed Reggie Jackson and acquired a bevy of players to try out around him and the developing Andre Drummond. Even Indiana’s old nemesis the Heat managed to hang on to Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Goran Dragic to go along with a sneaky-good haul in the draft and free agency.

Last season’s Eastern Conference playoff field featured a pair of teams under .500 when Boston and Brooklyn snagged the final spots. Based on the aggressiveness of mid-level teams in the East this offseason, this year’s playoff race will be greater in both quantity and quality, hopefully resulting in a field without any sub-.500 clubs. The new-look Pacers look exciting on paper, but it’s hard to tell if they’ll be able to make the eight-team cut.

The Cavaliers’ and Bulls’ successful, established (and expensive) cores make them locks for the playoffs, and this goes for the Hawks as well, despite their miserable performance in the Eastern Conference Finals. That leaves fives spots remaining for what should be a dog-fight among the Raptors, Wizards, Bucks, Celtics, Nets, Pacers, Heat and Pistons. The Magic and Hornets would love to believe they’ll be a part of this, and Knicks fans are dreaming of it too, eternally so. 76ers fans don’t care.

The middle of the East is quite a scrum, one the old-look Pacers would’ve welcomed head-on. There will be some challenges for this new era in Indiana, as there always is when integrating this many new players. What’s encouraging about this new group of Pacers is how seemingly well they all fit together, with many players who can do many things, creating a roster that’s much more fluid positionally.

Assuming he returns fully healthy, George will play a huge part in this, given his ability to guard multiple positions on defense, as well as attack in a variety of ways on offense, be it catch-and-shoot, off the bounce, or in pick-and-roll. At the power-forward position, his two-way versatility can make him a game-changer capable of forcing other teams to adapt their lineups based on how their four-men –– traditional or otherwise –– handle his dynamic talents.

There will be far less pressure for George to carry the Pacers’ perimeter offense like there has been in the past, as Ellis gives Indiana the type of drive-happy pick-and-roll catalyst they’ve been seeking for years, while George, George Hill, Stuckey and C.J. Miles provide the caliber of shooting and finishing necessary to capitalize on the contributions of someone like Ellis. While Jordan Hill has never played on a winning team, even he brings an observable skill set on the offensive end. For the first time in a long time, the Pacers will be able to spread the floor effectively on offense, so between their spacing and newfound offensive talent, scoring against Eastern Conference foes shouldn’t be a problem.

Because of their age, predicting the contributions of Turner and Young on offense is more difficult, but if they can stay on the floor, both guys can really fill it up and help to space the floor even more. The same goes for Budinger, although his issues have been injury-related, not age; he hasn’t looked like his younger self in some time and will have to prove he belongs in Indiana’s rotation.

The entire Pacers team will have to prove itself on defense, where they’ll be without their former anchor in Hibbert for the first time in years. Instead, they’ll be leaning on Ian Mahinmi, who’s been a very effective rim protector against bench units but hasn’t started much for Indiana. Turner will also receive plenty of chances, although like many young bigs, he struggles with foul trouble, which could limit his opportunities on the court.

There’s no way Indiana won’t regress from the defensive behemoth they’ve been during the last few seasons under Frank Vogel, but they still have George Hill and Paul George, two very good defensive players capable of guarding multiple positions effectively. That’ll help to have around Ellis, who’s a glaring minus on defense, and the same goes for Jordan Hill. Stuckey and Miles played solid defense during their first seasons under Vogel, and the Pacers are surely hoping for similarly modest changes from Ellis and Hill.

There’s no doubt, however, that this will be the more difficult end of the floor for Indiana. Both Mahinmi and Turner will have big pressure to stay out of foul trouble as the only two shot-blockers on the team.

Assuming Indiana can patch together a passable defense –– a safe assumption, given the defensive savvy of Vogel, George, Hill and Mahinmi –– there’s no reason to believe they can’t put themselves in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. George’s health seems like a potentially thorny problem right now, but doctors have maintained from the time his injury occurred that he’d eventually return to full strength, since the break didn’t cause any tissue or nerve damage. Each of the teams they’re competing with for the remaining playoff spots have their own crucial issues to battle as well, and those teams don’t have the experience and track record of facing adversity that Indiana has developed during its recent playoff runs.

The Bucks are incorporating Monroe and ushering back second-year phenom Jabari Parker from his own serious injury. The Wizards lost Paul Pierce, have an old frontcourt and one of their key young players in Bradley Beal has dealt with injuries throughout his short career. The Raptors face-planted in the first round of the playoffs and followed it up with a polarizing offseason that may or may not have improved their squad. The Celtics and Nets still aren’t quite there, while the Heat must show they’re not too far on the older side of “there” to compete.

The point is, all teams in the middle of the conference have big issues to address; it’s why they’re considered mid-level teams right now. A rotation of something like G. Hill-Ellis-Stuckey-Miles-George-J. Hill-Mahinmi-Turner gives Indiana an intriguing blend of talent and experience that still has some upside. It might not be as flashy on paper as some of the big names on the rosters of Toronto or Washington, but that’s not unusual for the Pacers, who are used to being underestimated and playing past expectations.

After a transformative offseason that’s resulted in understandable uncertainty surrounding their new direction, Indiana will be hoping it can surprise people again, only this time, many of these players can say they’ve done it before. Don’t be one of the surprised ones if the Pacers put themselves in the middle of the action in the East once again.

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