Next season marks the start of something new for the Indiana Pacers. For the last half-decade, the club has been a lumbering, smash-mouth-style team that was great on defense, but often hard to watch on offense. The approach was ugly but effective enough to reach a pair of Eastern Conference finals.
Now the Pacers appear ready to try something completely different.
Following an offseason renovation, Indiana has new plans to play smaller and faster next season, falling in line with the trend that has influenced much of the league. The switch coincides with the full return of Paul George, the team’s franchise player who missed virtually all of last season following a compound fracture in his leg.
George’s comeback will be as important as the team’s stylistic switch since Indiana envisions him as the centerpiece of their new attack as a playmaking power forward. But first, the Pacers will have to convince him to buy in, since George has already gone back and forth with his public stance on the switch, blasting it at first before later backing off following a “clarification” from coach Frank Vogel and team president Larry Bird. More on that later.
Along with the return of George, Indiana will also be welcoming a host of newly acquired players who better fit their new style, and with so many changes, the Pacers have as much to figure out in training camp as any team in the NBA. There has obviously already been a lot of talk about how it could go, but despite some early noise and hesitations, there could be some serious promise for Indiana to uncover.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR
Last season was a lost year for Indiana, other than being bad enough to qualify for the lottery. Once Paul George broke his leg in August, the team’s competitive prospects were virtually shot, especially since it had allowed Lance Stephenson to walk away earlier in the summer. The only players remaining from their banner squad the year before were Roy Hibbert, David West, and George Hill. And the latter pair both missed significant time due to injuries to start the season.
Needless to say, things were difficult for Indiana. The team labored through a 38-44 season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Without their best player, there was an air of disappointment cast over the entire season, but Indiana’s pricey, well-established core didn’t leave them a ton of opportunities to fill that vacancy. Plus, the Pacers never tank.
Instead, the team’s vaguely competitive, no-stakes season was essentially a way to keep the turnstiles moving and bide their time until George could come back. Everyone looked miserable, and West proved as much when he fled for San Antonio during the offseason.
To make things worse, unlike when George replaced the injured Danny Granger to begin the 2012-13 season, there was no player development in his stead. Just Solomon Hill chucking bricks, and, well, really that’s about it.
Other than George Hill unleashing his aggressive side, or the surprisingly strong play of Rodney Stuckey, there was very little to be excited about for the Pacers last season. Mostly everyone was waiting for George’s return, and while he did make brief appearances in a half-dozen games, his proper return feels like it’s finally arrived.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER
As mentioned, Indiana was extremely busy this summer in trying to find the right players for their new system. Everything started at the end-of-season press conference when team president Larry Bird declared that the team would be switching its playing style. He also publicly called out the poor play of Roy Hibbert and effectively laid out plans to bench the big man in the future—a maneuver that didn’t sit well with David West, who opted out soon after that.
Once West decided to leave, the transition was a full go, and management worked hard to make a comprehensive change. Outside of West, the team also finally were able to trade Hibbert, whom they shipped to the Lakers for practically nothing. Neither breakup was terribly friendly, but together, they bought Indiana about $27 million of flexibility.
With that money, the Pacers went out and signed Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill, re-signed Rodney Stuckey and Lavoy Allen, and traded for Chase Budinger, all offensive-inclined veterans who fit their new “pace and space” mold.
In the draft, they wound up in the lottery with the 11th pick and selected Myles Turner, a hopeful Hibbert replacement with three-point range to boot, as well as Joe Young in the second round, a sparkplug combo guard who can really score.
All those moves, and still the biggest question of all seemed to be George, whose power-forward-playing possibility has loomed over everything the team has done. As we’ve covered extensively on this website, George hasn’t exactly been thrilled about what Indiana expects of him, which could be an issue. For all the changes the team has made, this is the one Indiana needs to work out most.
PLAYER TO WATCH: PAUL GEORGE
Which offers a great segue to this point! In some ways it feels too easy to pick George as the team’s most important player; an intriguing prospect like Turner or flashy showrunner like Ellis would be trendy choices since both hope to play special, integral roles for Indiana this year.
But ultimately, it’s all about George, who, when healthy, gives Indiana a borderline top-10 player in the league. His part-time move to power forward will certainly take an increased physical toll, but coach Vogel has been frank about his intention to preserve George’s body over the long haul.
If the move does work out, with his speed, shooting and athleticism, George could wreck people from the power forward spot, especially with swish-or-dish guards like Ellis, Stuckey and George Hill to help set him up. George has thrived off the ball in the past and shown flashes with the ball in his hands, too, so surrounding him with assertive scorers who are also willing passers could offer the best situation of his career and a chance to thrive.
So far, we’ve seen both sides of the move in preseason, as George struggled on the glass and on defense versus the strong, mobile power forward combination of Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson in the Pacers’ first game. That’s not necessarily an indictment, though, since the Davis-Anderson combo is one of the most versatile and talented starter-bench position combinations of any team in the league. Plus, George smoked them on offense, which is kind of the point of this whole thing.
Offensively speaking, the results were even better in the second game versus Detroit, when George scored 20 points on 7-8 shooting in the first quarter alone. On defense, Vogel elected to have CJ Miles guard Detroit’s Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Tolliver. That’s a defensive wrinkle that allowed George to stay on the other team’s best perimeter guy, but it could be exploited come during the regular season.
However it works out, this season’s Pacers appear built to go as far as the George experiment can take them.
There’s still a lot left to see for Indiana, from George’s continued recovery to Ellis’s mileage at age 30 to Turner’s ability to be an immediate contributor at both ends. In terms of predictions, the Pacers are a volatile one, as this team could flop despite its talent. Vogel has never had to lead an offensive club before, so even the man in charge of it all will have a lot of learning to do.
Indiana does have a good mix of role and feature players, though. And with a healthy George next to Ellis, it would have its best pair of lead scorers in a long time, as well as a potentially lethal pick-and-roll combination. There’s a ton of versatile wing talent surrounding them as well, even if the frontcourt depth leaves something to be desired. If everyone can figure out the offensive roles and hierarchy, this team will put up some points in the East.
Vogel has sculpted defenses from scratch before, but this team will be an entirely new experience for him. As with past seasons, expect him to try to keep a rim protector on the floor at all times. Otherwise, this Pacers team will be predicated on speed and savvy, using double-teams and switches to outmaneuver opponents at that end—things that never happened when the Tower of Hibbert was waiting in the lane.
Following such a drastic change, there’s a lot that must go right for Indiana to be competitive right away. However, if George thrives in his part-time position switch, and Vogel can help this team patch together a workable defense, it would appear to have the makeup to poke their heads above .500 by the end of the season in the East—maybe 40 to 45 wins at the most. Even those are lofty goals, but this team is not without talent.
Should things break the right way for the Pacers—something that didn’t happen last season––some people might be surprised where they wind up this season: in the playoffs and maybe even battling among the plethora of mid-level teams in the East.