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2016-17 Season Preview: Pacers take on a new identity

AP Photo/Darron Cummings
AP Photo/Darron Cummings

It’s been an eventful last couple years for the Indiana Pacers. Last season was all about Paul George’s return from a virtually season-long absence, but he returned to a much different team. The Pacers had jettisoned Roy Hibbert after David West left, then added Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and lottery pick, Myles Turner.

Still, after a hot first month for both George and his team, Indiana cooled off and was simply an above-average team for the rest of the season. Despite the moves that Larry Bird made to become faster, smaller and more potent on offense, the Pacers once again relied on their defense to carry them. Indiana ranked third in the league in defensive rating but just 23rd on the other end of the floor, per NBA Stats.

That wasn’t unusual for a Frank Vogel-coached team, and last year’s Pacers managed to win 45 games, a respectable total during such a messy season. Ellis put up his worst stats since his rookie season, Budinger got released, Turner missed more than 20 games, and CJ Miles fell off even harder than George did after the first 20 games of the season. Indiana even played a competitive seven-game series against the second-seeded Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.

Bird has been intent on putting up more points, however, so with Vogel’s contract expiring during the offseason, he went ahead and moved on. He promoted Vogel’s former assistant coach Nate McMillan to head coach, then leaped into the offseason fray once again.

The Pacers’ team president traded George Hill for Jeff Teague to rev up the offense, then dealt the 20th overall pick for Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn. He also drafted Georges Niang in the second round, then said he expects him to contribute.

Once free agency opened, Bird added more offense, inking Al Jefferson to a three-year contract, Aaron Brooks to a one-year deal. He let the Mavericks pay him to take Jeremy Evans off their hands and signed Kevin Seraphin to a late-summer one-year deal with an option.

Bird did misstep in losing Solomon Hill; for some reason, Bird declined to pick up the final year option on his rookie deal. Hill, who was up and down during his time in Indiana, maybe could have given this team a much-needed three-and-D player on the wing, but certainly defense at the least.

Once again, Bird re-made more than half the team in a single summer, plus shook up the bench this time. The departures of George Hill and Vogel left Paul George as the sole remaining member of the Pacers’ great teams from a few years ago.

Seeing such a different Indiana squad so soon after is a bit strange, but this year’s team does have potential––at least on one side of the ball for sure.

Key question: Can the Pacers defend, period?

Indiana Pacers guard Monta Ellis, left, keeps the basketball away San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Indianapolis. Indiana won 99-91. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

(AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

Indiana’s defense has already been porous during preseason basketball, and while it’s just preseason basketball, there really aren’t many great defenders on the Pacers’ roster. George is obviously outstanding, but after him, there are a lot of questions.

Thad Young is solid, but he’ll have his hands full handling the gamut of fours in today’s NBA. Ellis worked hard on defense last season, but he’s small and brutal off the ball. Pairing him with the similarly susceptible and small Teague seems nightmarish.

Myles Turner looks like he’s capable of anchoring a defense, but the question is whether he’s ready to do that yet. Last year, he looked like a rookie on a regular basis––a step slow or completely out of position––and he’s still just 20 years old, learning the NBA game. His progress is a huge variable.

As for the bench, there’s not really a defender in sight. None of Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, CJ Miles or Al Jefferson are defensive talents, even if Stuckey and Miles are passable most of the time. Jefferson should be able to do his thing against second-unit bigs, for sure, but how much will he give back on the other end?

During the Pacers’ pair of preseason affairs with the Chicago Bulls, the Jefferson equation felt pretty even. He was masterful on offense but was mastered in the pick and roll on defense.

If Indiana’s starting unit’s defense is a concern, the defense of the second unit practically seems like a lost cause. It’s less of an issue because it’s the second unit, but the defensive depth is concerning, especially when they’re counting on Kevin Seraphin as a fallback.

Honorable mention question

The number-two question for this team: spacing the floor. They only have four above-average career three-point shooters for a space-and-pace style, and Thad Young hasn’t always had the range to stretch the floor from the four position specifically.

Aside from a perimeter guy stepping up, Myles Turner could be the surprise solution for the Pacers’ spacing problem. He seems like he’ll have the range, and a stretch-five who can pull opposing rim protectors away from the hoop is an unusual wrinkle for opponents to deal with.

Best-case scenario

A truly-ideal-but-still-plausible best-case scenario would have George ascending into the MVP conversation for a full season; Teague, Ellis and McMillan catalyzing a great offense, Turner blossoming into a front-line rim protector already, and a healthy, competent bench. Oh, and they’d still play defense! (Although maybe not at the same level, even in this scenario…)

An Indiana team like that, though, could probably climb a tick above the 50-win mark, and perhaps find itself once again in the position of trying to end LeBron James’s reign as king of the Eastern Conference.

Worst-case scenario

Bird took some big gambles this summer on guys who can score, but if Indiana struggles to score, it’s hard to imagine this group of players resting on the laurels of its defensive ability.

If things don’t mesh with Teague and the rest of the team, Thad Young doesn’t have the range, Turner takes a step back as a sophomore, Ellis continues his decline, and the bench starts hemorrhaging leads, it would be a worst-case scenario. These new Pacers have some intriguing elements, but if the defense is bad enough, that will define them regardless.

They could fall back to being a .500 team, but with Paul George and some legitimate talent around him, it’s hard to see Indiana being worse than that in the East, barring injury.

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