This summer, Larry Bird set out to finish the renovation job he started last year in the Indiana Pacers’ frontcourt. After losing David West, Roy Hibbert and Luis Scola last offseason, Bird’s team received mixed results from its frontcourt during the 2015-16 season.
While Ian Mahinmi was solid all season, the trio of Lavoy Allen, Jordan Hill and rookie Myles Turner was equally as unsteady over the course of 82 games. Another issue: in trying to play the pace-and-space style that Bird desired, that group of personnel often found itself stretched thin.
So this offseason, Bird continued tinkering with the frontcourt all the way into September with the signing of Kevin Seraphin. In addition to Seraphin, Bird inked Al Jefferson to a three-year deal and traded for Thaddeus Young from the Brooklyn Nets. In doing so, he finally gave the Pacers (and new head coach Nate McMillan) the necessary personnel to play the up-tempo, high-pressure offensive style that Bird had been pushing regardless of who was on the floor.
That approach now holds a more promising outlook for Indiana. Even Paul George, who resisted last season’s attempts from Indiana brass to get him to play power forward, now says he’s ready to play that position. He said his hesitation a year ago was because he had only just returned from his infamous leg fracture — and understandably so.
McMillan surprised some at Media Day by confirming what even those who were surprised knew: that he planned on starting Turner and Young in the Pacers’ frontcourt this season, with Jefferson serving as the offensive focal point for bench units.
Jefferson and Young delivered on their part during Indiana’s first preseason game Tuesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, as the pair were were first and second on the team in scoring, respectively. Jefferson was a solid 7-of-12 from the field, while Young hit his only three-point attempt, which is what the Pacers are hoping for from him this season. Turner missed the game as he finished the final stages of the NBA’s concussion protocol.
However, the game did little to clear up the rest of the frontcourt situation, which McMillan has made clear since Media Day has yet to be decided.
Lavoy Allen was one of the Pacers’ primary frontcourt contributors last season, but McMillan was even tepid regarding his role. He played 18 minutes against the Pelicans, but McMillan divided up the minutes evenly among guys vying for rotation positions.
“It’s difficult to play 10 guys,” McMillan said, according to the Indy Star’s Jim Ayello. “Lavoy Allen, I think he can help, but he’s going to have to make me play him with what he does on the floor.”
Beyond Allen is a group full of newcomers, including the recently signed Seraphin, injured Jeremy Evans, Pacers D-Leaguer Rakeem Christmas and rookie Georges Niang. If McMillan isn’t sold on Allen’s spot in the rotation, it’s not clear that he sees a viable alternative from this group, as none of them have carved out a niche for themselves as a steady rebounder and team defender the way Allen has.
Seraphin was once considered an intriguing prospect, and even though he’s fallen off during the last couple seasons, he seems like the most likely candidate to usurp Allen in the rotation. He is considerably more athletic than the slow-and-steady Allen, and at one point, Seraphin possessed a dependable mid-range jumper.
The question is what version of Seraphin Indiana will see. Turner has been sidelined with that concussion, so Seraphin has been getting run with the first team during training camp so Jefferson could build a rapport with the second unit. During the New Orleans game, though, he played an uneven 15 minutes, with five rebounds (three offensive), two turnovers, 1-of-5 shooting and a steal. Those numbers won’t earn him a rotation position.
The other option that McMillan mentioned at Media Day was playing George and C.J. Miles at the 4.
As mentioned, George has said he would feel more comfortable with the possibility. And Miles, after acting as a 4 last season and paying the price physically, changed his workout during the offseason and hopes to be able to handle small stretches at the position.
A solution that features a bit of both options feels like the most likely one. Young has been a durable player, never playing in fewer than 63 games during nine seasons, so he will soak up 30-ish minutes per game. Of the remaining 18 minutes, the winner of the Allen/Seraphin competition and some combination of George and Miles figures to account for that.
Much of who handles those minutes will depend on McMillan’s preference for a traditional power forward versus a stretch 4. He seems to be leaning toward playing the latter on a full-time basis, but not all situations call for that approach.
It’s possible that Niang or Christmas could fill the void, but the latter can’t stretch the floor or defend without fouling. Niang has more promise, but rookies are always big question marks.
The other dark-horse option on Indiana’s roster at this point would be Evans, who was acquired from the Dallas Mavericks this offseason and has basically become an afterthought. Evans only just returned to full practice, but he can’t shoot either. He seems more likely a candidate to be cut than to launch a late bid to become a rotation big man.
There’s still a lot of preseason left, so a lot could change. The Pacers are certainly making the most of this time, as they have a full slate of camp invites and 16 guaranteed contracts, so someone is gonna be cut. Right now, the line between candidates for that fate and a small rotation role looks relatively thin.