Don't look now, but Pacers aren't all that bad
Maybe it’s the heat.
Maybe it’s some dizziness lingering from the recent whirlwind of activity.
Or maybe, just maybe, I’m actually thinking clearly, and the Pacers aren’t looking as bad as the NBA world seems to think.
If you really dig into what team president Kevin Pritchard has done in the past few weeks and sort through all the new pieces, you don’t have to squint to see the foundation of a decent team being poured. No one’s suggesting they’re going to shock the world this season and make a deep playoff run. But they just might surprise their own little corner of it by winning more than expected.
Because, when you take a hard look at the team as it currently stands, it really doesn’t look all that bad compared to last season. In fact, it can be reasonably argued they are better off at four positions; whether that’s enough to offset the big drop at small forward remains to be seen. Here’s a comparison of the depth chart now, and the way it looked at the end of 2016-17.
Now: Darren Collison, Cory Joseph
Then: Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, Aaron Brooks
Bottom Line: Minor Upgrade.
Analysis: Although Teague is regarded as the better overall player than Collison, is the difference really that stark? Their career statistics are almost identical and, while Teague is a more polished offensive player, Collison is a substantial upgrade, defensively. The real difference comes off the bench, where Cory Joseph is one of the top 10 backup point guards in the league, solid at both ends of the floor, whereas Ellis and Brooks were both fading, inefficient scorers whose defensive inadequacies could no longer be masked.
Now: Victor Oladipo, Lance Stephenson
Then: C.J. Miles, Stephenson
Bottom Line: Major Upgrade.
Analysis: Maybe he isn’t an All-Star, but Oladipo is at the very least an established starter with an upward career arc. He’s a very strong defender and aggressive offensive player. While not a pure 3-point shooter, he’s better in every other category than Miles or Ellis, who opened last season as the starter but failed to hold onto the position. This season’s Stephenson should be better than the unhealthy, out of shape version that joined the Pacers late last year. It’s not unreasonable to suggest the Pacers could get a combined 30 points per game from this position.
Now: Bojan Bogdanovic, Glenn Robinson III
Then: Paul George, Robinson.
Bottom Line: Major Downgrade.
Analysis: No way to sugar-coat this. George was the best scorer and defender on the roster and even though he didn’t play hard all the time, his talent was undeniable. Yes, he had his failings (passing, dribbling, decision-making), but he did so many things well he will be impossible to replace. The Pacers, in fact, didn’t even try. Bogdanovic is a floor-spacing 3-point threat with a strong floor game, but his defense leaves much to be desired. In fact, his shortcomings there have led to his departures from both Brooklyn and Washington, and may cost him the starting job if Robinson continues to improve. Robinson is at least a comparable 3-point threat, more athletic and better defensively; he may just need another year of development in his all-around floor game to emerge as the starter.
Then: Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen, Kevin Seraphin
Now: Domantas Sabonis, Young, T.J. Leaf
Bottom Line: Minor Upgrade
Analysis: If you think Young will remain the starter, think again. The combination of Young and Myles Turner didn’t work last year. Not enough defense, not enough rebounding, not nearly enough toughness inside. There’s a reason the Pacers spent both draft picks on bigs (Leaf and Ike Anigbogu) while also acquiring Sabonis from OKC with Oladipo in the George trade, and it wasn’t to maintain the status quo up front. Sabonis started 66 games as a rookie and has the size, strength and skill around the basket to stabilize things at both ends of the floor. Young will now be in his best role, the first big man off the bench to match up with stretch fours when necessary, while Leaf’s intriguing offensive game should earn a steady diet of minutes off the bench.
Then: Turner, Al Jefferson, Rakeem Christmas
Now: Turner, Jefferson, Seraphin, Anigbogu
Bottom Line: Minor Upgrade
Analysis: After a fast start, Turner’s batteries were quickly drained and he was unable to sustain the level of play necessary. It was a mistake throwing him to the wolves inside without an enforcer next to him, and he wound up paying the price. His improvement this season is not only the key to this position, but the key to the team. If he is able to add core strength while improving his conditioning, he could take a big step toward true stardom. If, like Jermaine O’Neal and Roy Hibbert, he proves more interested in growing big biceps than building a better basketball body, he’ll never fulfill his immense potential. Keep an eye on Anigbogu, a first-round talent who fell into the second round because of a troublesome knee. If the Pacers can get that cleaned up, he could become a force off the bench. Otherwise it’ll be more of the same with Seraphin and/or Jefferson.
The intangibles should also be much better with this group because of the influx of youth, athleticism and motivation, but they’ll have to be. Last year’s team looked good on paper entering the season, but quickly turned to scrap. This team will be widely overlooked because of the lack of star power, but even that will offer the players additional edge. And keep in mind, the bar hasn’t exactly been set high the past couple of years. At least now, there is a future to anticipate, and the present won’t be as bad as you might think.
Photo of Kevin Pritchard by Frank McGrath/Pacers