Posted Sep 24 2010 10:25AM - Updated Oct 1 2010 2:39PM
Every NBA franchise begins its season with a preferred starting lineup. Sometimes, though, it is a team's ending lineup -- the guys getting starter's minutes in April -- that reveals more about where that club has been and, especially for those that won't be playing beyond game No. 82, where it is headed.
The Indiana Pacers are a great example of that, with their late-season configurations and series of wannabes at point guard revealing much about the franchise and its struggles into lotteryland.
Set aside the fellows penciled in as starters in October and focus instead on the players manning that vital position in the sliver of spring the Pacers have tasted in recent years. The former, after all, is about hoping and wishing, a projection for what might happen, while the latter is generally driven by the grim reality of what did happen. And with the Pacers, a look at their starting point guards at the end of the past five seasons tells us all we need to know about their summer just completed.
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• April 2010: Earl Watson
• April 2009: Jarrett Jack
• April 2008: Andre Owens
• April 2007: Jamaal Tinsley
• April 2006: Anthony Johnson
There were a few other names in the hopper, too (Mike Dunleavy, Keith McLeod) and shrewd readers will notice T.J. Ford conspicuous by his absence. Whatever Indiana's ambitions were for Ford when they acquired him two years ago, they never materialized. Not with Ford missing 43 games since then, starting a total of 81 and holding no more appeal to coach Jim O'Brien (ball dominating vs. ball movement) than two tickets to a Rick Ross concert.
Which gets us to August, when Pacers prez Larry Bird salvaged a yawny offseason by acquiring New Orleans point guard Darren Collison, with veteran swingman James Posey, in a four-team trade. Prized for his play as Chris Paul's understudy in 2009-10, Collison is the point guard Bird, O'Brien and the rest of the Pacers want to see not just starting seasons but finishing them, preferably in May or beyond.
"We're asking him to be kind of a quarterback on an up-and-coming team," O'Brien said in a phone interview this week. "But I don't think anybody is putting pressure on Darren that he is `the answer.' ... For however many months he had with Chris [as teammates in New Orleans], I'm sure he learned a lot because Chris is as good a point guard as there is in the league. But the experience that was really valuable was to be a starting point guard."
It's a small sample size, sure, but Collison blossomed and grabbed attention throughout the NBA when he stepped into Paul's spot. The 6-foot, 160-pounder logged about 70 percent of his minutes last season as a starter. In reserve, Collison averaged 6.4 points and 2.5 assists in 15.9 minutes. But in starting 37 games, his averages jumped to 18.8 ppg, 9.1 apg and 40.3 mpg. He even hit 50 percent of his 3-pointers in March and April.
O'Brien hasn't declared Collison to be his starter in perpetuity yet, but that surely is the plan, with A.J. Price as backup and Lance Stephenson after that (Stephenson's domestic-assault case was one of a couple Pacers headaches this summer, with Brandon Rush's five-game suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy). Ford? He'll have to jump up and down to be noticed in training camp, as Indiana tries to trade or buy out his $8.5 million salary.
Getting your starting point guard in August, after most other pieces are in place, isn't ideal. But it beat picking through the parts bin all year long, and it's nothing new for this team. "We've had, in the last three summers, seven new players two years ago, six new players last year and, this year, we have five new players," O'Brien said. "That's challenging for everybody involved. When you change the point guard spot, that's a key position. ... We're hoping we can build continuity here where, in the future, we won't be having dramatic turnover in the summer."
With Collison, forward Danny Granger and center Roy Hibbert, the Pacers believe they're 60 percent set toward their nucleus. Granger has been Indiana's main man for a few seasons now but, while putting up sparkling numbers, struggled with injuries and with the burden of not having much help to draw off defenders. He had a valuable experience with the U.S. national team this summer but also a bit of a humbling with limited minutes, a hint that his defense still needs work.
Hibbert's offseason work -- both on the court with Hall of Famer Bill Walton and in the gym -- has been noticeable to observers of his 10 percent body fat and the 20 pounds or so that he shed. O'Brien is high, too, on the big man's growing offensive comfort zone. "Roy can not only score in the low post, but he's an excellent passer, an excellent face-up shooter to about 19 feet," the coach said. "You have the ability to run a lot of offense through him at the low post and at the elbow. When he moves out there, we open up the basket area and create opportunities for other guys to cut to the basket and post up below him without his man being able to sag at all."
O'Brien said Dunleavy looks ready to return to 2007-08 form, when he averaged 19.1 points and started 82 games. Forward Tyler Hansbrough finally got clearance this week for contact after being shut down in January after concussion and inner-ear problems. Posey is a defensive ace who gets more helpful as the team around him gets better. Rookie Paul George is a wing player and, O'Brien said, "a guy who really wasn't on anybody's radar until after we drafted him in the lottery [No. 10 from Fresno State]."
Indiana's biggest offseason hole was left at power forward, with Troy Murphy shipped to New Jersey in the Collison trade. Murphy was ideal in O'Brien's system, not just for his double-double consistency but for his ability to hit shots out to 3-point range. Hansbrough, Jeff Foster and Josh McRoberts all are possible plugs.
"We have a big question mark at that position," O'Brien said. "That's something we're going to have to come to grips with. A couple of guys are going to have to step up. And we're going to have to be effective, which we have in the past, at going small."
Making do is nothing new these days for the coach or his franchise. It's been six years since Indiana tasted the playoffs, with victory totals headed in the wrong direction ever since (41, 35, 36, 36 and 32). Maneuvering toward salary-cap room -- which the Pacers will have next summer with Dunleavy, Ford, Foster, McRoberts, Solomon Jones and even Tinsley, coming off the books -- isn't the sort of activity that excites folks at Conseco Fieldhouse.
But O'Brien sees three playoff spots up for grabs in the Eastern Conference this season, something for his guys to target. And he knows things could be much worse without the cover of Bird's determination and credibility.
"From the first moment we talked about me possibly coming to Indiana, Larry was very open about how we were going to try to do this," O'Brien said. "And we haven't deviated from what he initially laid out. He has been very supportive publicly, as maybe some media have lost patience and everybody wants to say it's not going in the direction we intended.
"I think with a lesser man as my boss it might be difficult. But I understand clearly wht the plan is, he knows what the plan is and we're moving in that direction."
Slowly, without a doubt. Surely? That's the Pacers' hope. That, and their spanking new point guard.
Free Agents: G Earl Watson (unrestricted)
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