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Team Preview: Indiana Pacers

By Jeff Erickson, RotoWire.comView: All Team Previews

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

The Pacers haven't been the same since November 19, 2004, when Ron Artest went into the stands. This was a team on the cusp of at least Eastern Conference preeminence, if not the NBA Championship. Instead, Artest missed the rest of the season, and Jermaine O'Neal missed significant chunks of the year, and the Pacers haven't been a big threat since. That "era," if it rose to that level, has clearly ended, with the firing of coach Rick Carlisle as the final tipping point. Meanwhile, they've been stuck in limbo, not strong enough to legitimately contend, but not bad enough to improve considerably from the draft. That problem was exacerbated this year, when Atlanta took their first-round pick as part of the Al Harrington deal that flopped so badly. There have been some trade talks involving the team’s lone remaining star, Jermaine O'Neal, but nothing has materialized yet.

In bringing in Jim O'Brien to coach the team, the Pacers are changing the entire manner in which they play. No longer will their offense be tightly structured, with an emphasis on the half-court game. Instead, they'll employ an up-tempo brand that features many more three-point attempts. Don't be surprised to see the team press more frequently on defense to lead to quicker baskets on the other end. Point guard Jamaal Tinsley particularly looks to benefit from the coaching change, as will three-point threats Mike Dunleavy Jr. , Danny Granger and the newly signed Travis Diener. O'Neal has expressed his desire to leave, but he might enjoy playing in the new system, particularly if it leads to more success in the win column.

PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION

New coach. Third year. Is this Danny Granger's year?
( Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images)
There's going to be plenty of variance from game-to-game with this squad in terms of playing time, particularly with a new coach coming in. That said, the two constants in this lineup, when healthy, will be Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley. O'Neal will almost certainly average around 35-36 minutes per game, with some of those minutes coming at center and others at power forward, and Tinsley will play around 30 minutes per game at the point guard slot.

After that, it gets a little murkier. Troy Murphy could really benefit from O'Brien's system, if he can only stay healthy. Of course, the same could be said for O'Neal and Tinsley. Murphy's ability to shoot the three-pointer should merit him more minutes than in Carlisle's system. He averaged only 27 minutes last year, but he should get closer to 30 again this year. Granger logged the second most minutes per game with the team last year at 34.2 per game, and that should continue, whether it's at the small forward or the shooting guard slot. The fifth starting slot might vary, depending on whether the Pacers want to go big or small, or emphasize the outside shot. Three players will vie for that spot, and all should get 20-25 minutes per game - Jeff Foster if they go big, Marquis Daniels if they want more of a defensive presence on the perimeter, or Mike Dunleavy Jr. if they want to get more offense from the outside.

Ike Diogu is the wild card in this picture. Under Carlisle, one night Diogu might score 18 points and pull down 10 boards and then sit out the next night. Diogu's defense has always held him back in the past, and it's what might limit his minutes under O'Brien. He could end up averaging anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes per game. Travis Diener and Kareem Rush will be the backups at the point and shooting guard slots and should play about 10 to 15 minutes. The remainder of the playing time will be split David Harrison, Shawne Williams and Andre Owens. Williams' development in his second season in the NBA could potentially shake up this playing time picture.

PLAYER OUTLOOKS* = Projected Starter

CENTER

* Troy Murphy – IND [PF,C]: The prevailing wisdom was that Murphy was a better fit in Carlisle's half-court system, rather than the fast-paced play under Don Nelson in Golden State. That might be true – his points per game, shooting percentage and minutes all increased after the midseason trade to the Pacers. That said, the switch to O'Brien won't necessarily hurt Murphy. Much of his offensive production comes from the perimeter – he's averaged 58 three-pointers per season during the last three years, a total that's likely to go up in O'Brien's three-point paradise. The one disturbing statistical trend for Murphy is his dropping rebound rate - after consistently pulling down double-digit rebounds for most of his career, he only averaged 6.1 per game last year. It wasn't a change of systems that created the drop – the rate was nearly the same at Golden State and Indiana. The other concern about Murphy is his health. Some of his injuries have been flukes, like last year's broken nose, but the fact remains that he's missed an average of 22 games the last four seasons.

Jeff Foster – IND [C]: Foster's playing time under new coach Jim O'Brien could suffer. While nearly every coach could appreciate Foster's ability to defend and rebound, his offensive skills haven't developed. Factor in Foster's lingering back spasms, and you have a formula for diminishing fantasy value.

David Harrison – IND [C]: Harrison's development has been held back by two problems: his inability to stay healthy and stay out of foul trouble. Now he has another impediment in his way – the Pacers' new up-tempo offense. If he were ever to improve enough to the point where he could reliably play 20-plus minutes per game, he'd be a nice cheap source for blocked shots.

Stanko Barac – IND [PF,C]: The Pacers dealt a future draft pick to get Barac, a 7-1 center with a good outside shot. Barac is a long-term project, however, and to that end will spend the next three years playing in Spain.

POWER/SMALL FORWARD

* Jermaine O'Neal – IND [PF]: O'Neal suffered a tumultuous offseason, hearing his name bandied about in numerous trade rumors, only to end the summer still with the Pacers. If the Pacers get off to a slow start, expect to hear the rumors of him going to the Lakers resurface. As a putative fantasy owner, that shouldn't be your biggest concern. Instead, worry more about O'Neal's left knee, upon which he had surgery in April to repair torn cartilage. He's on schedule to be ready for training camp, but his playing time trends are pretty ugly - he's played 44, 51 and 69 games, respectively, the last three seasons. Because he's a marquee name, you'll still have to pay sticker price in your draft to get him, however. Statistically, most of his trends remain steady, except for his shooting percentages. His field goal percentage dipped significantly last year to 43.6 percent, but his free throw percentage improved to 76.7 percent. One final note - watch his position eligibility closely. He’s listed as a forward-center in many services so far, but he only started four games at center last season, so it's possible he'll be useable at forward only in your league. Check your league's rules accordingly.

* Danny Granger – IND [SF]: Granger was a big beneficiary of the trade sending Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson to the Warriors, as he averaged four more minutes per game, roughly 1.5 more shots per game and 1.7 points per game after the deal. The Pacers will continue to build around Granger, especially if they trade O'Neal as part of their overhaul. Granger, who made 110 three-pointers last season, is tailor-made for new coach Jim O'Brien's system. The one defect in his game is his lack of rebounding – at 6-9, he should be pulling down more than the 4.6 boards per game he did last year. Still, he's the one Pacer clearly on the rise – get him now before he starts to get expensive in your league.

Ike Diogu – IND [PF,C]: On a per-minute basis, Diogu is one of the more fantasy-productive players in the NBA. He's capable of putting up double-double numbers every time he hits the floor. Unfortunately, he also best represents the chasm between fantasy and reality, as his offensive production has a hard time keeping up with what he allows on the other end of the floor. At 6-8, 255, Diogu isn't the most mobile of players, which could hurt him in Jim O'Brien's system. Still, if you're looking to gamble late in your draft on a cheap source for points and rebounding, Diogu is a nice sleeper. You're better off owning him in league where you can taxi him if he's not getting consistent playing time, then starting him when O'Neal suffers his next injury.

Why? If the Pacers end up trading O'Neal and Diogu ends up with a starting job as a result, he'll help you in scoring, rebounding and the shooting percentage categories, without doing much in the other four major categories (assists, steals, blocks and three-pointers).

Shawne Williams – IND [SF,PF]: Williams, the Pacers' first-round pick last season, is still incredibly raw, but he also shoots the three and reportedly spent the summer working specifically on honing his shooting skills. With Granger, Marquis Daniels, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Kareem Rush all around, playing time at either the small forward or shooting guard slots will be hard to come by. Watch his minutes later in the season – he might be worth a waiver wire pickup over the second half, but his breakout is more likely to happen next season.

POINT/SHOOTING GUARD

* Jamaal Tinsley – IND [PG]: In theory, Tinsley should really benefit from the coaching change. He’s a better player in an open, running offense. There's no doubt that his performance is the most important variable determining the fate of the Pacers' season. Unfortunately, much of what we wrote about Tinsley last year remains true – when he's on his game, he's spectacular, but when he's off, he can sink a team. He rebounds better than your average point guard, and he'll also help you in steals. Unfortunately, he's prone to shooting first (and missing - he shot an abysmal 38.9 percent from the field last year) and passing second, a quality not necessarily desired in a point guard. Here's where coach Jim O'Brien's system might backfire – if Tinsley isn't sufficiently restrained from jacking too many three-pointers, the wheels could easily come off. He's also injury-prone – the 10 games he missed last year were actually the least he's missed since the 2002-03 season. He's also standing trial on December 10 on charges stemming from a February bar altercation and could miss some time.

Why? Tinsley's night-to-night unreliability and his fragility can just sink a fantasy team. Sure, there will be weeks when he'll be a top-10 point guard, but there will be other weeks when he'll absolutely kill his owners. There's a dearth of quality point guards in the NBA – go out and invest in one of them so that you aren't forced to rely upon the likes of Tinsley.

Marquis Daniels – IND [PG,SG]: Daniels couldn't have had a more miserable season last year. He missed the preseason with a toenail injury and then followed that during the season with hamstring and knee injuries, a case of food poisoning, and a case of falling out of favor with coach Rick Carlisle. Off the court, he got arrested for his role in a bar altercation (along with Tinsley). As a result of all the incidents, Daniels was that his numbers were down across the board, while he played a career-low 17.8 minutes per game. The coaching change certainly can't hurt, but Daniels is going to have to prove both that he can stay healthy (he's never played more than 62 games in a season) and hit the outside shot. A little recovery can safely be expected, but it's hard to envision him playing more than 25 minutes or scoring more than 10 points per game.

* Mike Dunleavy Jr. – IND [SG]: Dunleavy is a hard player to project this year. He fell out of favor in Golden State because of his defensive shortcomings, something that could hurt him with new coach Jim O'Brien in Indiana. On the flip side, he's perfectly suited to O'Brien's offensive philosophy, averaging nearly 86 three-pointers per season during the last four years. When the Pacers go small, his lack of speed on defense won't be as big of an albatross, but he may have to cede time to Marquis Daniels when the Pacers have their big lineup, in order to have someone who can chase the opponent's shooting guard around.

Travis Diener – IND [PG,SG]: The Pacers gave Diener a three-year contract to backup Tinsley this summer, continuing a theme of wanting to find good outside shooters. Diener will do that, but the Pacers might find themselves needing Diener to play more minutes than he’s capable of, if/when Tinsley gets hurt. The knock on Diener has always been his lack of foot-speed – he has trouble against full-court defenses and guarding opposing point guards.

Kareem Rush – IND [SG]: Like Dunleavy, Rush isn't on the team for his defense. The Pacers specifically spent the offseason looking for another outside shooter, and Rush was their second target after Jason Kapono. He spent last year playing overseas in Lithuania, after getting cut by the Sonics in training camp in part due to an inability to get over a groin injury. When Rush was with Charlotte, there were significant questions about his work ethic, so a trip to the doghouse here isn't beyond the realm of possibility. Look for Rush's production to come sporadically.

Andre Owens – IND [PG,SG]: Owens spent last season in the D-League after getting squeezed out in Golden State. If Kareem Rush flops, Owens could get his shot to be an outside specialist.

Stephen Graham – IND [PG,SG]: Graham is another lottery ticket that the Pacers bought in hopes of converting his outside shooting ability into good production. At best, he's third on their depth chart at the shooting guard spot, behind Andre Owens.

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