Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog - Key questions as Pacers enter training camp

Key questions as Pacers enter training camp

Indianapolis (Dec. 9, 2011) -- The most anticipated training camp of Larry Bird's tenure at the top of the totem pole begins Friday afternoon in Conseco Fieldhouse.

A young team very much on the rise, the Pacers are positioned to climb the ladder of Eastern Conference contenders. Just how many rungs they can reach depends in no small part on the answers to the five key questions facing the team as camp opens.

1. How will the cap space be used?

After careful, patient and sometimes painful personnel decisions the past few years, Bird has positioned himself as a buyer in a seller's market, with around $21 million in salary cap space but no glaring holes on the roster that must be plugged with a pile of cash. In other words, wholesale changes aren't necessary; rather, Bird can be very selective.

Landing an impact power forward to add strength, defense, rebounding and low-post scoring to the frontcourt appears to be the top priority, and media reports have linked the Pacers to a variety of possibilities. Another potential area of need is a proven late-game scorer, a guy that can get -- and make -- a big shot late in the clock when the play breaks down.

The key will be to avoid stunting the growth of the team's young core. Paul George has the stuff of a star but will need playing time to develop. Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert aren't close to finished products. Darren Collison is in just his third NBA season. The Pacers think there's another level to George Hill's game. Of the top six, only Danny Granger has essentially reached his level, and it's pretty high.

We probably won't have to wait long to see how this question is answered.

2. What role awaits Hill?

Acquiring Hill was a coup for the Pacers. Now, what do they do with him? He has the talent to start at either backcourt spot but that might not be the best thing for the rotation.

Collison has the chance to prove there's more this game than met the eye last season, when he was good but didn't show the explosiveness of his time with the Hornets. If Collison plateaus, Hill would certainly present an attractive option at the point.

Thing is, Hill has been a shooting guard most of his career, is more comfortable off the ball and has been much more efficient at that position in the NBA. Paul George finished the season as the starter and there is much to gain by encouraging his continued growth.

There's every chance Hill, Collison and George will comprise a three-guard rotation giving Frank Vogel much greater matchup flexibility than last season.

3. Can they pick up where they left off?

The electricity generated by that dramatic first-round series with Chicago last year will be difficult to replicate, given the events that have transpired in the time since but the Pacers are much better off for that experience. If they entered the series uncertain of what to expect, they exited with real confidence they belong among the playoff contenders in the East.

Considering they face a rough schedule out of the gate, with 15 of the first 22 on the road, the Pacers will be challenged to keep the buzz alive. In that regard, the first five games -- all against teams that had losing records last season -- are critical. If they can at least get off on the right foot, it could help them survive the most difficult part of the season and set them up for a strong finish.

4. How will Vogel evolve as a head coach?

Vogel has come a long way in a short period of time but it's important to remember he is still very young and inexperienced by NBA standards, and his growth into the job will be critical. He displayed a number of admirable characteristics last season, going with his instincts in changing the rotations and personality of the team so dramatically after taking over for mentor Jim O'Brien. His positive energy was welcome and necessary.

Vogel wisely surrounded himself with highly respected veteran assistants, adding Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen and retaining Dan Burke. The staff spent an enormous amount of time preparing during the offseason down-time, taking full advantage of the opportunity to not only bond but learn from each other's experiences -- as well as those of other coaches.

With potential major changes coming to the lineup and rotation, Vogel is tasked not only with guiding the team to a higher level but continuing the development of young players crucial to the franchise's future. To do so, he'll need to keep spreading that infectious positive energy without sacrificing the authority necessary to keep a team between the guardrails.

5. Will the truncated preparation time be a boon or bane?

Everything about this season is different, nothing moreso than the limited time to prepare. With just two weeks of training camp and two preseason games, conditioning and injuries -- always important factors -- will weigh more heavily than ever. Not only will coaches and players have to deal with relatively limited time to prepare, the nature of the compressed schedule will offer fewer opportunities to practice once the season begins.

With a relatively young, deep roster that will be largely intact, the Pacers could have an advantage, particularly when compared to older teams trying to incorporate more new faces. The flip side, however, is that veterans tend to know best how to take care of their bodies and maintain their energy through the course of a season.

Add it all up and you have a team, and a league, venturing into the unknown. The journey is about to begin. Buckle up.

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