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2012-13 Season Preview and Player Breakdown

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

October 30, 2012

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You'll get no season predictions here for the Pacers. Tell me who's going to be injured and for how long, then file Nostrademus' injury reports for all the other Eastern Conference teams, and I'll come up with something. But we don't know who will be populating the injured lists, so why pretend that we know how things will turn out?

The Pacers should make the playoffs, that much we know. The best-case scenario is that they recapture the momentum they established at the end of last season, remember the lessons they learned in the second-round playoff series loss to Miami, and refuse to succumb to the pressure of higher expectations. The worst-case scenario is that last season's surge was a fluke, generated by injuries to Orlando's Dwight Howard in the first round and Miami's Chris Bosh in the second, as well as Dwyane Wade's temporary malaise. George Hill at Media Day

The Pacers have been picked to finish anywhere between second (Sports Illustrated) and eighth (ESPN The Magazine) in the East by the national media, and arguments can be made for both. By all logical measures, the Pacers should be better than last season. But then so could Boston, Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey), New York and a few other teams in the East. Miami is the easy pick to win the conference, but an injury to LeBron James or Wade could turn the whole thing upside-down.

Positively, the Pacers appear to have balance, depth, chemistry and a firmly positive mindset that springs from coach Frank Vogel's self-described "shoot-for-the-moon mentality." Negatively, their mental toughness came into question at the end of last season, after they led eventual champion Miami 2-1 in the second playoff round and at halftime of Game 4 before faltering. In the grand scheme of things, they really haven't accomplished anything yet, other than winning a playoff series over a team (Orlando) that was missing one of the NBA's best players, Dwight Howard. It also remains to be seen if their remodeled bench can provide adequate support when the starters rest.

The starting lineup returns intact from last season, but there will be some tweaks to its playing style. Vogel wants a faster tempo and more three-point shooting. (His team ranked 20th in the NBA in three-point attempts last season.) He hopes Hibbert's continued emergence as an inside threat will create opportunities outside, and that someone takes advantage of them. The Pacers have five veterans with career three-point percentages above 35 percent, so the argument can be made.

They also have the potential to be a strong defensive team. They have length and reasonable athleticism, but need to develop a fundamental team defensive approach to take advantage of it.

"I think we have most of the positions covered," team president Donnie Walsh said. "I think we have replacements at the key positions.

"What we must do is play really well together. We did that at the end of last year. We have to continue that and improve on that."

Walsh was the patient architect of the Pacers teams that reached the playoffs 15 times in the 16-year stretch from 1990-2006, reached the Eastern Conference finals five times in the seven-year period between 1994 and 2000, and reached the NBA Finals in 2000. He believes the current team can be as good as those teams if it stays together—literally and in the basketball sense.

"They did it at the end of last year," said Walsh, who returned to the Pacers in the off-season after Larry Bird stepped down. "Everybody who knows the team ... thinks (there are) really good guys on this team. That's exactly what happened with the teams in the 90s. They were all good guys, they were all focused on what they wanted to do, they all wanted to win, they all played hard, and they were all together. That's what I look for. If (this year's team) can do that they'll be more successful than what a lot of people may think."

Vogel is even more optimistic. He believes his team can become better than the teams of the nineties because of its superior defensive potential. His starting five, without question, has the physical ability to defend better than the starting unit that included Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Dale Davis and either Chris Mullin or Jalen Rose.

"We have decent defenders at every position in the starting five," Vogel said. "You have that, you can become one of the best defensive teams in the league. We're not trying to hide guys. Everybody in our starting five can guard their position with the best of them. When you have that, you have a strong unit."

This Pacers team, however, faces a potential obstacle that hasn't been seen around Indianapolis since the 2004-05 season: expectations. Will it simply assume it will contend in the East because of the way it finished last season? Will it allow those expectations to become a distracting burden? Or, can it find the right mix of confidence and humility?

"If they think they can go out and be good just because they were good last year, that's not the way it works," Walsh said. "I want to see this team play in real games for awhile to see if it can find its niche. The proof will come out in the pudding. And the pudding takes six months to figure it all out."

A breakdown of the roster follows:

Starters

Roy Hibbert: Signed four-year, $58 million contract over the summer. Doesn't like to talk about it, and who can blame him? Max contracts have turned out to be a mixed blessing for Pacers players. Hibbert, however, appears to have the maturity and self-discipline to overcome the pressure they bring. Don't expect major improvement on the court, however. He turns 26 in December, so he's not far from his peak. Must defend the lane and grab every possible rebound. Averaged 8.8 rebounds last season. Getting to 10 would be a worthy goal. The Pacers outscored the Heat when he was on the floor during the second-round playoff series. David West at Media Day

David West: The most mature of all the Pacers, he hopes to play all season as he finished last season, when his surgically repaired knee began feeling better. Best combination of a scoring threat and rebounder on the team. Can post up or hit mid-range jumper. Also the best locker room leader. Doesn't talk a lot, so his teammates listen when he does. The sight of him yelling at his teammates to stop celebrating and get off the floor following their Game 2 win at Miami last season was a revealing moment. Averaged 12.8 points in regular season, but 15.3 in playoffs. That should be all the scoring needed from him this season. In a contract year. If he has another typically good season, Pacers could have to make some hard decisions—either let him go or let someone else go to keep him.

George Hill: Is he a legit starting point guard in the NBA? We really don't know yet, and the answer will have a huge bearing on the season. The Pacers were 7-2 in the games he started at the end of last season, which bodes well, but some of those wins were against teams out of the playoff picture. Still, he emerged as a better alternative than Darren Collison, which led to Collison's trade in the offseason. Walsh considers him to be "deceptively athletic" and appreciates the nuances of his game, such as how he executes pick-and-rolls. Perhaps more a combo guard than a pure point guard, but he could grow into his new assignment. Doesn't need to score much, but is capable. Averaged 13.9 points, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds as a starter. Assist-to-turnover ratio was nearly 3-to-1.

Danny Granger: Preseason knee injury clouds his immediate future, but so far there doesn't seem to be cause for serious concern. Has two years left on his contract. He needs to play up to it, otherwise he could become sign-and-trade bait next season. That doesn't mean he has to score more than last season (18.7). His scoring average rose by more than five points for three straight seasons, but has since dropped for three straight seasons. That largely reflects the improvement of the talent around him, but his field goal percentage also has dropped in each of the past three seasons. Last year's (.416) was a career low. The former captain is now just one of the guys, but he has no problem with that.

Paul George: The team's primary X-factor. Of all the starters, he easily has the most room for improvement, and the highest ceiling. Has stated a goal of playing in the All-Star game, and has the talent to do it. Improved to 38.5 three-point shooting last season, and is the best of all the Pacers at getting to the basket. Sometimes disrupts the offense, however. Showed more offensive aggression in the preseason, but needs to continue to upgrade defending and rebounding, too. The closest the team has to a lock-down defender. Ranked sixth in the NBA with 108 steals in 66 games last season.

Rotation Players

D.J. Augustin: "Pure point guard." You don't hear his name without those words attached to it lately, but that's not a bad thing. He replaces Collison, who was regarded as too scoring-oriented in the halfcourt offense. Happy to be out of Charlotte, where he started on bad teams over the past two seasons and had to bear more of the offensive burden than he wanted. He's a 37 percent career three-point shooter and an 88 percent foul shooter and will be the Pacers' best interior passer. Was a weak defender in the preseason, however. Has played not-so-grand total of four playoff games after four years in Charlotte. On a one-year contract. Tyler Hansbrough at Media Day

Gerald Green: Another major X-factor. Has starter's ability, which he showed in his 31 games in New Jersey last season – he averaged 12.9 points, hitting 39 percent of his three-pointers and 80 percent of his foul shots. Nets called him up after he scored 28 points and was named MVP of the D-League All-Star game. Entering his sixth NBA season, with his sixth NBA team. Has also played in Russia, China and the D-League. A high school All-American, he scored game high 24 points in the 2005 McDonald's game at Notre Dame and was regarded by some as the best high school player in the country. Drafted 18th overall by Boston in 2005, one spot after the Pacers took Granger.

Tyler Hansbrough: Entering his fourth NBA season, and perhaps at a crossroads. Everyone seemed encouraged by his progress after his second season, but discouraged after his third. West's arrival relegated him to lesser role, but he still has value. Always brings energy off the bench, always irritates opponents. Would be great if he could hit some mid-range jumpers now and then, however. Field goal percentage dropped 60 points to .405 last season and he didn't shoot well in preseason. Believe it or not, he hit 39 percent (9-of-23) three-pointers his senior year in college, so he should be able to hit some jump shots. Got attention in off-season for being photographed drinking a 40-ounce beer out of a brown paper bag in a bar. More relevant to the Pacers, he worked hard on developing his left hand around the basket.

Ian Mahinmi: Based on preseason performance, was a good summer pickup. As much as everyone liked Lou Amundson last season, Manhimi is two inches taller, stronger, and has more offensive weapons. (He's a snazzier dresser, too, but you would expect that from a guy born in France.) Should provide capable backup relief for Hibbert, and perhaps can play with him on occasion. Averaged 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds last season in Dallas. That's not a lot, but it's an upgrade from last season.

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Lance Stephenson: Larry Bird's project enters his third season. Shows promise, but still playing on thin ice, especially with Bird gone (for awhile, at least). Physically dominant for a guard at 6-5, 210 pounds, he'd be a nightmare to guard if he could hit perimeter shots more consistently. Hit just 38 percent from the field last season, and made 4-of-30 three-pointers. Will mostly play shooting guard, but could see time at point guard in an emergency. Revived the public's intrigue when he started against the Bulls in final regular season game and scored 22 points and played 35 minutes without a turnover. It was a garbage-time game, but still ...

Support Staff

Sam Young: Quiet off-season pickup, but could prove valuable. Not expected to be regular rotation player, but could see plenty of action with injuries at forward positions. Coach Frank Vogel might want to keep the substitution pattern consistent and the reserve unit together, so Young could start if Granger or George are injured. He played with the starters in practice while Granger was out. Young started for Memphis in its first-round playoff upset of top-seeded San Antonio two seasons ago, and scored 17 points in Game 2 and 18 in Game 5. Physical defender, he likely will be used to defend LeBron James on occasion. Complex, sophisticated guy. Comes from impoverished background, but writes poetry, plays the piano and can perform back flips. Active in the community, too. Contract only partially guaranteed, but could have too much substance to release.

Jeff Pendergraph: Nearly anonymous, but usually produces when given time. Solid shooter and rebounder, nothing more or less. Got one start last season, at Detroit, and came away with 10 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes. Did we say he's solid? Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard drafted him in second round (31st) while with Portland in 2009.

Miles Plumlee: Surprising first-round draft pick, but has backed up the selection in preseason. Averaged just 6.6 points and 7.1 rebounds off the bench at Duke last season, but impressed NBA scouts with his athleticism in pre-draft workouts. Has 40-inch vertical jump, runs well and can handle the ball. Working to improve mid-range jumper. Once had one, but lost confidence in it at Duke. Will spend time in Fort Wayne (his birthplace) with D-League Mad Ants to keep from rotting on the bench. Often compared to Jeff Foster, but has more offense and less defense than Foster. Still, wouldn't be a bad thing if he turns out to be like Foster. Be patient, Foster only played 86 minutes as a rookie.

Orlando Johnson: Second-round draft pick had a quiet preseason. Will be given time to see what develops. First player from UC-Santa Barbara to be drafted into the NBA since Pacers assistant Brian Shaw in 1988. Played just three seasons there (after transferring from Loyola-Marymount), but left as all-time leading scorer. Overcame difficult childhood. Mother was killed when he was one. His grandmother took him in, but she and three other family members died in house fire when he was 11. Raised by two brothers and a sister-in-law. Will spend time in Fort Wayne with D-League team.

Ben Hansbrough: Beat the odds and made the roster as a free agent. For now, anyway. Has no guarantees in his contract, and will become expendable if Pacers like another team's released player better. Had solid showings in preseason and appears capable of filling in at point guard without vomiting. Was Big East Player of the Year in 2011, then played total of 19 games in Germany and Slovenia last winter. Also will see action in D-League with Fort Wayne.

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