What the Pacers Did on Their Summer Vacation
October 23, 2013
Theoretically, Pacers president Larry Bird could have gone fishing all summer and brought back an improved team this season. If, of course, the key players on last season's team all did something over the summer to get better.
They claim they did.
Established NBA players, the ones who have received their life-changing contracts, face the challenge of continuing to try to improve their games in the off-season. Most of them do. Those who don't often wind up getting bumped off a roster by someone who did, or are traded. Making improvements becomes more difficult as time goes by, but there's always something to work on. Gain a few pounds of muscle. Lose a few pounds of fat. Improve a skill. Learn a new move. Increase your basketball IQ. Something. Anything. Whatever it takes to hang on to your job, and, if you're on the right team, perhaps contribute to a championship.
The Pacers' core players claim to have improved over the summer. Here's what they did, with the exception of Danny Granger, whose focus was recovering from knee surgery:
It would be easy for George to feel he's “arrived,” and succumb to the temptation to dial back his intensity. The 23-year-old All-Star, who signed a five-year contract over the summer that likely will turn out to be worth about $90 million, established himself as one of the NBA's most promising players last season. He was an All-Star for the first time, a second-team all-defensive player and was voted the league's Most Improved Player.
Living up to his presumed potential will require a lot of work, however, and the Pacers' recent history with max contract players isn't promising. Jermaine O'Neal and Jalen Rose both were traded within a few years of signing contracts that, at the time, seemed destined to reserve a parking spot for them in the Bankers Life basement garage for years to come. George could very well be different, though. He appears to have the work ethic and humble nature that could allow him to play an entire career with the franchise.
“I feel like I'm nowhere close to being the player I want to be,” he said following the press conference to announce his new contract. “Every year I take a jump closer to where I want to be. Being 23, it's the start of where I want to be as a player and a person.
“I want to win a championship. The only way to do that is to have everybody on the same page and make sure we're working hard.”
Specifically, he wants to be a better leader, a role that should come naturally with his new contract and his emergence as a player. On the court, he's worked on his ability to create a shot, going one-on-one with an imaginary defender. He showed some of that in preseason games. The trick will be to utilize those skills without disrupting the offense. He also talked of wanting to get better at creating opportunities for teammates, so if he does that his one-on-one skills will become an asset.
Improved shot selection and shot creating should improve his field goal percentage. He hit just 42 percent of his field goal attempts last season, the lowest of his three-season career. His three-point percentage also dipped from the previous season, to .362.
Hibbert has struggled a bit to decide what kind of body he wants. Does he get bigger and stronger, or does he cut some weight and become more mobile? It's not an unusual dilemma for a big man. O'Neal experienced the same indecision in his Pacer off-seasons.
This summer, Hibbert added weight and strength, peaking at 290 pounds, although he expects to drop some of that during the season. With so many scoring threats around him, he figures he'll have to get many of his points off the offensive glass, and he'll need the strength to move bodies for that. That was evident in the playoffs, when he says he averaged six offensive rebounds through one stretch.
“I'm not expecting to shoot more,” he said. “I just have to realize what are my strengths. I just want to step up to the challenge and be able to play consistently like that during the year. The added size is going to help me and allow me to impose my will.”
Hibbert and Vogel didn't feel the added bulk affected his mobility during the preseason.
“He may be running better than I've seen him,” Vogel said. “He's changing ends of the floor. His lateral mobility looks to be where it was last year, or better. I don't think there's going to be any concern there at all.”
Given a choice, Hill would rather be playing alongside a point guard than be one. But this is his well-compensated fate, and he's learning to accept it.
He says he spent the summer “learning how to be a better point guard.” For him, that means being a better playmaking point guard, one who can “make plays down the stretch and get easy opportunities for my teammates.”
Hill studied film of himself in pick-and-roll situations last season, trying to figure how to execute better in them. He also tried to enhance one of his better scoring weapons, his floater. “That's my go-to shot,” he said.
He also studied former San Antonio teammate Tony Parker.
“I still try to … see how he gets to his spot,” Hill said. “I don't have that Tony Parker quickness, but I'm bigger and stronger.”
West turned 33 over the summer, so he's at an age where players focus on maintaining more than enhancing. He primarily looked after his body, dropping weight like a boxer does between fights, and then adding it back when training camp started.
He did, however, work on his game, too. He began playing pickup games at the gym he purchased from the YMCA back in North Carolina in early August, and he worked on extending his shooting range. Not to the three-point line, but farther out. He has shown the capability of hitting an occasional three-pointer, however. He's hit 40 in his career, including four last season, but has made just 25 percent of his attempts.
He also studied video of last season's Pacers games, with the notable exception of Game 7 at Miami. He had no interest in that one. Lately, he has made a study of other forwards who managed to be effective at an advanced age, namely Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. He signed a three-year contract over the summer, and wants to wring as much out of his body and talents as he can over that period.
“For me it's about finishing strong,” he said. “I'm trying to maximize whatever I have left.”
And if he plays well the next three seasons? Would he sign another contract and play past the age of 35?
“I'm not one of those guys,” he said. “No sir. No, no, no, no, no, no. This will be it.”
Scola is a player much like West, in his body, his age, his skill set and his maturity. Like West, he is in the tweaking mode of his career. Like West, he tried to extend his shooting range, but to a greater degree.
“I worked a lot on three-point shot this summer,” he said. “I don't know if I'm going to use it this season or not, but at some point in the future I want to have it in my arsenal.”
Although a three-year veteran, Stephenson is the second-youngest player on the team, only older than rookie Solomon Hill. Just 23, and with an ideal body for basketball, he has plenty to work on, and time to do it.
He said he devoted most of his summer to improving his defense, and his shot. He improved dramatically last season, hitting 33 percent of his three-point shots after hitting just 4-of-35 in his first two seasons.
“I've been working on my jump shot,” he said. “It's better than last year and I'm going to try to bring it to the season.”
He also has honed his body. He's now listed at 228 pounds, the same weight as Granger, who is four inches taller.
“I got a little bit stronger and a little bit quicker,” he said.
It's a crucial season for him. He's in the last year of his rookie contract, and stands to earn his life-changing deal with continued improvement. Then he can face the challenge of maintaining his work ethic, as so many of his teammates have already done.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.
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