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What to Watch for Entering Training Camp

by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness

September 26, 2013

Basketball is returning this week, though it felt like there was never much off an offseason. The Pacers open training camp on Saturday, a few days before most teams, due to their trip overseas for preseason games in the Philippines and Taiwan (on Oct. 10th and 13th, respectively).

There was a flurry of activity for the Pacers over the summer. First, Larry Bird returned as President of Basketball Operations after a one-year hiatus. The team then drafted Solomon Hill (23rd overall pick), re-signed the backbone of the team, David West, signed backup point guard C.J. Watson, signed sharp-shooting forward Chris Copeland, acquired veteran power forward Luis Scola, and signed the face of the franchise, Paul George, to a long-term contract extension.

RELATED: Paul George Signs Long-Term Deal to Remain with Pacers

Entering the 2013-14 campaign, expectations are high after the Pacers played the two-time defending champion Miami Heat to seven games of the Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers won the Central Division for the first time in nine years and for just the fifth time in franchise history.

The Pacers’ first game comes at home on Oct. 5 against the Chicago Bulls. After seven more preseason games, the Pacers face Orlando on Oct. 29 in their season-opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

We’ll hear from every member of the team on Friday at media day. (Pacers.com will be streaming live from 1:00-2:30p.m.) Training camp, consisting of multiple practices each day, gets underway on Saturday. Below are some of the storylines to watch:

Granger's Health

This is the most important question. Bird says he looks good and George says he looks 98 percent ready, but Granger hasn’t talked about his knee or rehab since the final game last season. And despite what he says on Friday, the true test is how he looks in practice and in preseason games. He’s remained in Indy all offseason to focus on his health and work full-time with team trainers and doctors.

Should he be able to return and contribute, as team officials believe will be the case, then head coach Frank Vogel has to decide how to utilize him. Does he return to his starting role or does Lance Stephenson start and DG come off the bench. The team has more than a month to figure all that out. For now, we all want to see how Granger looks on the court.

The Bench

The starters were terrific last season, but there was a big drop-off each time Vogel went to his bench. So much so, that he tried to keep a couple starters on the floor at all times to minimize the damage.

Not anymore. Scola has started at power forward in 87.6 percent of the regular-season games that he’s played in. Watson accepts his role as backup point guard and should be an immediate upgrade. Copeland will space the floor with his shooting and should open things up even more for his teammates. Team officials liked what they saw from rookie Solomon Hill this summer and they expect him to contribute in some form. The coaching staff will have the challenge of determining the best lineups and ensuring guys get the minutes they deserve.

On his first day back, Bird talked about what he observed last season.

“For us to talk about beating the great teams in this league, you’ve got to have a stronger bench,” he said. “Our bench didn’t produce last year the way we needed them to produce. We definitely got to fix that one area.”

Three months later, Bird is very happy with the team’s weapons off the bench. “We got every player that we went after this summer,” he said on Wednesday.

Coaching Staff

Don’t underestimate the loss of Brian Shaw, who finally got a head-coaching job in this league with Denver, or Jim Boylen. Shaw is a player’s coach, one that could connect with every one of the guys and he knew just the right buttons to push. He was instrumental in the growth of Stephenson and George, and provided fresh ideas in coaching meetings.

Boylen, who moved on to San Antonio, was also well liked and respected. He has more than a dozen years of coaching experience in the NBA and was responsible for the post players. Fortunately, long-time assistant and defensive guru Dan Burke stayed on board and should help with the transition.

Roy Hibbert has gone on record saying he is excited to have Popeye Jones, a former big man in the NBA, looking after the frontcourt players. As for new associate head coach Nate McMillan, some would argue that he’s an upgrade to Shaw because of his experience as a head coach for more than 930 games along with his assistant role for the USA National Team that brought home the gold in the last two Olympics.

It’ll no doubt take time to build chemistry and a comfort level, but these two could potentially provide a boost to this team.

Roy Hibbert's Start

From the start of the season, will Hibbert be able to continue playing at the high level we saw in the playoffs? His first few months last season, which he attributed to an undiscovered wrist injury, were disappointing. He was still a force on the boards but his offensive game, especially around the rim, struggled. In November, he made just 37.8 percent of his field goals. Fast forward to March, he raised his percentage by more than 10 percent to 47.9. When he’s playing like he did for the final few months of last season, he’s one of the top defensive players in the league and a key asset for the Blue and Gold.

Who Sticks?

The Pacers have 13 players on guaranteed contracts.

The breakdown:

PG: George Hill, C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan

SG: Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Orlando Johnson

SF: Danny Granger, Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill

PF: David West, Luis Scola

C: Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi

Ron Howard will challenge Donald Sloan for the third point guard spot, although Sloan will should stick because this year is guaranteed for him. The team could potentially also keep one additional wing. Teams must carry at least 13 players but no more than 15. I would expect the Pacers to keep 14, one wing player on a non-guaranteed deal.

Quote of Note

Pacers President Larry Bird: “When I tried to change the culture here four or five years ago, or six years ago, this is what I had in mind. A group of guys that’s going to work hard, play together and go out in the community and do the things that are necessary to do.”

Random note that may only interest me:

Frank Vogel has been the Pacers lead man over three seasons, but he’s never coached a full season. He took over for Jim O’Brien in 2011 and led them to a 20-18 record. The next season was shortened because of the lockout and this past year, the NBA canceled their game in Boston following the Boston Marathon bombings.

"Yeah, I haven't coached 82 yet,” Vogel said. “My first goal is to coach 82 games, just to finally coach 82 games. I'm sure we'll do that this year."

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