by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness
October 28, 2013
Larry Bird is back from his yearlong sabbatical, a time he used to have a procedure on his back to alleviate pain, take two steps away from basketball and get an outside look at the franchise he’s had a big role in for more than a decade.
There he was, often at his Southern Indiana home, watching nearly every Pacers game. He saw Paul George emerge as the Pacers’ best player and one of the bright young stars in the league. He saw David West shoulder the load for much of the season, holding the team up through rough patches when they just needed something. And he saw Roy Hibbert return to All-Star form late in the year and have his way in the playoffs, particularly against New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler.
“I had one of the better years that I’ve had in a long time,” Bird said at a news conference in June to announce that he was returning as team president. “I feel so much better mentally and physically. … It’s good to be back.”
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As he continued to watch, Bird kept coming to the same conclusion. The bench didn’t do its job and held the team back.
A glance at a few statistics will help tell the story. The Pacers’ bench ranked second-to-last in the NBA, according to hoopsstats.com, and contributed an average of just 24.1 points per game. Paul George alone was good for 17.4 per game. There were highs and lows, but the bunch never became reliable like the team needed.
As the group failed to become what team officials had hoped and no substantial improvement was shown, Pacers coach Frank Vogel staggered his rotations to ensure that two or three starters were on the court at all time. Before that adjustment, opponents would make big runs late in the first and third quarters when Vogel made his substitutions and leads shrank or vanished.
“For us to talk about beating the great teams in this league, you’ve got to have a stronger bench,” Bird said. “Our bench didn’t produce last year the way we needed them to produce. We definitely got to fix that one area.”
And so he did.
For the second straight year, the Pacers’ front office made sweeping changes, knowing how critical it would be to the success of the team.
First, Bird targeted C.J. Watson to be his backup point guard. Watson has been in the backup spot for his entire career and he handles that role very well. From 2010-12, he played for the Chicago Bulls, which made it easier for Bird and his scout staff to keep an extra close eye on the 29-year-old.
“He’s someone that has been a really good backup for a really long time,” Vogel said. “A lot of times, starters don’t make your best backup point guards.
“I think he’s pretty solid all the way around. He’s got to make sure that he’s running the team, being the leader. I ask my point guards to be coaches on the floor so we have to make sure that he’s doing that. He’s pretty solid defensively, he just have to make sure he keeps working on the defensive end. Everybody that comes in here that wasn’t here last year has got to enhance their defensive performance. That’s something that’s made clear from the start. And I think he’s doing that.”
Watson considered a trio of other offers, but the price was right and he liked the situation in Indianapolis.
“They got better each and every year since Coach Vogel’s been here,” he said of his observations from afar. “Playing them in the playoffs with Chicago (in 2011), after that year they’ve reached a further round every year. It’s a steady group of guys, a great team, great coach and a great fit, I think.”
During the offseason, he worked on everything, from ball handling to shooting to making better reads off the pick-and-roll. Last season, his only year in Brooklyn, Watson averaged 6.8 points and 2.0 assists in about 19 minutes of work per game.
Watson on fitting in, and what he brings to the team: “Just coming off the bench being steady, controlling the tempo, not turning the ball over, make open shots, create plays for teammates and just be solid on defense.”
When pressed for his biggest weakness, he said that he sometimes gambles too much because “I like to get steals and stuff like that. I might be yelled at a few times here and there.” The Pacers are getting a steady point guard for the second unit and one that’ll push starter George Hill.
Next, they made a hard sell to Chris Copeland, a journeyman who had just completed his first NBA season with the Knicks. Copeland, 29, is grounded, mature for the locker room and has a knack for scoring the ball. Last postseason, he connected on 48 percent of his attempts from outside the arc. He will provide a scoring punch off the bench.
“I don’t think he’s just a shooter,” Vogel said of Copeland. “He’s a great shooter and he’s got the size to get it off at any time but he can also put the ball on the deck, he can post, he’s a good playmaker in terms of making the right reads and making extra passes. I think he’s a pretty complete player.”
Copeland felt wanted by the Pacers and he obviously liked their chances of making a run for the title.
“Everything,” Copeland said, in response to why he signed with the Pacers. “Look at this team. I’ll leave it at that. Great coaching staff, great facilities, great fans, you can go down the list. Why not? Why wouldn’t you want to play here?”
Copeland can play the 3 and 4, and in practice, he’s even played some at the 5. During intra-squad scrimmages, he’s getting better at defending big power forwards by going against David West.
“To go against a guy like [West] and then you have a guy like [Luis] Scola, I’m getting used to playing against some of the best everyday so I’m very confident going on to the floor that it won’t be anything better than what I see everyday [in practice],” Copeland said.
In the offseason, back on Aug. 2, Copeland had his left knee scoped to remove loose bodies. He wasn’t quite 100 percent entering training camp but he fully participated and had no setbacks.
Copeland’s two-year deal with the Pacers was his first multi-year guaranteed contract. Last October, he was just a training camp invitee with the Knicks. He admitted during the preseason that he’s feeling some self-imposed pressure to make everyone happy.
“To be totally candid with ya’ll, man, when you get out there and you want to be everything that they want you to be — from the organization, from the fans, I would like to be everything and more that they thought they got with me,” he said.
While on the floor, Copeland will look to fire away, – he has one of the quickest releases in the game – he’ll help space the floor with the threat of him shooting, and he can take advantage of his 6-foot-8, 235-pound fame. It may take him a dozen games to get comfortable with this new system and his teammates, but he will score in bunches and keep the Pacers trending in the right direction.
Then, in late July, Bird got his guy. There with the Phoenix Suns, was Luis Scola, whose talents were seemingly going to waste. Bird saw what Scola could do years ago and ever since had tried to get him with Blue and Gold. Bird agreed to send the Suns a first-round pick along with Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green in return for Scola.
Scola needed to get out of Phoenix, too, where they were rebuilding and his team had no chance of even making the playoffs. How bad was it? After the Pacers and Bulls played in the first preseason game, Scola said that game’s atmosphere was better than any game all last season with the Suns. Granted, that night marked the return of Danny Granger and Derrick Rose, but it was still just an exhibition game.
When he was first informed of the trade, Scola was actually with Chris Copeland in Argentina for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative. “The more I was getting to know my situation, the more excited I was,” he said. When he returned to the States, he made a quick trip to Indianapolis before joining his National Team in the FIBA Americas.
Vogel was thrilled about the acquisition. He has praised Scola for being a warrior, and how he can do stuff you cannot teach. Scola has a knack for scoring and is crafty in the way that he does it. In six seasons in the NBA, he’s averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, while making over 50 percent of his shots.
He will, however, have to adapt to not starting like he’s been accustomed to for almost 88 percent of the games in his career. The Pacers re-signed David West, the backbone of the team, to a three-year deal worth $36 million in the offseason. That doesn’t mean that they won’t play together or Scola won’t be in during critical stretches.
Scola’s an experienced, well-rounded player with the highest basketball IQ on the team, so Vogel wants to constantly hear from Scola and what he thinks about a drill or a set. The 33-year-old has quickly become an asset.
Without a doubt, the Pacers have the best power forward tandem in the league. It doesn’t get any better than West and Scola as your 1-2 punch.
Possibly bigger than any of those three, is the return of Granger, the team’s leading scorer for five straight seasons before last year, a trying time because his left knee wasn’t healthy enough for him to be on the floor. He tried to play for five games, but later opted for surgery on April 4th – just about seven months before a new season opens.
Coaches and players have raved about how well Granger looked in offseason training, though they did note that his conditioning and game timing was still just a bit off.
Granger being back means either he, or likely Lance Stephenson, plays with the second unit. A 38 percent 3-point shooter in his eight-year career, Granger would be a deep threat, help open things up for Roy Hibbert in the middle and he’ll perhaps cause defenses to lessen its pressure on Paul George. If healthy, Granger will start.
Analyst Greg Anthony of NBA TV agrees that Granger is the Pacers’ biggest addition and he says Granger will have some adapting to do.
“I think the totality of the punch is there,” Anthony said in a phone interview. “They weren’t far away last year. You force a seventh game in the conference finals, that means you’re good enough. Even with all the new acquisitions, I think Granger having to adjust and adapt to a new role, because remember when Danny Granger left before the injury, he was their best player. Coming back, he might be their third best player or fourth. That means his role is going to change and how effective can he be in a different role because this is now Paul George’s team.
“There will be challenges for them, growing pains, but I think Frank Vogel is a lot more excited about having Granger on that roster than not having him a year ago and also remember, Lance Stephenson, another young player who made greats strides last year, particularly in the postseason. The sky’s the limit I think for the Pacers.”
As fans witnessed last year, Stephenson is a bundle of energy ready to burst up the floor at any moment. Above his locker last season were two pieces of training tape with “Gump,” written because of how dangerous he is in transition. He can thank Hibbert for that.
The additions of Watson, Copeland, and Scola completed the facelift to the Pacers’ bench. Rookie Solomon Hill is earning his way into the rotation and Orlando Johnson, just a second-year guard, will be pushing for time.
“We were one step away from the championship last year, so that’s our primary goal, to get to the Finals,” said George Hill. “[Scola] gives us that big guy we need off the bench that we didn’t have last year. I’m glad we picked him up. You have him coming in here and he could be a starter on any team, then you have an underrated shooter in [Chris] Copeland, and you have C.J. Watson as the backup point guard. They give us a lot of leadership from off the bench that we didn’t have last year.”
Leadership, plus a lot more experience. That’s what ex-Pacer Reggie Miller, a Hall-of-Famer, believes held them back last year. He, too, likes the enhanced bench and said they can lean on their experience from last postseason.
No more drop-offs, no more scoring droughts. Bird had enough, necessary moves in a short time, and now it’s all in Frank Vogel’s hands.
“I’m not going to say this team is going to be together forever, but right now we’re going to enjoy it because they’re good guys and they’ve got a lot of talent,” Bird said. “I don’t know if they’ll get to the Finals because you’ve got to go through Miami, Chicago, Brooklyn and all that, but I do feel right now we have a better team than what we put out there last year.”
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