Pacers should be better - and will have to be

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

October 28, 2013

Let's start with this.

Say the Pacers' front office executives had done nothing to change the roster from last season. Say they had simply decided to bring back last season's team intact, then hit the beach, buried their cell phones in the sand and laid out in the sun all summer, all in the name of standing pat. Even then, the Pacers likely would be an improved team this season. The team's core is young enough that nothing more than another year of seasoning would have brought about progress.

Now, add the return of Danny Granger, a one-time All-Star and, just two seasons ago, the team's leading scorer for five years running. Although he'll miss “approximately” the first three weeks because of a strained calf muscle, it appears his left knee has recovered from the issues that kept him out of all but five games last season. Unless the calf strain turns out to be an indication of ripple effects to come, he should bring another major weapon.

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Most of all, consider the fact that team president Larry Bird, refreshed from a one-year layoff, went right to work on the team's bench over the summer. While the three other teams to make the NBA's “final four” last season – Miami, San Antonio and Memphis – merely fine-tuned their reserve units in the off-season, Bird went for the complete overhaul. The opening-night roster will include four new players with guaranteed contracts, another with a non-guaranteed deal, and a promising first-round draft pick.

Bird's return shouldn't be overlooked, either. Most of the Pacers have no memory of him as a player other than what they've seen in highlights, but his presence still seems to mean something. His Hall of Fame status gives him credibility beyond the success of most of his moves as team president, and his hard-core approach helps ramp up the internal standard. This is the guy, remember, who phoned in a “S-O-F-T” declaration to a beat writer following a playoff loss two seasons ago.

With all that going for them, how can the Pacers not be better than the team that won 49 games last season despite their 11-11 start, and took eventual champion Miami to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals? All the theoretical improvement might not turn out to be good enough, but for the first time since the start of the 2004-05 season the Pacers are a legitimate championship contender. Most preseason prognosticators have Indiana just behind Miami and Chicago and, in some cases, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn as well. You don't have to scour the internet too thoroughly, however, to find national analysts who have made them their preseason favorite to win it all.

That represents one of the major challenges for the players. Backup center Ian Mahinmi is the only player on the Pacers roster who has played on an NCAA or NBA championship team, although Luis Scola won an Olympic gold medal with his native Argentina. How will they respond to heightened expectations? They don't talk much about a championship among themselves, but they'll hear about it from fans all season.

“That's their expectation,” Paul George said. “They expect us to have a great year and go further than we did last season. We set the bar a little high (by reaching the conference finals last season). You hear it when you go to the restaurant or the grocery store or the mall. 'Are you going to win it this year or not?'”

Roy Hibbert hopes his teammates ignore the preseason praise and projections and maintain an underdog's approach. Even play the respect card if necessary.

“We know (championship talk) is out there, but we still have to play with a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “We know every team is going to give us their best. People are talking about us winning it all. But people need to understand we can't just fast-forward to the Eastern Conference Finals. You have to win your division and beat teams you're supposed to beat. It's going to be a tough road. It's always a tough road.”

Bird talked bluntly of wanting to win a championship during the three seasons he coached the team, the last of which, in 1999-2000, reached the NBA Finals. The current coach, Frank Vogel, doesn't shy from championship talk, but he isn't as bold – which is probably understandable, since he didn't play on three NBA championship teams like Bird did. He wants his team focused on the “now,” and to take each game as an opportunity to secure the No. 1 seed that would secure homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. One could argue the Pacers might have eliminated the Heat last season if they had played Game 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but then one could also argue nearly all of the Pacers' great playoff moments have come on the road. Perhaps it doesn't matter, but it seems preferable to play at home as often as possible in the playoffs.

Derrick Rose's return from a knee injury makes Chicago as much a contender as the Pacers. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's return, period, makes Miami the leading contender. Brooklyn is suddenly a contender if all its new pieces fall into place. So, for the Pacers to take the next step, or two, most or all of the following five things need to happen:

1. The bench will have to contribute more. Last season's reserves were second-to-last in scoring in the NBA, ahead of only Portland's. That's why Bird rebuilt it, and made it more offensive-minded.

If Granger is healthy, either he or Lance Stephenson – whichever one does not start – should greatly improve the unit. So should Scola, who has started all but 15 of his games in the five seasons since his rookie year. A near-carbon copy of David West, he's effective around the basket and from mid-range, and will be one of the team's best passers. He averaged 11 points on 52 percent shooting in the preseason despite playing just 20 minutes per game.

Point guard C.J. Watson should provide an upgrade over D.J. Augustin. Chris Copeland, who hit 42 percent of his three-pointers for the Knicks last season (48 percent in the playoffs), should add a needed perimeter threat. Rookie Solomon Hill is as mature in personality and approach as any rookie the Pacers have ever had. That doesn't mean he'll be an All-Star one day, but he should be able to contribute quickly. The other newcomer, Donald Sloan, will be the third point guard, and likely bring an upgrade to that role as well. Holdovers Orlando Johnson and Ian Manhimi fall into the “solid” category, but have been more than that on occasion.

The bench became a major issue in last season's playoffs because Vogel had to play his starters more than desirable to have a chance to win. If the reserves can keep the starters on the bench longer throughout the season, the payoff at the end could be great. Toward that goal, Vogel hopes to go nine or 10 deep in his playing rotation.

“We don't want to be playing, 35, 38, 40 minutes a game as starters,” Hibbert said. “We need to get these new guys up to speed, get our rest toward the beginning of the season and start building our momentum toward the end.”

2. George will have to learn to live – and play – with his sudden fame and wealth. He signed a five-year contract over the summer that should wind up averaging about $18 million per season. He's now the team's highest-paid and best-known player, and faces higher expectations. He'll likely score more than the 17.4 points he averaged last season, but for the team's sake hopefully not too much more. The Pacers are well-balanced within the starting unit, and nobody should ever have to force a shot or break from the system unless a buzzer is about to sound.

George has said all the right things about handling the pressure he'll face. He doesn't appear motivated to score more as much as he wants to become more efficient and create scoring opportunities for teammates. He also plans to continue harassing the opponent's top scorer. He was a second-team all-defense selection last season, and stated a goal of winning the Defensive Player of the Year award someday.

3. The offense will have to improve. They did it with defense and rebounding last season, ranking just 20th in offensive efficiency. They were eighth over the second half of the season, according to Vogel, and he wants them to be in the top 10 this season. That should happen. George struggled with his new go-to-guy role at the start of last season, while Hibbert was bothered by an alignment with his shooting wrist. Neither should be an issue this season. Stephenson's continued maturity also should help, along with the anticipated bench upgrade.

4. Granger will have to fit in. He returns to a much different team than the one he last played for two seasons ago (not counting his five appearances last season). He can no longer get away with focusing solely on scoring. He'll need to upgrade his defense and rebounding to avoid looking like an outcast, especially if he's starting. He won't be asked to do much more than shoot jumpers in the halfcourt offense while George and others create, but he'll have to join his teammates in the grittier elements of the game if the Pacers are to get past the other elite teams.

5. They'll have to avoid too many lapses. Every season is the same in that every team will play poorly at times, and lose to inferior teams on occasion. The title contenders keep those to a minimum. The Pacers were good in that area once they hit stride following last season's 11-11 start, but will need to be better to get the No. 1 seed. This might be the most mature team in franchise history from top to bottom, but it lacks an emotional leader who can light a spark, and Vogel is not an emotional coach by nature. They'll have to find the collective consistency to avoid too many letdowns.

“It's different for us this year,” George said. “We're the team they're gunning for. We can't think we can turn it on and turn it off. That's going to be our biggest challenge, being ready to play against everybody.”

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