Thanks largely to the presence of Darren Collison and the return to health of Mike Dunleavy, Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Foster, there is excitement.
Thanks largely to the presence of nine players aged 25 or younger with two seasons or less of NBA experience, there is uncertainty.
When the Pacers open training camp Tuesday in Conseco Fieldhouse, they will do so with no shortage of questions that must be answered in the affirmative if they are to end their four-year postseason drought.
Is this team ready to contend?
There is an intriguing array of talent and more athleticism and depth than in any of Jim O'Brien's seasons on the bench. To that, the Pacers must add the mental discipline necessary to get the most out of every game and avoid the trap of saving their best for the premier opponents.
Is Collison a difference-maker?
The Pacers don't expect him to replicate those stunning numbers he posted while filling in as the Hornets' starter while Chris Paul was injured. But Collison gives every indication of being a game-changer with his speed, creativity and explosiveness. He'll need to be a strong pressure defender and continue to improve as a decision-maker but neither of those areas is a weakness.
What to do at power forward?
If he stays healthy, Tyler Hansbrough should emerge as the starter by the All-Star break, if not sooner. His intensity and relentless energy are vital to a team that needs every bit of spark it can get. Until then, there are plenty of parts to mix and match. If Jeff Foster can provide 18-20 minutes a night as a backup at both big spots, it could prove vital. If not, Josh McRoberts is ready for more and Magnum Rolle is an intriguing possibility. Chances are O'Brien will play small around 12-15 minutes a night with Danny Granger at the four.
How will the crowded wing positions sort out?
Beyond Granger starting and playing his usual 40 minutes a night, much mystery remains to be solved. Should Mike Dunleavy be back to his old form, he will command major minutes and a primary role. Paul George could well play more minutes than a typical rookie, given his advanced skill level and solid work ethic. Brandon Rush remains a talented enigma. And then there are veterans James Posey and Dahntay Jones, who both are used to playing every night and might chafe should minutes dwindle.
What's next for Granger?
Though he played sparingly for the U.S. team, he did bring home a gold medal from the FIBA World Championship and the experience had to do him good. For one, he was part of a team that was largely overlooked and underappreciated heading into the event but used strong team chemistry and stout defense to conquer the world. Those are lessons Granger would do well to bring home to his teammates.
Will this be Roy Hibbert's breakthrough season?
His offseason work bordered on the fanatical, from Bill Walton boot camp to MMA training, with the focus on increasing strength and agility. There's every indication he is on the verge of becoming a consistent force in the low post at both ends. He also is emerging as a vocal and willing leader. Something tells me watching his game grow before our very eyes will be one of the main highlights of this season.
Can Hansbrough have an impact?
Something of a forgotten man because of the length and mystery of his absence last season, Hansbrough couldn't be blamed for having something of a chip on his shoulder for those who already have written him off as a bust. It will take him some time to build basketball rhythm and conditioning but Hansbrough has the skill, dedication and drive to get the most out of his game. And there's more game there than meets the eye.
Whither the defense?
We can talk about individuals all we want but the collective mindset that must develop in order for the Pacers to shore up their primary weakness is paramount to this season. They may still give up points in bunches but the difference will lie in the ability to get those elusive, critical stops in the key moments upon which games are hinged.
Will Dunleavy and Foster return to form?
Dunleavy enters camp healthy for the first time in three years, which means he also had the opportunity to use the offseason to build strength and conditioning instead of rehab. Because of the competition for playing time at the wing spots, it will be tough for him to put up huge numbers but he can still have a big impact. Foster has had issues with his back for a few years now so it might not be realistic to expect him to play 20 minutes in all 82 games. Whatever he can give, the Pacers will be happy to take.
What can be expected from the prized crop of rookies?
Though George has frequently been compared to Granger that's really not quite right. He shoots the 3-pointer easily but may not be as accurate or prolific as Granger. On the other hand, he shows signs of being better with the ball and more creative off the dribble. If he can develop along the lines of a Joe Johnson, another soft-spoken, low-profile first-rounder that turned out OK, the Pacers would be thrilled. Lance Stephenson was the star of summer league but faces legal issues that could sidetrack his rookie season. Rolle was a revelation in Orlando but the Pacers haven't been able to free up a roster spot to offer him a contract. Yet.
Will expiring contracts motivate or distract?
Five veterans – Dunleavy, Foster, McRoberts, T.J. Ford and Solomon Jones – are in the final seasons of their contracts. On one hand, that can serve as ultimate motivation. On the other, it can foster discontent if they aren't getting the minutes they need to show what they can do. Foster and Ford have been mentioned, and likely will continue to be, in trade rumors. Should Dunleavy re-emerge as an all-around threat, he also will become coveted. O'Brien also is entering the final year of his contract.
What does the future hold for Rush and Stephenson?
There's no clear answer yet. The Pacers' patience with Rush was thin before his five-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy for a third time. He's entering the final year of his rookie contract with the team holding the option for next season so Rush has much to prove. Stephenson's offseason arrest re-opened old discussions about his maturity and he must answer them all over again if his career is to get off the ground.
What's the top priority – winning now or developing the young talent?
The future of this team, indeed this franchise, lies in its gifted young core – Collison, Hibbert, Hansbrough, George and Co. They are the focus of the big picture but balancing their development against the desire to do whatever is necessary to win one game at a time will be O'Brien's most important challenge.