The general consensus in the basketball community is that there are five teams in the Eastern Conference that have a legitimate shot at making it to the NBA Finals this year: your Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers, and the defending two-time champion Miami Heat. Last time, we took a look at our neighbors in Manhattan, and today, we're gonna preview the runner up in the East last year, Indiana.
Last year's record: 49-32*
*One game was missed due to the bombing in Boston
Last year represented another step forward for Indiana as they saw their win total jump for the third consecutive season. With Derrick Rose on the mend after his knee injury, the Pacers were the favorites to win the Central Division, and they were able to do so for the first time since the 2003-2004 season. Most impressively, the Pacers were able to win the division even after lead scorer Danny Granger was limited to only five games played due to a knee injury that eventually required surgery.
The playoffs continued the Pacers' ascension, as they made it to the Conference Finals for the first time in nearly a decade before bowing out to Miami in seven games. Along the way, we were treated to star making performances and moments from Paul George and Roy Hibbert.
1. What significant moves were made in the offseason?
I think the biggest move (this isn't really a "move" per se, so bear with me) for Indiana this offseason was the return of Granger. Granger's return should help Indiana's offense immensely. He was the main focus of the offense when he was here, and although he wasn't as efficient shooting the ball as other high usage perimeter players, he was able to hold his own when we last saw him, as he averaged 21 points on a True Shooting percentage of 54.2 in '11-'12. He's most comfortable shooting on the perimeter, and for a team that shot 36 percent from 16+ feet, Granger provides another option. More on the Pacers offense in a bit.
Scola and Watson are going to replace Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin. Providing he's not missing breakaway dunks again, Watson will provide the Pacers with excellent three point shooting. He shot a career high 41 percent from three point range for Brooklyn last year, and with the return of Granger, the improving scoring ability of George, and the expected bounce back offensively of e720 baller Roy Hibbert, Watson should get plenty of good looks from deep.
As for Scola, the Pacers hope he can provide some scoring from the power forward position. One thing that is almost guaranteed with Luis is durability. He's been in the league six seasons and has only missed eight games. He's very clearly into his decline stage, as his True Shooting percentages have decreased for the past five years. This can be explained by his career low (but still respectable) 57.3 shooting percentage inside the restricted area. That may sound grim, but I wouldn't worry too much about that for two reasons. Almost half of his field goal attempts came from the midrange, and he has consistently been solid from there. He has shot at least 40 percent from the midrange every year of his career, which is excellent for a big man (and better than plenty of starting guards in the league too). The other reason can be explained by Ryan Weisert of Valley of the Suns:
On the down side, Scola did post the worst field goal percentage of his career this season. Part of this is likely due to Scola being a year older and a bit slower, but part is also due to fewer opportunities. Normally when a player ages, their field attempts get further away from the basket, and they stop going to the rim as much. This was not the case with Scola. His average attempts at the rim did drop from 3.6 to 3.2 per game, but his attempts from 16-23 feet stayed the same. Scola simply got fewer shot attempts in the paint this year and as a result, he shot a lower a percentage. The Suns never really figured out their offense this season. So while there were games when Scola got 15+ shots and a chance to establish himself in the paint, there were others where the team was so perimeter oriented that he never got a chance to really contribute. With a more defined role and some rotation stability, there's every reason to think Scola could shoot 50% from the field again.
He's not someone that is overly athletic, but he makes up for it with hustle and smart play. He doesn't turn the ball over much (relative to his position) and is a league average rebounder. And for a dreary team, he represented one of the only bright spots for the Phoenix Suns last year. The Suns are, and will continue to be, awful, but he did make things somewhat enjoyable. Over at Bright Side of the Sun, Jim Coughenor observes:
As the season trudged along it would have been easy for a veteran like Scola to disassociate himself from what was a disappointing season laced with savage beatings. He could have sulked from being stuck in a bad situation at this stage of his career. Scola, however, is not that type of player or person. Despite being visually disturbed at times off the court talking to the media in perplexed and critical fashion (on occasion), Luis was always accountable for his part in the underwhelming results. Luis is also not the type of person to let these kinds of issues affect his demeanor on the court, either. Luis gave a consistent effort when many of his teammates struggled to do so. He was a leader by example. Unfortunately, a majority of the Suns chose not to follow suit.
I didn't like the acquisition of Scola last summer. I thought he would be a good fit as a backup for a contending team, but he didn't make sense for one going through a massive overhaul. I still don't like the move, but as it turns out he was a bright spot in a mostly somber season (even if he may have cost us a better draft pick). I never really cared for Scola as a player, either. I thought he was kind of soft and wasn't enamored with his
whinysavvy play. He changed my mind this season and I respect the way he navigated the tribulations of the season.
I think Scola will endear himself to the Indiana fanbase. He's a player that is a solid jump shooter, decent enough rebounder and is guaranteed to give you 100 percent hustle. You'd be playing a dangerous game if you put him at the Center position (which Phoenix did for about 435 minutes last year), you'd be weaker on the glass due to his lack of size. However, Hibbert is pretty durable, Ian Mahinmi is there, and David West can maintain his productivity if slotted at the 5 spot.
Chris Copeland should be able to provide some (more if Granger is the Sixth Man) scoring punch off the bench. He had a solid season for the Knicks, as he hit on 42 percent of his three point attempts, finishing second on the team behind Steve Novak. He was even able to contribute in the playoffs, as he saw quality in the Knicks' elimination games against the Pacers. He figures to be the second forward off the bench, and he can be a matchup nightmare for teams if/when he's on the court with George and Granger at the same time. Problem is that Copeland doesn't play defense.
2. What is the team's biggest strength?
They are absolutely ferocious on defense. They led the league in defense, holding teams to 96.6 points per possession and an effective field goal percentage of 45.3 percent. When we zoom in to their defense, we see even more awesomeness. They: limited teams to 54 percent in the restricted area (best in the league), fifth in blocks, held teams to only 32.7 percent from three point range (tops in the Association), and got teams to take the most deep twos (16-24 feet) in the league. A lot of this can be attributed to the excellence of Roy Hibbert and Paul George, and they are fantastic defenders. But I don't want us to forget that David West, George Hill, and Lance Stephenson are solid defenders as well. Even though Scola, Watson, and Granger aren't great defenders, Indiana has more than enough to make up for their shortcomings.
3. What is the team's biggest weakness?
They weren't a good team on offense last year. They had an offensive efficiency of only. Now it's more than fair to attribute their dropoff to Granger's absence, but I don't want us to forget that Hibbert was dreadful shooting the ball last year. He shot a career worst 44.8 percent from the field last year on ten field goal attempts a night. I didn't know this, but Hibbert was dealing with a right wrist injury throughout the year. When a player is dealing with an injury, it's not unreasonable to expect his performance to suffer, so it's only fair that we excuse his poor shooting regular season as a function of his injury.
Even with everyone healthy, I think this offense is going to struggle, at least in the early part of the season. Granger has led the team in usage rate since his fourth season, and now that Paul George is going to be the focal point of the offense, it's going to be very interesting to see how he adjusts to becoming the second (or even third) option on offense. Granger has always been most effective with the ball in his hands, and now that he's returning to a vastly different team, I wonder how he's gonna do. It's a similar situation to Rudy Gay when he returned to the Grizzlies after they made it to Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals without him in the 2011 Playoffs. In addition to reintegrating Granger to the team, Frank Vogel is gonna have to find some shots for new additions Scola, Watson, and Copeland. They certainly have the pieces to be a Top Ten offense this year, but it might not look pretty for the first few weeks of the season. Complicating matters in that early stretch will be their schedule. From November 2-November 20, they face five playoff teams from last year: Chicago (on the second half of a back-to-back twice), Memphis, Brooklyn (once again they'll be on the second half of a back-to-back), the Knicks, and two teams who have playoff aspirations this year, Cleveland and Detroit.
4. What are the goals for the team?
Indiana has improved each of the past three seasons, going deeper into the playoffs than the year before. If that trend continues, they will find themselves in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000. Larry Bird is thinking along the same lines, and when asked in a local interview if the Pacers could win the title, Bird said "We're all in." With that declaration, anything less than a Finals appearance would be a disappointment for this team.
5. Who to watch
All eyes are gonna be on the owner of a new five year $90 million contract extension, Paul George. George had a solid all around regular season as he earned his first trip to the All Star Game, the Most Improved Player Award, and spots on the All NBA Third Team and Second Team defense. But we should also remember that he only had a True Shooting percentage of 53.1, which was a tick below the league average of 53.6 percent. He can boost his efficiency by getting to the line more often. In the postseason, he got to the line close to seven times per game compared to just over three in the regular season. Looking at that, I was expecting to see that he took more shots inside the restricted area compared to the regular season. But there was only a slight uptick in the amount of shots he took per game in the playoffs compared to the regular season.
George is already an outstanding defender and has the potential to become even better. Carmelo Anthony was already dealing with an injured shoulder when the series with Indiana started, and George (& Roy Hibbert guarding the rim) made life a little more difficult for the superstar forward, holding him to an effective field goal percentage of just 43.1 in the six game series, a seven point decrease from the regular season. Just how good is George's defense considered? In an interview with the mothership's Paul Flannery, coach Frank Vogel said:
"He's 6-9. He's got Scottie Pippen type feet in terms of being able to run guys off the three-point line and still take great angles to contain the basketball and keep his own man in front of him," Vogel said. "He's got Allen Iverson type of defensive instincts in terms of reading passes and has great hands. You combine all those things with the fact that on any given night he's liable for 15 defensive rebounds, he's a huge part of us being number one in so many defensive categories."
And he's only 23!! If PG can improve on offense and maintain his defensive excellence, that contract is gonna look like a bargain, he'll enter the conversation for the "Best Player Not Named LeBron James in the League," and the Pacers will be contending for Championships for the foreseeable future.
Bonus reading: Indy Cornrows