Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Paul George Must Emerge - Indiana Pacers Preview

Starting Five: PG George Hill, SG Paul George, SF Danny Granger, PF David West, C Roy Hibbert

Key Bench Players: PG DJ Augustin, SF Gerald Green, PF Tyler Hansbrough, F Miles Plumlee, C Ian Mahinmi

Notable offseason additions:
PG DJ Augstin, G Sam Young, C Ian Mahinmi
Offseason subtractions: PG Darren Collison, SF Dahntay Jones

Which team is the Indiana Pacer squad you should be looking for in 2012-2013? The unglamorous, boring blue-collar team that you see laid out before you whose pedestrian roster is due for regression? Or the underrated team of scrappy young players where every player's contribution hold equal weight of importance, a la the 2004 Detroit Pistons?

The answer is that this team is still really damn good. Shortly before when we last saw the Pacers, they were up 2-1 with a near 20 point blowout of the eventual champion Miami Heat. To make matters worse, their All-Star power forward Chris Bosh had gone down with an abdominal muscle injury on a team with a thin depth chart. Center Roy Hibbert dropped 19/18 on Erik Spoeltra's boys, seemingly exposing their biggest weakness against a dominant big man attack. So what happened? LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. In the next three games, the two essentially took an R. Kelly-sized pee on the Pacers. Wade averaged 33 points, 7 rebounds and nearly 4 assists, while shooting 44%, and the future Finals MVP James somehow topped that performance with a completely unbelievable 33/8/11 on 55% shooting. The Heat won all of those contests, nearly vanquishing breakout young star Paul George and preventing any further double doubles from Roy Hibbert. Truth be told, the Pacers played fine basketball - the Heat just had two players perform at the peak of human performance. To put it lightly.

Quite simply, this season's Pacers team's success depends on two distinct factors: little to no regression from the main rotation players, and improvements from Paul George. Indy had a lot go right for them last year, including nearly zero major injuries to their key guys. George Hill hit the high water mark with 16 missed games, but only a shocking 5 games between West, Hibbert, Granger and Paul George. The Pacers can hope for another nearly flawless bill of health in 2012-2013, but I highly doubt they'll get it.

More importantly, it feels like almost every player in coach Frank Vogel's rotation has peaked. Hibbert enjoyed an All-Star campaign, but 13/9 with two blocks per contest seems in the neighborhood of his ceiling. Meanwhile, David West at age 31 is certainly declining and averages of 13/7 seem a bit low, but about in the right range. The Pacer with the longest tenure, Danny Granger, is a one-time former All-Star who everyone always spends four weeks before the season spouting about how this will finally be the year he makes the leap to superstardom. Well, it's 2012 and I'm still writing about an overpaid small forward who hasn't distanced himself from Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith and Rudy Gay. On his best Pacers team of his career, Granger put up his worst numbers since 2007-2008, and at 28 might not ever be better than he was two years ago. Out of all the regulars, George Hill, 25,  is the only other candidate besides Paul George primed for any sort of breakout, but perhaps his lack of size and court vision could limit his growth.

Last winter, all the NBA hoopheads heard about was how Paul George had inexplicably grown two inches in the offseason. Now towering closer to 6'9", Indy's 20 year-old swingman supposedly had grown his game to match. It wasn't exaggeration; George finished the year with a 12/5 average, including 38% from the arc and a much more improved handle on the court. However, the second-year man struggled with his decision-making offensively, especially in regards on when to attack and when to let other players like Hibbert or Granger take over. George will only be 22 years-old in 2012-2013, so another big jump forward isn't totally out of the question.

Teams like the Pacers very rarely find success on the next level. If you look back on the past 30 years of NBA basketball, only the 2004 Pistons won a championship without one player that was markedly better than the others on the team. On this squad, who is the best player? Is it former All-Stars Danny Granger or Roy Hibbert? Or is it the fourth quarter go-to option David West? Or maybe leading offensive facilitator George Hill? Or the emerging Paul George? There isn't a definitive answer here, which might be the biggest factor keeping the Pacers from breaking through the upper crust of the league's elite. Essentially, I like to think of the Pacers as a team full of the best role players in the world. However, like all role players, these guys have so far proven that night-in and night-out that their performance can waver depending on how good an opposing team's defensive scheme is. There really isn't a guy can be counted on to consistently overwhelm an opponent, like the two guys that bounced them from the playoffs last spring.

I expect some regression from the Pacers in 2012-2013, but mostly because they can't have the same type of perfect attendance they had last season. The only way the Pacers compete for anything more than a three-seed in the East is for the team to maintain their performance from last year and for a guy like Paul George (and perhaps less likely, Granger, Hibbert or Hill) to break out into the upper cusp of elite scorers. 

But damn, this team is still really fucking boring.

Best case scenario: Paul George jumps in performance like he was on the 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers. He makes the All-Star team and wins the league's most improved player, taking the Pacers to the two seed. Other players like Granger, Hibbert, Hill and West can player like the glorified role players they truly are at heart, and fall in line after their emerging star. Indiana skitters past the Knicks in the second round, complete with Danny Granger giving Spike Lee the "choke" sign, but the Pacers fall to the Heat in a tough six game Eastern Conference Finals.

Absolute apocalypse: In short, no one gets better, and everyone gets hurt. George Hill and David West fall prey to previous sketchy injury history, and the Pacers' depth chart, including DJ Augustin, Gerald Green and Tyler Hansbrough isn't up to the task of replacing them. Danny Granger sulks after being featured less on the offense than a disappointing Paul George, which leads to his trade for quarters on the dollar at the deadline. Indy falls to the sixth seed and a first round playoff exit.

Expected Finish: 1st in the Midwest, 3rd in the Eastern Conference


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