Indiana Pacers Season Preview

We continue previewing the Central Division with the Indiana Pacers. You can read past previews here.

by Tom Lewis

The Indiana Pacers are finally moving on with their life after several dramatic years weighted down by bad characters, bad contracts and injuries to key players. Seven new faces will be among the 16 players under contract as training camp begins. The Pacers new direction remains a work in progress, as Larry Bird expects to continue making changes in an effort to find the right players with the right attitude to play the right way.

The Pacers traded for guard T.J. Ford, center Rasho Nesterovic and forward Maceo Baston (and a draft pick) so they could break the strangle-hold Jermaine O’Neal’s contract had on the team’s salary cap and use Ford to go in a different direction at point guard.

Speaking of point guard, Jamaal Tinsley’s days running the point in Indy are over whether or not he’s traded prior to the season tipping off. From his nameplate in the locker room to the jersey in the team store to the player himself, the Pacers have removed all evidence of Tinsley’s existence in Indy. Well, almost all. There’s still that $21 million salary for the next three years on the books.

Bird remains hopeful a point guard-needy team will give Tinsley a chance to show he can still play (which he can, by the way, he just needs a fresh situation) and free the Pacers of a polarizing figure most fans gave up on long ago.

So while the Tin Man remains the elephant in the corner, what about the actual players that will be playing for the Pacers this year? I’m getting there, but first you have to know about the rest of the roster changes this summer. Gone are Kareem Rush (Philly), Flip Murray (Atlanta), Ike Diogu (traded to Portland), Andre Owens (Europe), Jermaine O’Neal (aforementioned trade to Toronto),  and David Harrison (still looking for a smoke-friendly team on any continent). Whew!

Joining Ford, Nesterovic, and Baston among the new faces for the Pacers are Brandon Rush (13th pick, part of draft night trade with Portland), Jarrett Jack (also from Portland), Roy Hibbert (17th pick, part of trade with Toronto), and local high school hero, Josh McRoberts (trade with Portland). If the Pacers are forced to keep Tinsley and his contract on ice once the season starts, McRoberts appears to be the most likely candidate to be cut.

So now you know the names, if not the faces, that will wear the blue and gold this year, just what should we expect from this team under the strong hand of Coach Jim O’Brien? In short, a team that will push the pace at a high rate, score a lot of points and struggle to stop their opponents from scoring. For the Pacers to exceed expectations this year they will need to have a few players emerge to solidify several roles on the team which remain questionable.

So let’s break ‘em down.

Point Guard

T.J. Ford begins camp as the default starter at point based on experience, salary, and his summertime leadership since the trade. Ford initially planned to spend most of his summer at home in Houston, but ended up organizing workouts with his new teammates in Indy instead. He even met Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy on their own turf in New York to get to know the players and workout with them.

Ford should have no problem pushing the ball in Jim O’Brien’s offense which relies on running at all times. I don’t see Ford becoming the three-point shooter O’Brien would like to see, but his ability to get the ball into the lane should provide plenty of kick-out threes for Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and Brandon Rush. Ford will be pushed to step up his defensive game and his ability to apply on-the-ball pressure from the point will determine whether or not the Pacers can improve their defensive standing.

Jarrett Jack and Travis Diener will play the point off the bench with Jack playing some at the two guard, according to O’Brien. Jack’s size at point is a nice complement to Ford giving the Pacers options when matching up against opposing guards. Diener spent all summer recovering from a foot injury and will probably struggle to find playing time early in the year. As he proved last year, though, Diener is a reliable option to have available if injuries or a favorable matchup dictates he should play.

Shooting Guard/Small Forward

For the Pacers, the shooting guard and small forward positions are interchangeable as are all of the players vying for playing time at the positions. Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy both produced their best in 2007-08 and will begin the season holding-down the starting spots for the Pacers. With J.O.’s departure, Granger has become the face of the franchise and his game has to continue to develop to maintain that stature. There is no doubt he is poised to raise his game to an All-Star (or near All-Star) level, it’s just up to him to bring it every night and show more consistency this year at both ends of the floor.

Dunleavy’s game found a perfect fit with Jim O’Brien’s offense last year. After finding his shooting stroke early, Dun’s ability to pass and move without the ball allowed him to make major contributions all year. The size of Granger and Dunleavy also give J.O.B. the option of running with a small lineup by pushing Granger to power forward without going too small.

Brandon Rush and Marquis Daniels will play the bulk of the minutes off the bench, while Shawne Williams and Stephen Graham will have to take advantage of every opportunity in order to earn more minutes. Rush is a key player in determining how successful the Pacers will be this year. How well the rookie transitions to the L and how much he can produce will be critical for a good year. If J.O.B. can rely on Rush and expand his role on the team the result will help the Pacers take a giant step closer toward exceeding expectation.

Power Forward/Center

There are plenty of questions marks heading into the season for the Pacers front court. Combined the key players possess all the skills necessary to provide solid shooting, tough defense, and strong rebounding. The only problem is that none of the front court players combine all these skills as an individual the way Jermaine O’Neal did for several years.

At power forward, Troy Murphy will likely start with his ability to step out and knock down shots. Maceo Baston and Jeff Foster will combine to play some power forward off the bench but how much Foster plays the four depends on the development of rookie center, Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert has earned rave reviews for his summer workouts and his potential to hold down the middle on defense for years to come. Larry Bird tempered those expectations a bit recently when he implied that Hibbert will probably be a better player by the All-Star break. Much like Rush, Hibbert’s development as a rookie and ability to produce will be a key issue for the Pacers this year. If Hibbert can defend and rebound without fouling out in five minutes or completely bogging down the offense, he will have played a key role in a successful season for the Pacers.

While hoping on the rook to perform makes the Pacers hopes for the season a bit tenuous, there will always be mister reliable, Jeff Foster, to hold down the middle. Once again, Foster will have to earn a starting spot in October and if he doesn’t, will probably end up starting at some point, just as he has over the past few seasons. Rasho Nesterovic will also have a chance to start depending on how well he can defend and shoot the ball. In theory, pairing Foster with Troy Murphy makes more sense because of the defensive implications. Any way you slice it, the lack of depth and talent could be the key spot holding back the Pacers this year. But the Pacers will score points, so if the collective bigs can just hit the glass and hold their own on defense, it may be enough to help the Pacers find success.

The Indiana Pacers begin a new era this year as a work in progress with plenty of questions prior to the season. Just how those questions are answered will determine how many notches the blue and gold log in the W column. If all answers are favorable and the Pacers surprise the East this year, they will end up with around 45 wins. Since there are so many variables that have to go right, it’s more likely a good season will end with 39 wins and a near miss in the race to the playoffs. But with a good core of young players, 39 wins would be a solid foundation to build around for future success.

Tom Lewis writes about the Indiana Pacers and the NBA at Indy Cornrows.