One game. One play. One player. For the Indiana Pacers the 2012-13 season was a game of ones. The Pacers were one Game 7 win away, in the Eastern Conference Finals, from advancing to just their second NBA Finals in team history. That series very well could have been over in six games if it had not been for one play: LeBron James's Game 1-winning layup, in OT, against a Roy Hibbert-less Pacers frontline. Even still, if just one player, Danny Granger, had not played but 75 minutes the entire season, then maybe they would have had the firepower to outpace the Heat.
In a season where Paul George blossomed into an All-Star and Roy Hibbert reached dominate status when it mattered most, last season should have been a reason for optimism rather than a handful of what ifs.
This season? With Granger healthy, George set to blow up, and a renewed bench, the Pacers are again a few breaks away from an NBA Finals berth.
The Pacers bench was downright terrible last year. Gerald Green’s “resurgence” was anything but, every time Sam Young caught the ball it was on accident, Tyler Hansbrough showed us that having no skills with toughness is the same as having no skills, D.J. Augustin was the pass-first point guard that couldn’t run an offense, and Jeff Pendergraph was so ashamed he changed his last name to Ayers. Not really, but it would have made for a compelling story.
Seriously, there was nowhere this bench could go, but up. Scola slots in behind David West, giving the Pacers the ability to manage West’s minutes in the regular season. Watson and Copeland (if he can truly repeat last season’s shooting) give them the flexibility to spread the floor, something they lacked outside of George last season.
All in all, the Pacers bench should at least be a mid-ranked team on offense, which is all they figure to need if these next players can carry the load.
Key Player(s): Paul George, Roy Hibbert
George should be a 20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assist wing this year. I don’t think that’s asking too much if the Pacers want to win a championship. He’s largely improved aspects of his game each year, and I’m expecting the cat-calls surrounding his ball-handling to be silenced. He can be the best two-way player in the league behind LeBron if he puts the work in.
Was Hibbert’s dominate playoff run a fluke or the beginning of the end for every other big in the East? Given the dedication he has displayed over the internet this off-season, Hibbert should be a successful focal point on this team. Expect better play in the post, and better overall numbers, but he won’t reach the level of that playoff run.
X-Factor(s): Danny Granger, Lance Stephenson
Granger should not start. I said it. The chemistry that the Pacers developed with “Born Ready” at the SG position should be enough to ease Granger back into the game with ample minutes off the bench. Granger’s shooting is a necessity, but his role as a focal point off the bench can keep leads that the starters routinely gave up last year.
That may not matter if Lance can develop into a smarter player. He’s bullish on defense, but skittish on offense. An overzealous turnover waiting to happen. He’s got the skills to be the long-term answer at SG, and his development is key to a championship run.
Worst Case Scenario: Granger is a shell of his former self. He starts soaking up possessions, enough to hinder the development of George and Stephenson, while maintaining a respectable average. Hibbert reverts back into a foul-induced coma and the West/Scola combo age much faster than predicted. The Pacers struggle to win only 48 games, two games behind third place Brooklyn. After struggling with a game Pistons team in round one, the Pacers get blown out by a rejuvenated Bulls team in five games.
Best Case Scenario: After shrewd Granger's decision to come off the bench, the Pacers find the spacing and balance on offense they need. Improving into a top 10 offense behind George and Hibbert, the Pacers grab the second seed in the East, winning 56 games. Crushing the Wizards in round one, the Pacers get an aged Brooklyn team in round two. Six games later, Indiana gets a rematch with the Heat. A matured Paul George pulls a ’05 LeBron James vs. the Pistons in Game 6, dropping 40 points, while eliminating the defending champions.
Curveball (Possible event that could alter the course of the season): Trading Danny Granger. Granger’s expiring contract could bring a veteran point guard, picks, or host of other possibilities. The Pacers have options, many of which could change the course of their season.
Prediction: 51-31, 3rd in the Eastern Conference
Miami is going to take a step back in the regular season, but not large enough to fall into the third seed. For some reason I can’t fully throw my weight behind this Pacers team. It just seems like George and Hibbert are still a year away from truly realizing their potential.
With a Bulls team I expect to dominate in the regular season, that leaves Indiana as the odd team out. This team is a step ahead of the rest of the East, but they're still one year away from true greatness.