Indiana Pacers: Season in Review

April 16, 2009 in Basketball, Indiana Pacers, NBA by pacejmiller

[This article is about the 2008-2009 season.  For the season review of the 2009-2010 season, click here]

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It’s been a while since I did a post on the most frustrating team in basketball, the non-playoff bound (once again), under/overachieving, Indiana Pacers.  And no, despite the apparent lack of interest I have been following the team on a day-to-day basis.  After, like what, 15 years(?) it’s too late to abandon them after another lacklustre season that began with the usual glittering promises of greatness and potential but ended with the usual ‘what ifs’.

Season in Review

Team Grade: C

Success or Failure?

There are a couple of ways you could look at the way the Indiana Pacers went in the 2008-2009 NBA season.  They finished 36-46, exactly the same record as their previous season.  However, you could say this was a much better effort than last season, where the team looked like a complete mess, played boring basketball and didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves.  This year, they managed the same record without their former franchise player Jermaine O’Neal and their former star point guard, Jamal Tinsley.  There was an entire new cast of players, including TJ Ford, Jarrett Jack and Rasho Nesterovic.  They played two rookies (Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert) significant minutes.  Their second leading scorer, Mike Dunleavy Jr, only played in 18 games.  There were also injuries to key players, (newly annointed All-Star) Danny Granger (15 games) and Marquis Daniels (28 games).  Despite all of this, they still managed the same record.  Isn’t that something worth cheering about?

On the other hand, you could just as easily view this season as another typical failure for the Pacers.  Yes, they finished with the same record, but at least last season they battled the Atlanta Hawks all the way down to the wire for that 8th and final playoff spot.  This season, they also finished 9th in the East, but they didn’t get there until winning their final regular season game and were still 3 games behind Detroit for the 8th seed.  Fact is, they hovered between 12th and 14th for the majority of the time they were expected to make a run for the playoffs.  It wasn’t until all hope was gone that they started a steady climb towards 9th.  So really, all it meant was that they fought hard for a worse chance at a better lottery pick?  Further, they did lose Jermaine O’Neal and Jamal Tinsley (well, not really), but those two barely played last season anyway.   So how could you possibly call this season anything but a failure?

Reliving the Roller Coast Season

Let’s take a closer look at the season that the Pacers themselves have called ‘crazy’.  The 2008-2009 season started off as a big question mark.  There was the big Jermaine O’Neal trade, bringing in plenty of new faces, there was the drafting of 2 highly-touted, first round rookies (11th and 17th picks), and guys who had solid performances last year – Granger and Dunleavy – who were ready to take things to the next level.  As usual, optimism at Pacer central was sky high.

After the Pacers kicked off with a close loss at Detroit and a stunning blowout at home against the defending champions Boston Celtics, Pacer fans everywhere were making bold predictions, saying that the Pacers will not only make the playoffs but finish in the top 4 in the East! Just wait till Mike Dunleavy returns (any game now) – we’ll be title contenders!  Wow.  Those were the good old days.  Then reality inevitably set in and they had a horrendous stretch which saw them go from 4-3 to 7-16, including a season high 6-game losing streak.  Do not despair, we were assured, the Pacers had the toughest early schedule of any team in the league, Mike Dunleavy is still out, and the new players need time to gel.  We’ll be fine.  Top 4 was a bit optimistic but we’ll make the playoffs, no problem.

Then the schedule got easier, and Dunleavy made his triumphant return (for 18 games) then left again, and the team had another batch of games to gel.  But still, no runs, no move in the standings.  I made a big deal about what I called the ‘make or break’ section of their schedule (see post), when the Pacers would play 13 of the next 17 games against sub-0.500 teams, with 10 out of those same 17 games played at home.  This was their time to make a break from the rest of the pack and get into the top 8.  However, not unexpectedly, they failed to capitalise, going only 9-8 in that stretch and still hovered between 12th and 14th in the East.  In my opinion, any hopes of the playoffs ended with that stretch (and I turned out to be right).

Strangely, when All-Star Danny Granger went down with a foot injury, the team actually pulled together some tough victories.  Okay, Pacer central said, if we can do this well without Danny, imagine what would happen when we get him back!  We’ve still got a shot!  But when they got him back, things were roughly the same (in terms of winning percentage).  With some decent victories coupled with some disappointing losses to other lottery teams, they managed to claw their way back up to 10th, but never seriously threatened the top 8 again.  In their final regular season game, they outscored Milwaukee 43-20 in the 4th quarter to pull out a 115-108 home victory, ending their roller-coaster season at 9th.

Breaking down the Pacers

The record doesn’t lie.  36-46, no playoffs – it is what it is.  There are no moral victories.  However, breaking down their season game by game, some interesting trends become apparent, as well as some suggestions for improvement.

The Pacers were a solid 26-15 at their home court, Conseco Fieldhouse this season.  Unfortunately, it also means they were a dismal 10-31 on the road.  Clearly, to make the playoffs, they need to close that gap.  Good teams have to find ways to win on the road.  The Pacers still haven’t figured out how yet.

For the season, the team averaged 105.08ppg, good for 5th in the NBA.  On the other hand, they gave up an average of 106.19 every night, 5th worst in the league.  As a team, they got better offensively (from 104ppg) and worse defensively (from 105.4) compared to last season.  However, they have made a few strides both offensively and defensively.  The team shot better from everywhere this season (0.455 FG, 0.378 3P, 0.807 FT) compared to last (0.444 FG, 0.370 3P, 0.768 FT) and rebounded better overall (43.7rpg vs 43.1rpg).  This shows they are making some improvements, but it just hasn’t manifested itself on the win-loss column.  Again, defense is their main problem.

Looking even deeper, the Pacers actually beat all the top teams in the NBA this season, with victories over Cleveland Cavaliers, LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets, just to name a few.  While that may look pretty, conversely, they’ve also lost to the likes of the Charlotte Bobcats, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, LA Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves.  What it demonstrates is a lack of consistency, a tendency to take the good teams seriously and playing the bad teams down to their level.

Another interesting statistic is that the Pacers have played the most close games out of any team in the league, with a whopping 23 games decided by 3 points or less.  A few points here and there, and the Pacers would have a very different record.  They’ve also come back from many large deficits (as evident from their last game against Milwaukee), but they’ve also given up plenty of big leads in order to lose.

All season, the Pacers have been wildly inconsistent, with an inability to string together any run of meaningfil victories.  In fact, their season high winning-streak is only 3 games, and it only happened once at the start of the season when they beat New Jersey, the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Jersey (without Devin Harris).  They are explosive offensively but have defensive liabilities all over the court, both individually and collectively.  There’s a lack of confidence (though this has improved), and a lack of toughness which they desperately need.

Lastly, there are 3 bright spots for the Pacers this season.  (1) Danny Granger’s ascension to All-Star status; (2) Troy Murphy establishing himself as a solid PF in breaking the franchise records for double-doubles and rebounds in a season; and (3) Brandon Rush, who has shown flashes of brilliance, especially late in the season.  So there are some good things to come out of this season, but all things considered it can only be described as another that began with a lot of uncertainties and high expectations and ended without much excitement.

Looking Back on the Trades

Before the season began, the Pacers made waves with two of the biggest trades in the off-season: (1) former franchise player Jermaine O’Neal and second round pick Nathan Jawai (41st overall) for TJ Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston and Roy Hibbert (17th pick); and (2) Ike Diogu and Jerryd Bayless (11th pick) for Jarrett Jack, Josh McRoberts and Brandon Rush (13th pick).  So how have the trades turned out?

Rush and Hibbert

Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert

O’Neal Trade Grade: A

Most Pacer fans were glad to finally get rid of Jermaine O’Neal, his injury woes and his bloated contract.  After a disappointing stint in Toronto, O’Neal was traded to Miami, and consequently will be an important part of their playoff run.  For the season, O’Neal played in 68 games, averaging 13.3ppg, 6.4rpg, 1.8apg and 2.0blg.  Not bad, but certainly not the O’Neal of old (though interestingly he promises to return to All-Star status by the time he’s done).  Jawai, on the other hand, played limited minutes in a handful of games before being sent to the Developmental League.

For the Pacers, TJ Ford registered a career-best 14.9ppg to go with 5.3apg, 3.5rpg and 1.2spg in 74 games.  Plus he hit a couple of game winners and generally had a bigger impact on the team than O’Neal, despite being relegated to the bench towards the end of the season.  That alone would have shifted the balance of the trade in the Pacers’ favour.  Rasho Nesterovic started well, but kind of drifted off mid-way through the season.  Nevertheless, he has contributed, averaging 6.8ppg and 3.4rpg in 70 games.  Maceo Baston returned to the Pacers for another stint, and this time he’s played even less, averaging 2.5 points and 1.9 boards in 27 games.  But the X-factor in this trade has to be Roy Hibbert.  Hibbert may have only averaged 7.1ppg, 3.5rpg and 1.09blg in 70 games (plus he was a human foul machine, averaging 3.1 fouls in just 14.4 minutes!), but he is still 7 foot 2 and has shown he can play in this league.  If he works hard and avoids injury, he could be the future starting center the Pacers have been looking for since Rik Smits retired.

The Pacers could have used O’Neal’s presence in the middle this season, but whichever way you look at it, this trade was a HUGE win for the Pacers.

Diogu Trade Grade: A+

Pacer fans voiced a lot of displeasure at the trade for Brandon Rush with Jerryd Bayless.  Diogu was a disappointment in his short stint with the Pacers, so it didn’t hurt trading him for Jarrett Jack.  In essence, this was two separate player-for-player trades, so let’s compare them as such (sorry Josh McRoberts, you don’t really count in this equation).

First, let’s look at Diogu’s performance with the Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings (he was traded midway through the season): 29 games, 4.1ppg and 1.9rpg.  Compare that to Jack’s performance with the Pacers: 82 games, 13.1ppg (career high), 4.1apg, 3.4rpg (career high), 1.07spg.  It’s a no contest.

Now let’s look at Bayless and Rush.  Bayless played in 53 games and averaged 4.3ppg, 1.5apg and 1.1rpg while shooting just 0.365 from the field and 0.259 from behind the arc (despite a superb pre-season performance).  In contrast, Rush appeared in 75 games, averaging 8.1ppg and 3.1prg.  He shot better than Bayless, 0.423 from the field and 0.373 from 3-point range.  It’s probably not entirely fair to compare them directly because Portland is a deep, 50+ win team, whereas the Pacers are lottery-bound in the East and needed all the help they could get.  Nevertheless, the Pacers can’t be disappointed with the trade, especially after Rush’s offensive explosion towards the end of the season.  He really has an opportunity to be the future of the franchise along with Danny Granger.

Therefore, you could say this trade was even more in the Pacers’ favour than the O’Neal trade.  It’s just a shame that these great trades have not translated into more victories.  Not yet anyway.

Individual Player Grades

Danny Granger: A

This season, Danny Granger has established himself as an All-Star and one of the top 5 offensive players in the league.  He averaged a sensational 25.8 points per game through 67 games, hustled, played hard, hit big shots and led by example, becoming the unequivocal leader of this Pacers squad.  His rise has been nothing short of meteroic, becoming the first player in NBA history to lift his scoring average by a minimum of 5.0ppg for 3 consecutive seasons.  I was a little surprised (albeit pleasantly) that Granger came out on top in the Most Improved Player Award voting at ESPN (see my post on this), though he has had a crazy hot-streak to end the season, averaging 31.1ppg in his last 11 games, leading the team to a 7-4 record.  While his scoring did go up, his rebound stats actually went down, and he hasn’t added a whole lot more to his passing.  That, and the Pacers’ uninspiring record were the only things holding Granger back from an A+ season.

The next step is of course to become an even better all-round player and realise his defensive potential.  With guys like Ford, Rush, Jack, Daniels and Murphy (and Dunleavy, when he returns), he doesn’t need to average 25 points a night.  This season, while he has put up big scoring numbers, he hasn’t really made his teammates better, as evident from the period in which he was injured.  He averaged 2.7 assists per game, but there were plenty of nights where I recall seeing a big ZERO next to his name in the assist column.  That’s what he needs to work on to take his game and the Pacers to the next level.

Troy Murphy: B+

troy-murphy

Troy Murphy set some records this year

Murph has been a surprise this season, returning to the peak form (if not beyond) he exhibited during his best days in Golden State.  He broke the franchise single-season record for double-doubles and rebounds, and became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 5 for rebounds (11.8rpg, 2nd) and 3P percentage (0.450, 3rd)! Overall, he averaged a solid 14.3ppg, 11.8rpg and 2.4apg, shooting 0.475 from the field and 0.826 from the free-throw line.  On paper, that’s an A+ season – but unfortunately, Murph still has a lot of work to do on the defensive end.  He often gets abused down low by the big guys and burnt by the smaller, more athletic guys.  To be fair, there’s only so much he can do with his natural abilities – that is where the rest of the team needs to pick up the slack and work as a collective unit on defense.  In any event, if he can keep this up next season then the Pacers have a lot to be optimistic about.

Mike Dunleavy Jr: Inconclusive

Last season, Granger and Dunleavy were the stars.  This year, it has all been Granger because Dunleavy only played 18 games.  In those games, he was still their second best scorer, averaging 15.1ppg in just 27.5 minutes.  He’s an underrated passer too, creating the potential for a lethal 1-2 punch with Danny.  For a guy that’s only missed around 10 games in his first 6 seasons and was coming off by far his best season as a pro, this injury must come as a huge shock.  Now his career is hanging by a thread and there is no confirmation of when he’ll be back, if EVER, a frightening thought for the Pacers.  At the moment they are proceeding with next season as though he won’t be back.  Early 2010 has been projected by some as a possible return date.  The good thing is with Brandon Rush developing they might not lose all that much.

TJ Ford: B-

Statistically, Ford ranks up there with the mid-tier point guards in the NBA (see above).  He has also hit some big shots in crunch time, but in some ways you can say he has struggled to run the Pacers’ offense.  Beginning the season as a starter and ending it coming off the bench does hint at his leadership capabilities (though it may also say a lot about Jarrett Jack’s performance).  There is a rumour that TJ still wants to be ‘the man’ too much, leading to inconsistent results on a nightly basis.  Despite leading the Pacers in assists, Ford actually registered a career low in that category.  He needs to get back to that pass-first mentality to make the team better next season.  With his quickness and ability to break down the defense with his dribble, Ford has underachieved in the eyes of some.

Jarret Jack: B

Jack has been another pleasant surprise for the Pacers this season, brought in predominantly as a back-up combo guard but finishing the season as the clear starting PG.  He isn’t as fast or explosive as Ford but he’s tough as they come and he knows how to run O’Brien’s offensive system better.  Plus he has better size.  Jack’s also had some wonderful games and some terrible ones, but in general the Pacers look more comfortable with him running the point than Ford.  Jack played in all 82 games this season, averaging 13.1 points, 3.4 rebounds (both career highs) and 4.1 assists.  I’ve always said if the Pacers could somehow manage to combine the abilities of Ford and Jack (without averaging them out) then they’d have a PG that can truly take them to the next level.  Or they can just get Chris Paul.

Marquis Daniels: C+

Another shame of a season for Marquis, who slotted in admirably in the place of Mike Dunleavy for a large portion of the season before getting injured.  He averaged 13.6 points and 4.6 rebounds (both career highs) in 54 games, showing tremendous promise at times but has also been inconsistent.  With younger players developing, his value is falling with the Pacers.  If he can stay healthy and reproduce these numbers again next season he can still be a valuable contributor off the bench – if he’s still here, that is (unlikely).

Brandon Rush: B

Halfway through the season, Rush would have probably gotten a D, but he’s proving with his play that the Pacers didn’t make a mistake when got him instead of Jerryd Bayless.  Statistically, his season stats are not particularly impressive (see above), but his late season play has been very encouraging, averaging 16.1ppg in his last 13 games, scoring in double figures in 12 of them, including back to back games with 29 points.  And he did it shooting 53% from the floor including 44% from 3-point range.  Even Granger didn’t exhibit this kind of potential in his first year.  Rush can shoot, drive and defend.  If he keeps improving, he could be the Pacers’ best player in 3 or 4 years.  With Rush and Granger, the Pacers may not have to be staring into the darkness forever.  It will be interesting to see whether he can maintain his confidence next season and what strides he has made in the off-season.  Rush has definitely established himself as one to watch for the future.

Roy Hibbert: C+

Another rookie that has shown glimpses of brilliance.  The Pacers haven’t had a decent C anchoring the middle since Rik Smits retired.  Hibbert is not as slow as projected and he has the ability to change the game with his shot-blocking and shot-changing skills.  And he is huge.  The problem is he can’t seem to stay on the court for more than 5 minutes without fouling out.  No one is expecting him to be the next Dwight Howard, but perhaps he could be a reliable starting C for the Pacers in a year or two – someone on the level of say Andrew Bogut or Thaddeus Young in terms of production.  Whatever he turns out to be, let’s just hope it’s not another David Harrison.

Jeff Foster: C+

Mr Plus-Minus, Rebound Ace Jeff Foster has given up a lot of time to the youngsters but he is still as reliable as ever in the paint, setting picks, doing the dirty work and grabbing boards.  He is still one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, averaging 2.9 orpg (8th in the league) in just 24.8 minutes per game, but his total rebound average of 6.9 is the lowest he’s had since 2002-3.  I think it is clear that Jeff has reached his peak and won’t ever be more than what he is now, as valuable as that is to the Pacers.  Let’s just hope he can continue to give the team what he has been giving them for the rest of his career, in Indiana.

Rasho Nesterovic: D+

Rasho is a guy that, frankly, seems to have fallen off the face of the planet.  He commenced the season as the starting center, but has somehow morphed into the quiet underachiever of the team.  I remember seeing an article on Pacers.com about what a tremendous asset Rasho is to the team, blah blah blah.  Now most people have trouble remembering that he’s even on the team.  He averaged 6.8ppg and 3.4rpg for the season, but he’s only reached 10 points a grand total of 3 times since February and didn’t even score in his last 3 games of the season.  I think it’s safe to say he won’t be back next season – besides, the Pacers only brought him in for his expiring contract anyway.

Stephen Graham: C-

One of those third-tier players that can do a little damage given the right circumstances.  He certainly can be explosive in the open court as a finisher but it doesn’t seem he’ll ever break the regular rotation on a continuing basis.  Graham averaged 5.4ppg and 1.8rpg in 52 games, even starting in 6 of them.

Travis Diener: D+

With Ford and Jack and Rush it was hard to see Diener getting consistent minutes.  He has the ability to hit the 3-ball and play within the offensive structure but he hasn’t proven himself to be tough enough to battle against the bigger, tougher top-tier PGs.  Given his injury problems earlier in the season, Diener only played in 55 games, averaging 3.7ppg and 2.2apg.

Maceo Baston: D

I remember there was so much optimism when Maceo Baston joined the Pacers with Sarunas Jasikevicius a few years back, but neither lived up to their potential.  Baston left the Pacers and returned again this year, but the outcome was pretty much the same.  He had a whole bunch of DNPs all season and ended up appearing in 27 games, averaging 2.5 points and 1.9 rebounds.  At almost 33, he’s not going to improve much more from here.  Unlikely to be around next season.

Josh McRoberts: D

Another guy that rarely sees any action.  Hometown hero McRoberts played in 33 games, averaging 2.4ppg and 2.2 rpg.  However, he’s only 22, so there’s potential for growth.

Jamal Tinsley: F

Well technically, he’s still part of the team, isn’t he?  From Jamal’s point of view, A+ might have been more appropriate to describe his season (0 games, $6,750,000, not bad), but I cannot emphasise enough how disappointingly the Pacers have handled the Jamal Tinsley situation.  Let’s hope they don’t start next season with this still hanging over their heads.

Coach O’Brien

Coach Grade: B-

How can a team that doesn’t make the playoffs still have a coach that gets a B- rating?  Well, O’Briens done a decent job of keeping the team motivated all season despite a brand new line-up, the Tinsley problems, the injuries, the instability in the line-ups.  The team is now at least entertaining to watch and not the complete disgrace they were a year or two ago.  Granger has developed under his guidance and the rookies are starting to show promising signs too.  The problem is still with defense and getting the team prepared mentally for teams that they should beat.  There have been too many games where they have lost when they should have won, including losing after giving up huge leads.  However, current signs indicate that management is willing to give Coach O’Brien at least another season to see if he can take the team to the playoffs.

Looking Forward to Next Season

Some have questioned whether it was wise for the Pacers to start winning AFTER falling out of the playoff race – wasn’t it better to tank the remaining games, play the young guys and get a better draft pick?  It’s a struggle for me, but ultimately I think they made the right decision to play hard to season’s end.  After all, they did get to play the young guys a lot anyway.  Next year’s draft is supposedly weak, and even if the Pacers were 14th in the East they still would not have great look at the top 5 picks due to the plethora of bad teams out West.  What is encouraging is that the Pacers are over 0.500 in 2009 (26-25), a winning percentage that will surely get them into the playoffs next season.

With their finishing position, they are looking at somewhere around the 13th pick.  It’s possible to get a decent player, but a lot will come down to luck.  The Pacers also have around $8-10 million to throw around at free agents (including re-signing Jack).  Not a lot but better than nothing.

No doubt before the start of next season the Pacers will be taking about how they’ve had another year to gel, the coaching staff and players are now familair with each other and the structure of the plays, how Granger is progressing towards superstar status and Rush and Hibbert are taking steps to becoming the future of the franchise etc – and the team will be even more dangerous when Mike Dunleavy returns halfway through the season!  In fact, I think they’ve already started talking about it.

But we should all know by now that the same stuff is regurgitated every season, and for the last few years at least, it’s turned out to be nothing more than farts in a windstorm.  Without changes to personnel and a fundamental change in attitute towards defense, I’m expecting the Pacers to be battling for the 8th and final spot in the East once again next season.  Whether they make it or not will depend a lot on a favourable early schedule, Granger’s development into a better all-round player, Rush and Hibbert’s development, and most importantly, health.  If these things, on balance, fall in the Pacers’ favour, I think they can make the playoffs next season.  Otherwise, it’s de ja vu all over again.

Finally, there is that little financial difficulty issue, but I’ve decided it’s best to leave things on a less depressing note