My Epic Indiana Pacers 2013-2014 Season Preview and Predictions

October 28, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, Indiana Pacers, NBA, Sport

The Indiana Pacers are ready to go for it all this season

(This article was first posted on Pacers Pulse)

With renewed hope and high expectations, the Indiana Pacers will finally kick off their 2013-2014 campaign on Oct. 29 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against the Orlando Magic. After coming within a single game of the NBA Finals last season, the Pacers are “all in” this time around, according to team president Larry Bird, who claims to have signed every player the team went after this offseason. These include securing a new 3-year deal with veteran power forward David West, signing the future face of the franchise, Paul George, to a max extension, and acquiring key role players such as CJ Watson, Chris Copeland and Luis Scola to bolster their bench, the team’s biggest weakness from the last couple of years.

Throw in the return of former leading scorer Danny Granger, who missed all but 5 games last season and underwent knee surgery in April, and taking into account the continued development of George Hill, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, there is a good reason why the Pacers are optimistic about their chances of toppling the two-time defending champions Miami Heat this year.

That said, the Heat, who lost Mike Miller but added injury-prine Greg Oden and pothead Michael Beasley to their lineup this offseason, are far from the only obstacles in the Pacers’ way. Derrick Rose is back and looking more explosive than ever in Chicago, the Brooklyn Nets added aging Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to its All-Star core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, and New York, last season’s No. 2 seed, has added shooting big man Andre Bargnani. And that’s just in the Eastern Conference.

Out West, Dwight Howard has joined James Harden and the Houston Rockets, instantly shifting them into title contention. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers (recognized as one of the best coaches in the league) has replaced Vinny Del Negro (recognized as one of the worst coaches ever) in LA for the Clippers, which also added shooting prowess via JJ Reddick, a solid backup PG in former Pacer Darren Collison and veteran leadership in Antawn Jamison. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors have taken another step towards serious contention with the addition of versatile swingman Andre Iguadala and will bring back former All-Star center Andrew Bogut from injury. Russell Westbrook will also be back from injury, making the Oklahoma City Thunder a Finals favorite again, and the Memphis Grizzlies added a healthy Mike Miller to ignite their anemic offense and bolster their crazy defense.

So yeah, the Pacers aren’t the only team to have made improvements this offseason. Apart from Memphis, they are also the only title contending team without a true superstar closer, though Paul George appears to be heading in that direction. They won’t be a favorite among the bookies, but they’ll be right in the mix come playoff time, and for a small market team incapable of attracting big name free agents, that’s pretty much all you can for hope for.

Offseason transaction summary

Re-signings:

PF David West (17.1 points, 7.7 rebounds last season) — 3-year extension worth $36m

G/F Paul George (17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists last season)  – 5-year max extension between $80m-100m

Additions:

PF Luis Scola (12.8ppg, 6.6rpg last season) –traded from Phoenix

F Chris Copeland (8.7ppg, 42.1% 3P last season) — restricted free agent from New York

PG CJ Watson (6.8ppg, 2apg last season) — free agent from Brooklyn

PG Donald Sloan (3.5ppg, 1.7apg last season) — free agent from New Orleans

SF Solomon Hill (rookie)

*G/F Rasual Butler (D-League last season) has made the team due to Danny Granger’s calf injury, but it is possible he could be waived if and when Granger recovers

Subtractions:

PF Tyler Hansbrough (7ppg, 4.6rpg) — to Toronto

G/F Gerald Green (7ppg, 36.6% FG) — to Phoenix

PG DJ Augustin (4.7ppg, 2.2apg, 35% FG last season) — to Toronto

PF/C Miles Plumlee (0.9ppg, 23.8% FG) — to Phoenix

PF/C Jeff Ayers (formerly Pendergraph) (3.9ppg, 2.8rpg) — to San Antonio

SF Sam Young (2.8ppg, 39.2% FG last season) — free agent (waived by San Antonio)

PG Ben Hansbrough (2ppg, 33% FG last season) — Spanish league

Coaching changes:

Replaced associate head coach Brian Shaw (new Denver Nuggets head coach) with former NBA head coach Nate McMillan

Replaced assistant coach Jim Boylen (to San Antonio) with former Nets assistant coach Popeye Jones

Grade

On paper, the Pacers appear to have done really well this offseason. David West is the heart and soul of the team, a player whose steady offensive game on the court is only matched by his positive influence in the locker room off the court. Re-signing him was the team’s No. 1 priority and they got it done without breaking the bank, though some might argue that at 33 years old, a 3-year extension might have been too long. But West’s leadership is far too valuable for this team and most believe his old-school game will transition well as he ages.

The max extension to Paul George is a no-brainer. He has earned that after winning Most Improved Player last season, getting on the All-NBA Third Team and leading the Pacers in the playoffs with a string of excellent performances. His offensive game still needs improvement, but he has plenty of potential to be a deadly scorer and is already one of the best wing defenders in the league.

As for the new additions — so far so good. They said the same things last year when they brought in DJ Augustin, Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi, and to a lesser extent Sam Young. Those guys were supposed represent a strong bench unit, and we all saw what happened then. The only guy still left is Mahinmi, who is serviceable as a backup center and valuable because of his rare size. Now the Pacers have brought in CJ Watson, Chris Copeland and Luis Scola to replace Augustin, Green and Tyler Hansbrough, and objectively speaking they are all upgrades.

Augustin struggled defensively because of his size and didn’t find his shot until late in the season. Watson, on the other hand, is a couple of inches taller at 6’2″ and is a solid defender who once played in Tom Thibadeau’s suffocating system in Chicago. And from what I’ve seen from him in the preseason, Watson is an upgrade over Augustin offensively as well. Green is a flashy leaper with streaky outside shooting, poor defense and basement-low basketball IQ. Chris Copeland doesn’t have the athleticism and is a questionable defender, plus he is also streaky with his outside shot, as we’ve seen this preseason — but he does have better basketball IQ. If he can reproduce the type of shots he did against the Pacers last playoffs while with the Knicks then Copeland should also be a sizable update. Luis Scola vs Tyler Hansbrough, on the other hand, is an open and shut case. Scola is one of the most skilled offensive big man in the NBA, while Hansbrough is a raging bull who rarely passes and takes ugly-looking shots. The Pacers will miss Tyler’s endless energy and excellent fashion choices, but apart from that the Pacers love absolutely everything about this upgrade.

The selection of rookie Solomon Hill with the 23rd pick of the first round in the 2013 NBA Draft caused much ridicule and derision at the time. There were supposedly better options at that pick for the Pacers, but instead they went with a 4-year collegiate widely expected to go in the second round, someone with not a lot of upside and plays the same position as Paul George and Danny Granger. But let’s be honest. It was a weak draft and the Pacers weren’t going to get a stud at No. 23. So instead they went with a solid, experience player who makes few mistakes and might be able to contribute right away. On this loaded roster gunning for a title, however, it’s unlikely Hill will get any meaningful playing time this season. But that’s OK. The Pacers will give him time to develop by practising with this bunch and when Granger is gone after this season he could be transformed into a solid backup for Paul George. That’s what I guess the plan is, anyway.

The signings of Donald Sloan and Rasual Butler are insurance policies in case of injuries. Butler was supposed to be waived before the start of the season to trim the roster down to 13 players as expected, but since Granger is not yet 100% and will miss at least the first 2 games it appears the Pacers will have 14 players on their roster for the foreseeable future.

On the coaching side, the departure of Brian Shaw to Denver is a huge loss. The players speak fondly of Shaw and the young guys credit him with their development. The guy replacing him, Nate McMillan, is no slouch, having prevously been the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics and Portland Trailblazers for nearly 12 combined seasons. The hiring of former rebounding ace Popeye Jones to replace long-time assistant Jim Boylen is also interesting. Jones doesn’t have Boylen’s coaching experience but he does have ample experience as a player, having played 12 NBA seasons on six different teams. Even if the net result is a negative it’s not a big negative.

Overall, I’d have to give the Pacers’ offeseason moves a solid A- based on their re-signing of West, extension of George and the new additions of Scola and Watson. The verdict on the Copeland signing remains unclear, as does the selection of rookie Solomon Hill, and the loss of Brian Shaw still stings. But given the circumstances, this was a great offseason.

Roster comparison 2012/2013 vs 2013/2014

2012-2013 Roster 2013-2014 Roster
Starters Starters
PG George Hill PG George Hill
SG Lance Stephenson SG Paul George
SF Paul George SF Danny Granger**
PF David West PF David West
C Roy Hibbert C Roy Hibbert
Reserves Reserves
F Danny Granger* G/F Lance Stephenson
PF Tyler Hansbrough F/C Luis Scola
PG DJ Augustin PG CJ Watson
G/F Gerald Green F Chris Copeland
F/C Ian Mahinmi C Ian Mahinmi
SG Orlando Johnson SG Orlando Johnson
SF Sam Young SF Solomon Hill
PG Ben Hansbrough PG Donald Sloan
F/C Jeff Ayers G/F Rasual Butler
F/C Miles Plumlee TBA

* Only played 5 games all season

** It has been strongly suggested that Danny Granger will start if (and that is a big IF) he is fully healthy, with Paul George moved to SG (the other wing position) and Lance Stephenson shifted to the bench to run the second unit. If not, assume that the starting lineup will be the same as last season, with George starting at SF and Stephenson starting at SG, and with Granger being the first or second primary offensive option in the second unit.

*Sorry Rasual Butler, you missed the cut!

This chart is based on the likley positions that the players will play in the upcoming season. As the depth chart indicates, with multiple players capable of playing multiple positions, the Pacers will have at least 3 players capable of playing each of the 5 positions on the floor. Strictly speaking, George Hill can also play SG and Ian Mahinmi can also play PF, though you might not see it much, if at all, this season.

Rotations

The last couple of games of the preseason were supposed to provide an indication of how coach Frank Vogel intended to split minutes between his players, but the loss of Danny Granger to a calf injury (he won’t be ready for the season opener and his return and eventual return to form remains uncertain) and two blowout wins have kept the allocation of playing time a mystery.

The way I see it, George Hill and CJ Watson will split the minutes at point guard, around a roughly 28-20 split, with Donald Sloan as a insurance policy for injuries and blowouts. Paul George, regardless of position, will play the most of any Pacer this year, around 36-38 minutes a game (at least), because he’s getting THAT good. David West played 33 minutes a game last season, but with his age creeping up and the addition of Luis Scola, expect his playing time to drop to around 30.  Roy Hibbert, depending on whether he can stay out of foul trouble, will hopefully average around 28-32 minutes per game.

NBA: Preseason-Chicago Bulls at Indiana Pacers

That leaves about 58-60 minutes to split equally between Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson, with perhaps a little to spare for Orlando Johnson and/or Solomon Hill, two guys I think won’t see much court time unless there are blowouts or injuries. Chris Copeland might also get some minutes at the SF position, but it has already been indicated that he will get most of his playing time at PF, which means he might not see much court time at all because of Luis Scola.

Scola should except to average around 20+ minutes a game, taking up almost all of David West’s spare minutes at PF and also playing a bit of center against smaller lineups. Ian Mahinmi, depending on the quality of his play and matchups, should expect to play around 12-15 minutes a game, but if he’s not getting the job done expect Vogel to rely more on Hibbert and Scola at the center spots. The guys facing the most uncertainty in terms of playing time should be Copeland and Mahinmi, meaning they could play significant minutes one night and close to nothing the next.

The Danny Granger situation

The offseason re-signings of David West and Paul George, along with the deals the Pacers made with George Hill (5 years, $40m) and Roy Hibbert (4 years, $58m) last offseason (in addition with a likely extension to Lance Stephenson next year) means this is likely Danny Granger’s last year as a Pacer no matter what happens this year. The Pacers have repeatedly said they will avoid the luxury tax and Granger, even with his injury woes, would never accept a minimum contract.

Larry Bird was frank when questioned about the Granger situation: if he’s not struggling or not fitting in well they will try to unload him before the trade deadline in February to lock up some cheap assets, cap space, and/or possibly draft picks; if he’s playing well and making a significant contribution they will roll the dice with him in the playoffs, hoping he can help deliver Indiana its first NBA title, and then worry about his future when the time comes. Actually, simply letting Granger’s contract expire will clear up about $14m in cap space, which is exactly what the Pacers need given the extension they just gave to Paul George and the one they will give Lance Stephenson next offseason.

Granger for Rajon Rondo?

A potential trade that has been brought up numerous times has been Danny Granger for the Celtics’ PG Rajon Rondo, who is recovering from a torn ACL but would give the Pacers a dominant floor general who can control an entire game with his passing alone. Adding the tough, crafty Rondo to a starting lineup with Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert would be absolutely spectacular and would instantly elevate the Pacers into the top echelon of title contenders.

The Celtics are claiming that Rondo remains a part of their future, but everyone knows that Danny Ainge is blowing things up, leading to many analysts predicting that Rondo will be gone from Boston before the trade deadline. The Pacers have made it clear they are listening to offers for Granger. The salaries roughly match (Granger $14m, Rondo $12-13m) and Granger’s is valuable because it is expiring at the end of the season. But most people believe Ainge will ask for a lot more than just Granger and a first round draft pick in the upcoming draft, the most promising in a decade with the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum set to enter the league.

Besides, luxury tax ramifications essentially mean this deal is already dead in the water. With Paul George signed to a max extension, even if you take Granger off the Pacers’ books completely it would still put them at around $65m in 2014/2015, which would still be perilously close to the luxury tax threshold (this year it’s $71.7m). This means unless they waive Luis Scola and his $4.9m non-guaranteed contract next year, a Granger-Rondo trade could very well put them over the top. And this doesn’t even take into account the extension they are almost certain to give to Lance Stephenson.

In any case,  even if Rondo somehow comes to Indiana, what does that mean for the incumbent starter George Hill, who still has 4 years left on his contract with the Pacers? Will they move him to clear cap space or will they shift him to the type of bench role he thrived in in San Antonio? They could also move him to shooting guard as he is comfortable without the ball, though he would be undersized at that position at 6’3″.

It’s an intriguing fantasy trade situation, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine such a deal being pulled off right now with so many variables left hanging. Both Granger’s and Rondo’s health are unknowns at the moment, and it’s questionable whether the Pacers would even pull the trigger on such a trade considering how much they love Hill (remember, they gave up Kawhi “Future Superstar” Leonard for him) and the fact that Rondo’s enigmatic personality could unsettle the Pacers’ harmonious locker room. Still, if the Pacers underachieve out of the gate and don’t appear to be able to edge Miami or Chicago in a 7-game series, I would definitely take the gamble on Rondo (if a trade is possible) because he instantly makes the Pacers a top contender.

Granger for Eric Gordon?

Another potential trade discussed around water coolers is Granger for New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard Eric Gordon. The main reason people are bringing this up is because Granger is a native of New Orleans and Gordon is a native of Indiana, and Indiana would really love an athletic offensive threat like Gordon at SG that would allow Paul George to remain in his preferred role of SF. It also sounds like a fair gamble because both guys are also injury prone (Gordon played just 42 games last season and averaged 17 points) and their $14m salaries are a perfect match.

But with Gordon’s health being a major concern at just 24 years old and his character questioned after he rejected New Orlean’s extension offer in a ploy to play for the Phoenix Suns, I have more doubts about this trade than the Rondo one. And the same luxury tax ramifications that apply to Rondo apply for Gordon as well, so you might as well forget about it.

Preseason record

vs Chicago L 82-76 (0-1)

vs Houston (Manila) L 116-96 (0-2)

@ Houston (Taipei) L 107-98 (0-3)

vs Dallas L 92-85 (0-4)

@ Chicago L 103-98 (0-5)

@ Cleveland W 102-79 (1-5)

@ Atlanta W 107-89 (2-5)

@ Dallas W 98-77 (3-5)

Season schedule

Full season schedule here

The Pacers have 2 games in October, at home against the Magic in the first game of the new NBA season, followed by a road game against the New Orleans Pelicans a day later. It would be good to start off on a strong note with 2 big wins against non-playoff teams, but the start of the regular season is a weird time where teams may be out of synch.

November is a relatively even month for the Pacers with 8 home games and 6 road games. There are some tough matchups with 2 games against the Bulls and games against Brooklyn, Memphis and New York, but also some easy ones against Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Charlotte. The Pacers need to kill November because December is hell, starting with a 5-game West coast road trip (including San Antonio and Oklahoma City back-to-back), then 2 games apiece against Miami and Brooklyn and another against Houston.

January features another 5-game road trip out West albeit against weaker opponents this time and 8 road games against 6 home games, but it’s a relatively lighter part of the schedule and the Pacers need to take advantage of it. February is the home-heavy portion of the schedule with 8 home games against 4 road games, while March is the opposite with a grueling 11 road games against just 7 home games. If the Pacers make it through March looking good then they are in good shape, though they will play two title contenders — Miami and Oklahoma City — before finishing the season the way they started, against Orlando.

Outlook and predictions

Regular season

The Indiana Pacers finished last season with 49 wins (in 81 games — the Celtics game near the end of the season was canceled because of the Boston bombings) and it should be a goal for the team to crack the 52-win mark this season. Three more wins with an extra played game doesn’t sound like much, but with Miami still being Miami, Chicago having Derrick Rose back and a newly bolstered Brooklyn lineup, the Pacers will have their work cut out for them. And don’t forget, the Knicks won more games than the Pacers last season and will be itching for payback when the 2 teams meet after the Pacers ousted them in the Conference Seminfals. Eastern Conference team such as Detroit, Washington and Cleveland also got better.

Some analysts have gone as far as predicting that the Pacers will crack 60-wins this season and claim the top seed, but I think that is being way too optimistic. If we take injuries out of the equation for the moment, I would still place Chicago and Miami (in that order) ahead of Indiana in the standings. Provided Derrick Rose’s knee holds up, the Bulls should be the best regular season team in the entire NBA this year, with Miami in second place in the East depending on Wade’s health and how bored LeBron gets. That puts the Pacers in a race for the 3rd seed alongside Brooklyn and New York. The Nets, which tied the Pacers with 49 wins last season (but lost the tiebreaker) are an unknown entity at the moment because of Deron William’s health and question marks over how much is left in the tank for KG and Pierce, not to mention the difficulties of incorporating 2 new key players (3 if you include Jason Terry) and a brand new rookie head coach in Jason Kidd. I also have doubts New York can duplicate their 54-win performance from last season.

So I see the Pacers finishing anywhere between 51-55 wins and a potential 3rd or 4th seed. This all of course depends on health. An injury to George or Hibbert in particular would pretty much derail the entire team’s chances, though if Granger (eventually) fits into the lineup like a glove the sky’s the limit for this team. Injuries to players in Miami (Wade), Chicago (Rose, Noah) and Brooklyn (take your pick) might also play a big factor in how each team finishes on the ladder.

Indiana Pacers players stand during a time out in an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis

Playoffs

That said, I wouldn’t be too concerned even if the Pacers did finish (what would appear to be a disappointing) 4th or 5th in the East because this is a team built for the playoffs. Besides, if we assume that all teams want to avoid Miami for as long as possible and that the Bulls will clinch the first seed, then a first round matchup against the Knicks as either the 4th of 5th seed is not all that bad. This is because the Pacers have already proven that they can beat the Knicks even without home court advantage, and it means as the winner of that matchup they’d play the 1st seed in the next round, thereby avoiding a potential Miami confrontation until the Conference Finals.

But the serious question is: can the Pacers beat Chicago or Miami in a 7-game series with this current roster? I think they can, but only with home court advantage (which they likely won’t have). Without it, they will need some luck (calls, injuries, Chris Copeland catching fire, etc) and a breakout series performance from a guy or two.

If the Pacers somehow make the Finals, then what? I’d like to think anything can happen, though they’ll be considered underdogs against the likes of San Antonio and Oklahoma City, especially without home court advantage. I do, however, like the Pacers’ odds if they face the Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies or even Warriors in the Finals.

Player predictions

I expect big things from Paul George this year, but for the sake of the team, not TOO big. The reason is because if George gets on another All-NBA team (he was on the 3rd team last season), he’ll become eligible for the Derrick Rose rule, meaning his max extension will take up 30% of the team’s salary instead of the standard 25%. That would seriously hamper the Pacers’ financial flexibility moving forward. As Zach Lowe from Grantland says, it’s probable that George won’t make an All-NBA team this year with the likes of LeBron, Durant, Dirk, Love, Carmelo, Griffin, Duncan and Howard taking up 8 of the 9 slots already.

So what is a realistic prediction for PG24? From what I’ve seen of him in the preseason, he’s ready to take the next step. He will be more confident this year with the ball in his hands and will want the ball more in clutch situations. His ability to take his man on-on-man, especially with a deadly pull-up jumper, will open up more opportunities to take the ball into the lane, where he has also proven that he can convert with contact. My estimation is that George will average around 20 points a game, grab 6-8 rebounds and dish out 4-6 assists while shooting at least 45% from the field (he shot 41.9% last season) and 85% from the line (he shot 80% last season). That and solidifying his reputation as one of the best wing defenders in the league.

Roy Hibbert will start off the 2013/2014 season much better than the 2012/2013 season. Whether it was an undisclosed wrist injury from MMA training or pressure from his new contract or a combination of both, Hibbert was abysmal in the first couple of months of last season before slowly rounding into form and becoming a beast in the playoffs. He is supposed to have buffed up a lot this offseason, as evidenced by the infamous photo with Tim Duncan, but I don’t expect Roy to have a big year on offense. He averaged 11.9 points in the regular season and 17 points in the playoffs in 2012/2013, and my guess is that his scoring average this season will be closer to the former than the latter, with perhaps an increase of a point or two as his shooting percentage creeps closer to 50%. But I do expect Hibbert and his “verticality” to make him a prime candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. I’m looking for him to average 2.5-3 blocks a game and close to 10 boards. The rest will be up to the judges.

I don’t expect George Hill’s numbers to change much, though David West should experience a natural decline with his minutes and touches dwindling in favor of George, Granger and Scola. As for Lance Stephenson, as the value of his extension will be determined by his play this year, expect him to take another step forward with his progress. I don’t know if he will necessarily score a lot of points, but he should be a valuable role player who fills up the stat sheet in other categories such as rebounds and assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he grabbed a triple-double this year.

Off the bench, I expect Luis Scola to lead the way offensively and be the only double-digit scorer in the second unit (unless Granger is there with him or Lance blows up offensively). CJ Watson has really impressed me so far and he should be a solid backup PG who can score and defend without putting up flashy numbers. Unfortunately, Chris Copeland looks like he could be a disappointment, but as long as he hits the big shots when they count he is still a worthy investment. Ian Mahinmi will be serviceable but I also don’t expect him to suddenly become anything more than what he’s shown the last couple of seasons.

Rookie Solomon Hill might get some minutes if there are injuries, but this will likely be a watch and learn year for him. Guys like Orlando JohnsonDonald Sloan and Rasual Butler will see mainly garbage time only, but personally I would like to see more minutes for Johnson.

Last, but not least, Danny Granger, whose return from knee surgery has been anything but a smooth ride. I would really love to see him get back to even just 60% of his old self, but right now the most important thing for him is to get healthy and play some minutes to get his shooting legs back. To be honest I remain a little pessimistic about Granger. The odds of a player who had been in decline for a couple of years (even before the injury) making a huge comeback are extremely low. The best case scenario, by my standards, is that he plays 70 games, shoots well (eventually) to provide some much-needed offense on either unit, and average a relatively efficient 10-12 points a game. Even if he just settles into a James Posey-type of role (three pointers, veteran leadership and defense), that’s fine too. The worst case scenario is that he’ll have a setback and play only a handful of games in another wasted season, or never find his groove in the offense and ends up getting a bunch of morale-killing DNP-coach’s decision on his game log.

Beyond 2013/2014

The ramifications of the Paul George max extension are complex and interesting, and they are explained well in this article. In short, all that financial flexibility the Pacers appeared to have is now pretty much gone after the George extension and the deals to George Hill, Roy Hibbert and David West. These four guys are the team’s core for the next 3 years, so the expenditure is understandable, especially if you consider that the Pacers need to overpay players to stay in Indiana because of its small market status. Larry Bird has repeatedly stated that Lance Stephenson will be “taken care of”, meaning Born Ready will likely get a lucrative extension of his own before he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of this season. Of course, Lance is not a max player, but his versatility and potential make him a valuable commodity worthy of a mid-level contract.

What all this means is that when Stephenson is re-signed and George’s extension kicks in at the start of the 2014/2015 season, the Pacers won’t have a lot of room to move. I don’t think the Pacers can or will move Granger. The possibility that Granger can put the Pacers over the top in the East makes him too valuable to just throw away for spare parts, which suggests to me that the Pacers will roll the dice with him and let him play out the season. In other words, they will let Granger go for nothing at the end of the season no matter what happens and collect the benefits from the $14m in cap space he takes with him. Even then, the Pacers will be effectively capped out until the 2015/2016, with only the ability to tweak the roster around the edges before that time comes.

But that is by no means a horrible predicament to be in. They already proved last season they don’t need Granger to contend with a starting lineup of Hill, Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert, an impressive core they will have locked in until the end of 2014/2015, and possibly a year longer if West and Hibbert pick up their player options. While West will slowly decline with age, the other four guys should improve during this period, with the potential of George becoming a legitimate 2-way superstar. So Pacers fans can relax for now knowing that their team will stay in tact and challenge for the NBA title over the next 2 to 3 years, with their centerpiece Paul George locked in until the end of 2018/2019. Given the salary cap and luxury tax implications, however, it appears that this will be a team that can only improve internally through the development of its existing players, and that any personnel movements will be around the edges to fill in minor holes and gaps in the roster.

Let’s finish up with what Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons have to say about the Pacers’ upcoming season.

Game Review: NBA 2K11 (PS3)

October 21, 2010 in Basketball, Game Reviews, NBA

[Note: Almost two weeks after its release, I am finally reviewing NBA 2K11.  I wanted to make sure I played enough of the game to do the review justice.]

There is no competition this year.  Literally.  With NBA Elite 2011 back to the drawing board until further notice, NBA 2K11 has been automatically elevated to the title of the must-have basketball sim of the year.  Not to say that Elite would have been a challenge had it been released.  Anyone who has played the demo knows that.

In a nutshell, NBA 2K11 is the best basketball sim ever released.  It’s not perfect and there is still plenty of room for improvement, but 2K has kept the bar so high over the years that it doesn’t take much improvement to make a new game the ‘best ever’.

This year, the major improvements have been:

  • improved gameplay, in particular better off-the-ball movements, set plays and more fluid ISO-motion plays;
  • improved presentation, with slicker half-time reports, Player of the Game videos and highlights and easier to control menus;
  • upgraded My Player experience, to include the Draft Combine for free, trade requests, endorsements and post-game interviews; and of course
  • the Jordan Mode, which allows gamers to relive 10 of Jordan’s best moments and then the ability to play as him in My Player Mode.

Okay, time for me to review the game elements one by one and give it an overall rating.

(click on ‘more…’ to find out!)

Read the rest of this entry →

Danny Granger named Most Improved Player!

May 13, 2009 in Basketball, Indiana Pacers, NBA

The only bright spot of the Indiana Pacers’ season (unless you believe the spin doctors as Pacers.com) has continued to shine brightly.  Danny Granger, who was a first-time All-Star this year, has been named the NBA’s Most Improved Player (MIP) for the 2008-2009 season.

The MIP was the last award to be handed out, and it was also the closest, with Granger edging out early favourite Devin Harris (of New Jersey) by a point total of 364-339.  Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant was a distant third with 83 points.

Granger joins Jalen Rose (1999-2000) and Jermaine O’Neal (2001-2002) as the third Pacer to win this award.

Before discussing anything further, let’s check out some of Granger’s highlights of the season.

Did he deserve it?

In my earlier post on NBA Award Winners for 2008-2009, I said I hoped for a Granger win but I thought Harris would get it (based on his strong performance early on in the season) and Durant deserved it most!  But clearly, the voters thought otherwise, and much of it probably had to do with (1) Granger’s improvement on offense; (2) Granger’s clutch performances; and (3) Granger becoming the clear face and future of the Pacers’ franchise.

(1) Granger’s improvement on offense

Statistically, the only significant jump in Granger’s game has been his points per game.  In 67 games this season, he averaged 25.8 points per game, good for 5th in the league.  In doing so, he became the first player in NBA history to up his scoring average by at least 5 points for 3 consecutive seasons (7.5 as a rookie, 13.9 in his sophomore year and 19.6 last season).  He also became one of the best 3-point shooters in the league (despite bombing out in the first round of the 3P Contest), hitting over 40% while putting up almost 7 shots behind the arc per contest.  And how is this for a fact?  Granger has hit more 3 pointers in his first 4 seasons than Reggie Miller did (493 to 419)!

While his shooting percentages remained virtually identical (with a slight improvement in FT%), Granger put up an average of 4 more shots per game this season compared to last (from 15.1 to 19.1, including 5.3 to 6.7 in 3-point attempts).  He also increased his free-throw attempts from 4.7 to 6.9 per game.  Bear in mind, Granger played only 0.2 minutes more per game this season than the previous season (36.0 to 36.2).

As impressive as that is, Granger didn’t really improve by much in many other aspects of his game, at least on paper.  He improved in blocks from 1.1 to 1.4 and assists from 2.1 to 2.7, but his stats actually got worse in steals (1.2 to 1.0), turnovers (increased from 2.1 to 2.5, though that comes with the territory of being the primary offensive option) and most noticeably, in rebounds, which saw a drop from 6.1 to 5.1 per game.

However, the general consensus from players and coaches around the league is that Granger has really upped his game this season.  Rather than being just another good offensive player (of which there are many in the NBA), he’s taken it to another level with his shot-making ability and versatility.  He can shoot 3-pointers at over 40%, is extremely efficient from mid-range, can drive the ball and get to the line, where he is as steady as they come.  He doesn’t overwhelm you with speed or power or thundering dunks, but he gets the job done in a variety of ways.  As Granger said himself, “I think in my fourth year, I just had the experience of playing a lot of minutes.  I could read defenses a lot better. I could get my shot a lot easier than what I had in the past. I think I just thought my way through the game a little more than I had previously.”

Another factor that must have crept into voters’ minds is that Granger finished off the season strong, whereas Harris and Durant dropped off from their frenetic pace earlier on in the season.  As I noted in another post, Granger averaged 31.1 points per game in his final 11 games of the year, leading the Pacers to a 7-4 record.  The Pacers were also much closer to the playoffs than the Nets or the Thunder.

(2) Granger’s clutch performances

Granger was clutch this season

Granger was clutch this season

The Pacers had been longing for another guy they can count on in the clutch ever since Reggie Miller retired (Jermaine O’Neal just wasn’t getting it done!).  Well, judging from Granger’s late-game heroics this season, it appears the wait is finally over.  He hit a couple of game-winners: to beat Houston (a tip in) and Phoenix (a 3 at the buzzer).  He also hit several big shots down the stretch (including a big game-tying 3 against the Hornets, before Chris Paul drained one of his own at the buzzer) and ranked among league leaders in points in 4th quarters (4th behind Lebron, Kobe and D-Wade).  He actually led the NBA in a statistic calculated by STAT Inc called ‘field goals made with the game on the line’.  According to this stat, Granger made 7 baskets (in 10 attempts) in the final 24 seconds of the final quarter of a game in which the margin was three points or less.  Obviously this needs to be taken with a grain of salt considering the Pacers played more close games than any other team in the league.

Becoming a big-time player is another important step in Granger’s development and will enable him to distinguish himself from the other ‘good’ players in the league.  Lots of players in the NBA can put up points, but few have a reputation for being able to do so consistently in crunch time.

That being said, guys like TJ Ford, Jarrett Jack and Troy Murphy also hit a few game-winners for the Pacers this season, but when the game is on the line, Granger should be their first option.

By the way, I’m certain that Harris and Durant hit some big shots this season, but I can’t be bothered looking them up.

(3) Granger becoming the clear face and future of the franchise

I’m not sure if you can really call this an ‘improvement’, but Granger has stepped into the role of franchise leader admirably this season.  Of course, he became so by default, with Jermaine O’Neal finally being put out of his misery (by getting traded) and with Mike Dunleavy Jr battling serious injury all year.  Arguably, however, he would have become the face of the franchise this season even if those two guys were still playing and in Indiana.  Some may say he already became the face of the franchise last season.

Nevertheless, he has done well in the role, setting the example with his work ethic and lifestyle off the court, which has been particularly important for the Pacers given the indiscretions in recent years that have alienated their fans.  He’s become one of the best offensive players in the league, earned a reputation for hitting big shots and is now recognised as THE guy that opposing teams are most concerned about when they play the Pacers.

Team president Larry Bird sums it up as follows: “He is the face of our franchise, and he handles himself well on the court and off.  I think going forward, he will continue to do the things he’s doing, and continue to improve. That’s all you can ask for.”

Earlier on in the season, people were saying that Devin Harris had become the face of the New Jersey Nets, but I’m not sure Vince Carter has handed the mantle over yet.  On the other hand, Durant is undoubtedly the face of the Thunder franchise, but he came into this league with that reputation as the second overall pick, and there really isn’t anyone else on the cellar-dwelling Thunder squad that can come close to competing.  By contrast, Granger was drafted 17th in the first round and has gradually evolved into the franchise-player role over the past couple of years.  There aren’t many players in the NBA these days that come into the league with as little hype as Granger had that end up attaining a reputation bordering on superstar level (well, at least ‘above-average star’ level) in just four years.

So, if you are simply looking at statistics, there are probably players who appear more deserving than Granger to win the MIP award.  But if you factor in these other considerations, which I’m sure the voters did, perhaps Granger is the most deserving after all.

What’s next for Granger?

Get that wafer out of here, Von!

Get that wafer out of here, Von!

For Granger to evolve from Most Improved to true superstar, he needs to become more than just a scorer.  He does have the occasional highlight block, but for the most part his defensive brilliance has been sporadic this season.  Both Coach Jim O’Brien and Larry Bird have both remarked that Granger needs to improve on defense because he has the potential to be a great defensive player with his athleticism and long arms, but often loses focus because he is so dedicated to the offensive end.

Next season, Granger intends to establish himself as a genuine defensive stopper, kind of like what MVP Lebron James did this season.  It’s a bit of a stretch to expect Danny to land on the All-NBA First Defensive Team as Lebron did this season, but he needs to make some visible strides.  Granger has made this his focus next season:  “I don’t just want to be a better defender, I want to be an elite defender,” he said. “I really modeled my defensive game after Ron Artest when he was here. He was a phenomenal defensive player when he was here. I probably got away from that the past two years. Next year, that will be my big focus…We scored a lot of points but we also gave up a lot of points and I think as a leader it starts with me. I have to be better on the defensive end.”

As long as he ONLY models his defensive game after Ron Ron that would be fine, but let’s just hope he doesn’t pick up anything more than that!

Additionally, Granger needs to improve those playing around him.  Part of that will involve Granger becoming a better distributor of the ball.  2.7 assists per game is not too shabby for a small forward, but to put himself in the same sphere as a D-Wade or Kobe or a healthy Tracy McGrady (note I left out Lebron because he’s in a sphere of his own), he’ll need to improve on that drastically.  He should get his opportunities as I’m sure he’ll face some double teams next season.

Lastly, there was some mention of Granger being on the 2012 US Olympic team.  That’s an interesting idea because Granger is an excellent shooter and is fundamentally sound enough to play the international game.  He will also learn a lot from his teammates on being a better leader.  As long as it doesn’t tire him out for the regular season then I’m all for it.

NBA Awards Round Up

So, all the NBA Awards for this season are out.  Just to recap:

MVP: Lebron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)

Defensive Player: Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic)

Rookie: Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls)

Most Improved: Danny Granger (Indiana Pacers)

Sixth Man: Jason Terry (Dallas Mavericks)

Coach: Mike Brown (Cleveland)

Amazingly, I managed to predict all the winners (not that they were difficult this year) with the exception of Granger!  As a Pacers fan, I ought to be ashamed.

Indiana Pacers: Season in Review

April 16, 2009 in Basketball, Indiana Pacers, NBA

[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

My NBA Award Winners for 2008-2009!

April 15, 2009 in Basketball, NBA

Okay – it’s that time of the year when everyone starts chucking their opinions on the NBA Regular Season Awards at each other.  With only a a game left in the season for most teams, here’s mine and why (and who I think WILL win).

Most Valuable Player (MVP): Lebron James

lebron-mvp

It's time for King James to land his first MVP award

Everybody has their own criteria for judging the MVP award.  I tend to take a global approach that considers, among other things, the player’s statistics, his team’s record, the player’s value to his team, at the same time comparing them to the previous year.  With that in mind, it’s a no-brainer that the award goes to Lebron James.  His overall stats (28.4ppg, 7.6rpg, 7.2apg, 1.7spg, 1.1bpg) may appear to be down a little compared to last year, but per minute he’s doing roughly the same, if not better.  On top of that the Cavs are one of the closest things you can get in the NBA to a ‘One Man Team’ and they improved from 45-37 last season to at least 66 wins this season en route to the best record in the NBA.  I love Dwayne Wade‘s play this year and he’s statistically the closest to Lebron, but when you factor in the team records it’s not even close.  As for Kobe Bryant, I know many people still consider him to be the best player (I don’t) in the NBA, but as history shows, that alone is not enough to get the MVP, especially when he won it the year before.   Lebron has him on each of the criteria I mentioned above.

Lebron James WILL win, no doubt about it.  The only question is whether it will be unanimous, and I say no.

Rookie of the Year: Derrick Rose

During the pre-season, Derrick Rose showed a bit of flair and potential but I don’t think anyone expected him to be this good, this fast.  Every time I watch a highlight reel containing his moves, whether it’s breaking down the defense with his crossovers or on the break, I just shake my head.  Rose averaged 16.8ppg and 6.3apg and 3.9rpg this season – not many rookies in recent years can put up those types of numbers – and he’s only going to get better.  If he improves his defense and jumpshot, he’ll be rivalling Chris Paul as the best PG in the league in a few years.  Not to say Rose hasn’t had any competition this year.  I’m sure there will be voters going for Brook Lopez and OJ Mayo but unlike those players, Rose is heading to the playoffs.

Derrick Rose WILL win, but he’ll be splitting votes with Lopez and Mayo, and maybe even guys like Russell Westbrook and Rudy Fernandez.  Throw in Greg Oden and you’ve got a one of the most intimidating All-Rookie Team in years.

Most Improved Player (MIP): Kevin Durant

kevin-durant-mip

Kevin Durant MIP?

First let me make it clear that I would like nothing more than for Danny Granger to win this award.  That being said, Kevin Durant is most deserving in my opinion.  Granger and Durant, together with Devin Harris, make this one of the more compelling awards to be decided this season.  Some may also rank Brandon Roy in the mix (but not me – if you take a look at his stats they have not changed much from last season). Let’s compare.

Last season, Danny Granger averaged 19.6ppg, 6.1rpg, 2.1apg, 1.2spg and 1.0blg.  This season, 25.7ppg, 5.0rpg, 2.7apg, 1.0spg and 1.4blg.  His shooting percentages and minutes have remained similar (a little higher in FT% only), but he has played about 13 games less this season than last, when he appeared in 80 games.  Indiana was 36-46 last season, a record they will duplicate provided they win their final regular-season game against the Bucks.  Granger’s numbers have perhaps been helped by the departure of Jermaine O’Neal and the absence of Mike Dunleavy, elevating him to All-Star status for the first time in his career.  However, on paper at least, Granger’s improvements appear largely confined to his scoring average and perhaps maturity down the stretch (as evident from the several big shots he hit throughout the season).

Now Devin Harris.  Last season in his 25 games as a Net (after the trade from Dallas) he averaged 15.4ppg, 6.5apg, 3.2rpg and 1.4spg.  This season he has averaged 21.3ppg, 6.9apg, 3.3rpg and 1.7spg while shooting roughly the same percentages (albeit a dip in 3P%).  The Nets are 34-47 with one game to go and will miss the playoffs.  If they lose their final game their record will be the same as last season’s.  Like Granger, Harris’s improvements on paper are predominantly in the scoring column.  Some say he has overtaken Vince Carter as the leader of the team, but I’m not sure everyone agrees.

Lastly, Kevin Durant.  Last season’s Rookie of the Year averaged 20.3ppg, 4.4rpg and 2.4apg, whereas this year he has upped his stats to 25.3ppg, 6.5rpg and 2.8apg, while shooting significantly better from the field (0.430 to 0.475) and in particular from 3-point range (0.288 to 0.419).  Meanwhile, the team most expected to come dead last (Oklahoma City Thunder) has gone 22-59 with one game to go.  Not very impressive but then you remember that they went 20-62 last season (as the Seattle Supersonics) and came dead last in the West, whereas this season there are a couple of teams worse than them (Clippers and Kings).  Taking all of that into consideration, I believe Durant is slightly more deserving than Granger and Harris, and thus SHOULD win the award.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw ESPN’s experts poll in which Granger came out on top in the MIP category, edging Devis Harris 5 votes to 4.  Durant and Roy were equal third with 2 votes apiece, along with Nene and Thaddeus Young.  I have a feeling this has something to do with Granger’s offensive explosion in the remaining games of the season, whereas Harris’s and Durant’s performances have dipped.  Nevertheless, I predict that Devin Harris WILL win the award based on his early season heorics that shocked a lot of people.  Even though I don’t agree with it, I read elsewhere that people are reluctant to vote for Durant because they expect a played of his calibre to improve this much in his second season.  Still, I’m hoping for a Granger victory!

Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry

To be honest I haven’t paid much attention to this award, but no matter which way you look at it, Jason Terry is the clear winner.  Manu Ginobili has been in and out of the line up all season with injuries, and even though I like the way he has carried himself in a diminished role, Lamar Odom played lots of games as a starter (32) this year.  That just about leaves one guy, Terry, who averaged 19.5ppg and 3.4apg while coming off the bench in 62 out of 73 games.

Jason Terry WILL win and it will be a big win.

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard

Superman to win DPY

This is another easy category because Dwight Howard has simply been a defensive monster all season, leading the league in both blocked shots (2.9) and rebounds (13.9) while averaging close to a steal per game.  That doesn’t take into account how many shots he changed in games or how many times he forced teams to take outside shots than drive it into the lane.  Historically, there have been much more impressive numbers, but the talent is spread out so evenly that these stats are about as impressive as you’ll get these days.  His nearest rivals are the usual wing players such as Ron Artest, Shane Battier and Kobe Bryant, or perennial contenders such as Kevin Garnett.  I’ve even read about support in this category for Dwayne Wade and Lebron James, but I consider these more token votes for acknowledging the strides these players have made defensively rather than genuine votes.

Dwight Howard WILL win easily.

Coach of the Year (COY): Rick Adelman

Probably the hardest to predict out of all the categories this year (and in most years).  How much of a team’s success can you attribute to a head coach?  I mean, look at Mike Brown, coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Most people rip his coaching abilities and pin the team’s success all on Lebron, but shouldn’t he at least get some credit for leading the team to the best record in the NBA?  After all, isn’t the measuring stick for COY usually the team with the best record?  Or do you give the award to someone like Stan Van Gundy, who led his team (Orlando Magic) to new heights?  Or perhaps coaches like Greg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs), Rick Adelman (Houston Rockets) or Jerry Sloan (Utah Jazz), who did commendable jobs in the face of serious injury concerns all season?  I don’t know, and I’m sure everyone has their own set of criteria.

Anyway, I’m going to go toss a coin and say Rick Adelman, though I think Mike Brown WILL win.  The Rockets are, amazingly, 53-28 with a game to go, despite basically spending half a season with half a healthy Tracy McGrady, plus injuries problems to Ron Artest (who missed 13 games) and Shane Battier (who missed 22 games).  Even more amazingly, I could have just as easily said Greg Popovich, whose team (the Spurs) have the exact same record as the Rockets and spent half the season without Ginobili and a clearly less than 100% Tim Duncan.

So those are my winners and predictions.  What are yours?

 
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