(This is another in a series of 30 guest columns that will run in October, when optimism reigns supreme across the NBA. The theme will be “Five Reasons to Feel Positive About … ” We encourage you to follow the authors on Twitter and visit their sites. – CS)
The Indiana Pacers went into last season following the NBA lockout hoping to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
That goal proved too modest for the Pacers as several new faces and young talent came together and developed into a strong, deep team that eventually earned a third seed in the East. The compact 66-game schedule played in their favor as they utilized their depth to keep their legs fresh while wearing out opponents.
Once the playoffs rolled around, however, the depth that helped fuel a successful regular season became a liability as the second unit struggled to generate enough offense to maintain leads established by the starting unit.
The Pacers now head into the 2012-13 season after fortifying their second unit over the summer with expectations of maintaining their status as one of the top teams in the East. Here are five reasons to feel positive about the Pacers:
1. The starting unit returns
The Pacers added George Hill to the starting unit late last season, and the team won seven straight games to head into the playoffs on a roll. Teaming with Roy Hibbert, David West, Danny Granger and Paul George, the starting lineup with Hill at point guard was among the league’s best. Even when matched up against Miami’s Chris Bosh-less starters, the Pacers were a plus-58 in the six-game series.
That group returns far more familiar with one another on the court. Plus, as a 21-year-old second-year player, George showed flashes of great play but was inconsistent. He expects to make a big leap in his NBA development in his third year thanks to the experience he gathered in the bright lights of the playoffs.
West, the power forward, also returns with high expectations for a better season. While West is on the downside of his career at 32, he is in much better shape to begin the upcoming season. He returned last season after ACL surgery the prior season. The knee held strong through the season, but West wasn’t all the way back physically. Now two years removed from the surgery, the knee is stable. It has West more active and has allowed him to spend the offseason preparing his game for the season instead of rehabbing.
2. Bench upgrade
The Pacers kept their starting unit intact but made major changes to the second unit. After trading away Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones and letting free agents Leandro Barbosa and Lou Amundson walk, only Tyler Hansbrough returns as a regular rotation player off the bench.
Coach Frank Vogel played a 10-man rotation heavy minutes last season and expects to stick with the same number this season, although he also plans to play his starters more minutes. The bench should be vastly improved offensively with point guard D.J. Augustin and wing Gerald Green joining Hansbrough along with Lance Stephenson at shooting guard.
Stephenson has plenty of talent to make plays, and playing off the ball initially will allow the Pacers to put him in spots where he can create off the catch. The third-year guard could be an X factor if his mental and physical game shows signs of maturing.