Five Things To Watch: Indiana Pacers

Paul GeorgeThe Indiana Pacers find themselves in a unique position among NBA teams heading into the 2013-14 season in that there are very few concerning questions about what has to go right and what can possibly go wrong. Health willing, we know what can go right: Paul George breaks out, the bench produces, the Pacers have a realistic shot at being the best team in the NBA. But the floor? We saw that already.

We saw a bumbling offense, a 29th-ranked reserve unit, a 20-point-a-night All-Star playing out all season and a team generally unprepared for the loss of Danny Granger, needing to retool their entire offense on the fly, forcing George into the starring role, working through Roy Hibbert’s wrist injury and try-too-hard-after-the-big-contract level of play, and inserting an unproven Lance Stephenson into the starting lineup to see him flourish.

The result? A Game 7 loss to the eventual champions thanks to Indiana’s one constant: a powerhouse defense led by George and Hibbert.

That’s not to suggest the Pacers playing as they did last season are setting themselves up for an automatic Eastern Conference Finals trip, not with the expected competition at the top of the East. But when the biggest loss in the offseason is an associate head coach while you retool the bench and boast the most effective starting lineup in the league – which is expected to only get better – there aren’t a whole lot of concerns about what to expect of Indiana this season. Even if every offseason move backfires again, the Pacers are still going to be a legitimate threat in the East as long as their starting lineup is upright.

Still, Indiana’s goal heading into this season should be clear: winning the East and competing for the team’s first championship since the ABA days of 1973. To get there, things can’t go wrong again; they have to go right.

1. Is Paul George’s evolution is the difference between winning and losing? The one thing many people believe the Pacers are missing is a legitimate superstar to carry the load when the going gets tough. David West was that player for much of the regular season, and George’s breakout campaign made him more of a wow factor in the postseason, delivering some crucial blows right at LeBron James and the Miami Heat after making life miserable for Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony.

The need for George to become a top-10 talent in order for Indiana to win is slightly overblown; simply being a more consistent option next season makes the Pacers a better team. The potency of Indiana’s starting lineup minimizes the need for George to be a big-time scorer, but he does need to continue to improve his shooting consistency while also getting a handle on his erratic ballhandling skills.

George’s defensive prowess should remain a powerful part of his game, giving him a distinct advantage over some of the players he’s not supposed to be as good as.

2. The Pacers aren’t a single cog, so the development of others remains crucial. There’s a lot on George’s plate this summer, but the need for growth doesn’t end with him. Despite a disappointing regular season, Hibbert’s lancetireless work ethic paid off when he became a monstrous force in the postseason, blowing up Tyson Chandler and making Miami pay dearly for playing small ball. An offseason of workout updates are setting up the big man for a career season. With George’s expected jump, Hibbert needs to jump along with him as an interior enforcer.

Stephenson plays a crucial role in the growth of the team moving forward as well. His role exploded last season due to Granger’s injury, coming through exactly as Larry Bird envisioned when drafting the troubled New York prep star.

Stephenson was a dangerous change of pace wing and a key to Indiana’s postseason success. It is important for him to become more reliable in whatever role he takes on this season, whether starting or putting together a potential Sixth Man Award campaign.

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