After reaching the Eastern Conference finals the previous two years, the Pacers had huge expectations heading into the new season. But all it took it was one defining moment in a meaningless game to send the Pacers on a downward spiral.
Aug. 1, 2014 is a day that will forever be etched in the minds of Pacers fans. The gruesome broken leg that forward Paul George suffered in a Team USA exhibition was only the beginning of Indiana’s issues last season. Without George and his 21 points, two-way brilliance and leadership, the offense – already plodding at times – was stuck in neutral.
Without its star, the supporting cast tried but could not compensate for George’s contributions. The Pacers finished 38-44 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Combined with the inability to get past Miami in the previous two postseasons, coach Frank Vogel’s seat got somewhat hotter.
In the offseason, president Larry Bird began transitioning the Pacers away from bully ball toward small ball, where the majority of the NBA had been for a while. George has returned in a new role and Vogel is under the gun to put all together and make it work.
Here are the five things to watch from the Pacers this season.
1. Paul George, power forward
Last season, George returned for the final six games although many felt he should have waited until this season as the team was already out of playoff contention. But to give you an idea of how much George means to this franchise, the Pacers went 5-1 in those games, and George scored in double figures four times.
Now that he has had an offseason to fully train after healing from his broken leg, can George return to his All-Star form? He will definitely have a bigger workload this season as Vogel and Bird plan to use him more at power forward now that David West is gone.
George initially wasn’t too thrilled with the idea but has used the preseason to acclimate himself. He really doesn’t have a choice as Indiana’s returning power forwards include Lavoy Allen, Shayne Whittington and rookie Myles Turner. The Pacers need George’s entire package if they are to get back into the postseason in 2016.
2. Indiana is going small at shooting guard, too
The Pacers signed free agent Monta Ellis to a four-year, $44 million contract for one reason: to be the team’s second scoring option behind George. Having that second option last season could have made all the difference while George was sidelined. But the Pacers never knew where their points were coming from and didn’t have anyone who commanded an automatic double-team.
Now the Pacers have that additional scoring threat in Ellis, who instantly makes them a better team. Ellis has led all three of his previous teams in scoring. His 18.9 points topped Dallas last season, even though it was his lowest scoring average of the last eight seasons. He has averaged 4.8 assists for his career, so he knows how to make plays for others, too.
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At 6-3, however, Ellis is small for a shooting guard. He may find himself matched up against opposing point guards, which could present problems given his defensive deficiencies.
The Pacers were 24th in scoring and 23rd in shooting last season. Ellis’ subpar defense seems like a small price to pay for the boost he will give a moribund offense.
3. Replacing Roy Hibbert may be a tall order
The continued regression of center Roy Hibbert last season was disheartening, to say the least. An All-Star in 2012 and 2014, the 7-2 Hibbert averaged just 10.6 points and 7.1 rebounds last season while shooting under 45 percent for the third straight year. Perhaps not having George on the wing to free him up in the paint contributed to his decline, but it was a bothersome decline nonetheless.
You can’t play small ball with a lumbering center, so the Pacers drafted Turner 11th overall, then traded Hibbert to the Los Angeles Lakers in a salary dump. Indiana is hoping that Turner’s youth and the activity of free agent Jordan Hill (who averaged 12 points and seven rebounds last season) will put some more pep in their step.
Should the Pacers need to protect the rim, they can still turn to reserve center Ian Mahinmi, a career backup who averaged 11.2 boards and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes last season. But none of these guys can replicate Hibbert, who for all his shortcomings always made opponents think twice about attacking the rim.
This position will be the biggest test for the Pacers this season.
4, A crowded backcourt
Given Indiana’s roster makeup, you would have to think the Pacers are going to play small most of the time. That seems to be the only way they can get similar production out of their returning veterans.
George Hill will start at point guard. The only other true point guard on the roster is rookie Joseph Young, who was sharp in summer league but may find tougher sledding against real NBA players. The Pacers could keep Toney Douglas, but neither he nor Young figure to play very much because both Ellis and Rodney Stuckey (12.6 ppg, 3.1 apg) can run the offense for short stretches.
Ellis and Stuckey, however, are better suited as shooting guards – the same position played by C.J. Miles (13.5 ppg). At 6-6, Miles could slide up to small forward, but only if the Pacers are using George as a stretch-4. And don’t forget about offseason acquisition Chase Budinger, who finally appears to be healthy, or fellow small forward Solomon Hill (8.9 ppg), who emerged as a legitimate rotation player as an NBA sophomore last season.
At the small positions, the Pacers certainly have the depth to withstand a long-term injury. But it also seems like someone is the odd man out. That may be Solomon Hill, based on his lack of experience compared to the others. Of course, this sort of depth also enables Bird to make a trade if he desires.
5. Does Frank Vogel finish the season?
Believe it or not, last season was the first time Frank Vogel did not guide the Pacers to the playoffs. He rallied Indiana into the postseason after replacing the ineffectual Jim O’Brien midway through the 2010-11 season, then won five playoff series over the next three years.
Vogel’s defensive schemes, the arrival of David West and the emergence of George as a star quickly vaulted the Pacers to contender status in the East. But there were still issues; the Pacers often sputtered on offense, and tension developed among players during the late-season slump in 2014 that had Bird questioning if his coach had lost control of the locker room.
Bird put an end to any speculation about Vogel’s immediate future when he gave his coach a multi-year extension in the summer of 2014. George went down just weeks later, which pretty much gave Vogel a pass for last season. Still, Bird and Vogel had a minor public disagreement about if and when George would return to action.
Now George is back as the focal point of a roster reworked by Bird to play faster and generate more offense, the side of the ball that has never been Vogel’s strong suit. The coach will have to show his ability to adapt to new schemes and new personalities, and that sort of sea change could make for a rough road, at least initially.
After missing the playoffs last season, can Vogel survive a slow start? Will Bird show the patience in Vogel that he has in the past? Or should assistant Nate McMillan – who has 12 years experience as a head coach – start mentally preparing to slide over one chair?
Gabe Salgado has over a decade of experience in media and has written for numerous outlets such as The Sports Journal, Bleacher Report and The Hoop Doctors. You can also hear him on Chicago radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82