The Pacers Will Have a Good Season, But There Are Real Reasons for Pessimism
Some say I am a pessimist. I say I am a realist.
I am not pessimistic about the upcoming Pacers season. In fact, I think Pacer fans have a ton to look forward to this year. Seeing the growth shown last regular season and the battle-tested experience developed during the playoffs, there is a the sense that this team, through the force of its pride alone, will allow them to continue to climb. Then again, not many people are pessimistic about their favorite team on October 1.
The realist in me tries to examine holes in my optimism. This is why people call me pessimistic, because when everyone sees reasons to be excited, I try to find ways that it could go wrong. (It’s a miserable way to live).
So far, I have found three major concerns.
#1. Everyone was healthy last year.
“Growth” is the key word for the Pacers this season. Because when you bring back basically the exact team from the year before — a year when you didn’t win the championship — the natural question is, “Why will the team be better?” While most teams’ fans will point to a marquee acquisition or an injured player returning to previous form, Indiana must primarily rely on internal growth, both individually and collectively.
I do believe that we will see such growth, especially from the young players but also as the roster gels as a unit.
Having said that, the Pacers had a fortunate run last season. They dealt with no significant injuries in the season. Now, injuries are a pretty pointless subject to talk about because they can never be predicted, but few teams are ever as healthy as the Pacers were last year. Yes, Jeff Foster was forced to retire because of his chronic back condition and George Hill did miss 16 regular-season games, but Darren Collison, who sat out 6 regular-season games due to injury, was the only other rotation player who missed more than 4 games. And nobody missed a single playoff game because of injury.
It is possible that this happens again, but it is worth mentioning that arguably the three most reliable players on the Pacers roster are a 32-year old power forward who recently had ACL surgery, a 7’2” center, and a 29-year old who has dealt with knee issues.
Any successful playoff run requires some luck when it comes to health. Just ask the Bulls and Magic, which, respectively, lost Derrick Rose to a freak knee injury and Dwight Howard to back surgery. Even the Heat nearly had their trip to the title wrecked by an injury to Chris Bosh. Well, the Pacers had plenty of luck last season and still came up short against a team that didn’t.
This Pacers team can grow, but it may require a repeat of the luck they had last year.
#2. Did the bench really improve this offseason?
Pacer fans still have nightmares about playoff games where double-digit first-quarter leads were erased — then replaced with double-digit deficits. The bench was just bad. And while the midseason acquisition of Leandro Barbosa reaped some rewards before the postseason, he really didn’t help in the playoffs, during which he shot 37% from the field, and 15.0% (3-for-20) behind the arc.
On the other hand, probably the biggest reason for optimism in 2012-13 remains somewhat of a secret: just how elite the Pacers’ starting five was last year. This was true both with Darren Collison and, especially, George Hill at point guard. When they were on the court with Paul George, Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert last year, the Pacers played 9.5 and 16.7 points per 100 possessions better than their competition, respectively. For perspective on those numbers, that gave Indiana the first and seventh best-performing units in the whole NBA that played at least 200 minutes together. There were 30 such units leaguewide, with Miami’s best unit finishing sixth and Oklahoma City’s best finishing tenth.
Given the productivity of the starters, the front office made it an explicit priority to bring back back all five and then do whatever they could to improve the bench. Out goes Darren Collison and in comes DJ Augustin. See you later Loouuu, and hello to Ian Mahinmi. Goodbye Dahntay Jones, welcome Gerald Green. The Pacers also chose not to bring back Barbosa and will likely give Lance Stephenson his minutes.
So the question Pacer fans is, “Are you more comfortable with a second unit of Augustin, Stephenson, Green, Hansbrough and Mahinmi than Collison, Barbosa, Jones, Hansbrough and Amundson? That will be a wait-and-see. Fans get excited about change and new faces, but the truth is none of the five players coming off the bench, outside of Augustin, have truly proven themselves at the NBA level. Some would even question Augustin, an undersized, career 40.1% shooter who has never averaged even 6.5 assists per game despite starting for Charlotte the past two seasons.
#3. How much will Paul George grow?
One last question to think about before you start making reservations for the NBA finals is how good Paul George will become. Anytime you hear the Pacers talked about in the next few weeks leading up to the season, you will hear them mention something about Paul George reaching the next level.
George brings all the tools in the world to the table, and makes you wonder what could happen. His growth is essential for the Pacers’ growth because Hibbert, Granger, West and Hill are known entities: you can essentially pencil in what you are going to get. With George, will you get just excellent defense, solid rebounding and good spot-up shooting? Or will you get the emergence of an All-Star who can change the game at both ends?
If it’s the latter, watch out. But while he has given us glimpses of that type of growth, they have only been glimpses. So it’s hard to bank on a breakout performance from George.
Ultimately, the Pacers have their best team coming into training camp since 2005.
Fans have have a ton of reasons to expect excellence. But they just need to be keep everything in perspective.