The State of the Pacers at the Break
The All-Star break technically isn’t the midpoint of the season. The Pacers, for example, have already played 53 of their 82 regular season games. But this is the time of the year when all teams take a few extra days off, mend their wounds, reflect on their past successes and try to figure out how to improve.
With a 32-21 record, Indiana is currently the third best team in the Eastern Conference and the eighth best in the entire NBA. Tonight, it clashes with the New York Knicks, which, with a 32-18 record, sit one place ahead of Indiana in the conference standings.
To figure out where team stands as it gears up for this matchup — and the rest of the season — I reached out to some people who follow the team closer than anyone for their takes on the following questions.
1. Where do the Pacers stand compared to your preseason expectations?
Tim Donahue (8 Points, 9 Seconds): They’re definitely ahead of where I thought they’d be without Granger, especially given Roy Hibbert’s decline. I expected a .500 team, give or take, but they are trending toward 50 wins. Paul George’s leap is a big factor, but David West’s foundation has been key as well. Lance Stephenson has proven more important than any sane person would have expected. And coach Vogel deserves a ton of credit for navigating the team through some real challenges.
Tom Lewis (Indy Cornrows): The Pacers are actually matching my best-case expectations from the preseason, holding a home-court playoff spot and leading the Central Division. Of course, that was before realizing Danny Granger would be out for a few months. The team has certainly been a surprise sans Granger, largely due to the leap from Paul George and, to a lesser extent, Lance Stephenson.
Alex Yovanovich (8 Points, 9 Seconds): Given the injury to Derrick Rose, I expected the Pacers to be entrenched in first place in the Central Division for much of the season. Then Danny Granger went down with his knee injury. At that point I really thought the Pacers would struggle so much offensively that they would have a tough time putting together a consistent string of wins. What I didn’t count on was Paul George making a quantum leap to near star status. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I liked George before the season, especially as a defender. But offensively, I was not nearly as impressed. I thought he was far too limited in his offensive game to make a big jump this year. I was wrong.
Jeremy Comstock (8 Points, 9 Seconds): Right now they’re on pace to win 49 games. My preseason expectations were for 50-55, but that included a healthy Granger and a better-than-replacement-level Roy Hibbert. Overall, I’m pleased with the team’s record at this point, but its inconsistency is a bit maddening.
2. What seed do you expect the Pacers to have entering the playoffs?
Chris Denari: I believe the Pacers will have the 2nd or 3rd seed come playoff time; probably leaning to 3rd seed.
Tim Donahue: Best-case scenario is probably the 3 seed, but more likely, they’ll be the 4 or the 5. They’re in a traffic jam with Brooklyn, Chicago and Atlanta, and their schedule turns tougher come March.
Tom Lewis: The Pacers should be able to hold their spot in the East, so a 3 or 4 seed remains the expectation. They will have to stay on point, though since a 6 or 7 seed is close behind.
Alex Yovanovich: If Granger is healthy, I now fully expect the Pacers to lock up the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. I think Miami will do enough to secure the top seed, but I’m not convinced that New York is all that strong of a team. They rely far too much on their perimeter game and, no, I don’t ultimately have faith in Carmelo Anthony.
Jeremy Comstock: 3rd. There are only four good teams in the East. The Pacers are one of them. Only the Heat are unarguably a better team, but New York probably finishes with a better record, making the Pacers eventual 2nd round playoff series victory even more sweet.
3. Are the Pacers the biggest threat to prevent the Heat from going back to the Finals?
Chris Denari: I believe as constructed, the Pacers are the biggest threat to prevent the Heat from going back to the Finals. Their length, size and ability to play defense match up well with Heat.
Tim Donahue: Yes? No? Maybe? I don’t think any of the teams in the East are a serious threat to knock off the Heat, without some help from the Heat. Are the Pacers the biggest of the small threats? Sure. Why not?
Tom Lewis: Yes, I think the Pacers are built to beat the Heat, and if Granger can fortify the offense they should be in good shape, even if LeBron gives his expected otherworldly effort. Problem is, the Pacers don’t match up as nicely with some other teams they may need to go through first, especially the Knicks.
Alex Yovanovich: Once again, the answer depends on Granger’s health. If healthy, the combination of David West and Roy Hibbert inside with Granger and George on the wings should present Miami with their biggest hurdle to reach the Finals. I don’t think it will be enough to stop the Heat train from rolling along, but you’ve got to like the Pacers as a strong defensive team that should have the ability to score some points with two strong wings. Hey, come to think of it, that description sounds a lot like Miami.
Jeremy Comstock: I think the Pacers and the Bulls (with Derrick Rose) both would give the Heat a tough series because they’re both so balanced and good defensively.
4. How many All-Star Games will Paul George play in over the next five seasons?
Chris Denari: I believe Paul will be an All-Star at least four of the next five seasons. If you are not selected as a starter, sometimes it may not be a given that you are selected as a reserve. Case in point: Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. But I believe Paul is well on his way to being a star in the NBA.
Tim Donahue: Three. Assuming he maintains his current level of play, it may take him a year or two to become “perennial,” but it feels like he should be there more often than not.
Tom Lewis: I’ll give PG four All-Star Games in the next five years. The Pacers still have to keep winning to keep an All-Star spot in play, but the way George’s game is developing, he could be a fixture. It still seems hard to believe George is playing at such a high level. I catch myself shaking my head at his play on both ends this year.
Alex Yovanovich: I’m going to be an optimist and say that George is only scratching the surface of his potential. He will stay healthy, become a perennial All-Star and, eventually, lead the Pacers back to the NBA Finals. Under that scenario, it’s a perfect five-for-five for the Pacers new star.
Jeremy Comstock: I’d put the over/under at 4.5, and I’d be tempted to bet the over. The only problem is that he’s never going to get voted in, so he’s going to have to rely on the coaches forever.
5. What is wrong with Roy Hibbert and will he improve offensively before the playoffs begin?
Chris Denari: I believe Roy overthinks his offense sometimes,and that his balance in the post has not been the same as it was last year. No one works harder or thinks more about his game than Roy. I think it is like a golfer who gets the yips on the putting green or is struggling off the tee. I believe it is more mental than physical.
Tim Donahue: Hibbert is far too limited in the number of ways he can score, and that was always true. When I asked Frank Vogel what the defensive book on Hibbert was. “Deny him deep position,” said Vogel. Hibbert gets almost all of his offense either out of the post or on offensive rebounds, and he lacks the talent to overcome a defense that knows what’s coming. His numbers have been improving — coinciding with Paul George’s emergence — and the return of an effective Granger would help further. But the rule is this: you don’t count on Roy offensively.
Tom Lewis: I think Hibbert will continue to show signs of pulling out of his funk for the rest of the season, which means maintaining his inconsistent play. The Pacers will just have to take what they can get from him on the offensive end but not rely on him to ever be a difference maker. You have to figure he will come up with a big performance in a game or two in the playoffs, which can help swing a 7-game series. Just don’t ask me to predict when or where that may happen.
Alex Yovanovich: Hibbert’s emotional make-up has always made him his own worst enemy. He needs to stop worrying about how much his contract is worth and be comfortable as a fourth or fifth option. He will never be a primary scorer, but he doesn’t have to be on this team. His shot blocking is terrific. He’s a good rebounder. He’s a good defender. His offense can’t really get any worse than it is right now. Make some garbage points, hit a hook or two, get to the free-throw line and Hibbert’s done his job. Once again, I’ll be an optimist and say that Hibbert does improve his offense before the playoffs begin.
Jeremy Comstock: There are two things wrong with Hibbert. First, he lacks mental toughness and is putting too much pressure on himself since signing the big contract. The second — and probably more detrimental — thing is that he’s a one-trick pony offensively. If he doesn’t get deep post position, he’s useless. At this point I’m ready to say that 85% of the blame for the Pacers’ poor offensive showing this season should be lain upon Hibbert’s shoulders (and Vogel’s for continually forcing him the ball). I honestly believe that the Pacers would be at least 5 points/100 better if Mahinmi were starting.