Beat the Heat, but Beat the Rest?
In what has become a recurring theme to Pacers fans over the years, the 2013 Indiana Pacers came within a whisker of greatness. Unfortunately, one of the greatest players of all time stood in the way — yet again. (Pacers fans still get angry over the team that had six All-Stars and two Hall of Famers and still fell just short to Michael Jordan in 1998 [don't worry about the fact that several of those players were either past or ahead of their prime ... I'm just trying to stack a nice deck for this introductory hyperbole]).
Last year’s Pacers team was pretty straightforward. The league’s best starting lineup along with its league-leading defense wasn’t quite good enough to completely make up for their lousy bench in the playoffs against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It didn’t matter how big Roy Hibbert and David West were in the series or how futile Miami’s attempts were at stopping them inside. Paul George’s leap into becoming a legitimate All-Star wasn’t quite enough. Even Lance Stephenson’s energy, intangibles, and improved consistency couldn’t put them over the hump. At some point, Sam Young, D.J. Augustin, and Tyler Hansbrough had to enter the game — and as much as you may have wanted to appreciate the various (albeit very few) qualities that each of those players brought to the floor, the drop off was insurmountable.
(I’d be lying if I told you I stopped having the recurring nightmare of Sam Young catching a pass while standing wide open in the corner, only to watch him practically shudder in fear before hoisting up an airball, drop the pass entirely, or weakly play hot potato with the rock.)
And yet, here we are in September, looking at the upcoming season with a renewed hope. What once was a weakness has turned into a strength. Assuming Danny Granger agrees to assume an almost Jamal Crawford-esque roll, the entire bench falls into place.
On the wings, the aforementioned Granger and Chris Copeland replace the dynamic duo of Gerald Green and Sam Young. It would be difficult to find a bigger offensive upgrade anywhere in the league. Despite some shortcomings (that are probably overblown by Pacers fans who remember him toiling away as the only good player on below average teams for so long), Granger is a former All-Star who will absolutely carry the offense while the starters are resting. And assuming Copeland’s 2013 campaign wasn’t a complete fluke (a real possibility by the way), he will add floor spacing and toughness while on the floor. It’s also an upgrade on the defensive end, even with Sam Young’s above-average defensive qualities. Forgetting the fact that Gerald Green couldn’t handle and understand basic defensive systems and offensive sets, both Granger and Copeland add a versatility that the Pacers sorely lacked.
The Pacers can now conceivably go big, small, or even “Super Wing” (a term I just made up, but I think we will see a lot of this season). In big lineups, Granger is a good enough ball-handler that the Pacers could move Paul George to the 2, play Danny at the 3, and go to war with Hibbert and West down low. In fact, this lineup is so good, it might end up being their starting lineup — or at the very least, their crunch-time lineup down the stretch of games. Conversely, Granger and Copeland both make good stretch fours, and could be played with George Hill, Lance Stephenson, and Paul George at the same time. The most intriguing play would be to go “Super Wing” for a few minutes at a time. Conceivably, the Pacers could play lineups of Stephenson, George, Granger, and Copeland with a big and just pick out individual match ups to abuse. (I’m well aware that this lineup might only work on NBA 2k14, but you have to be honest: the idea at least intrigued you a little.)
Replacing Augustin is C.J. Watson. Not only is Watson a more reliable outside shooter than Augustin (he shot 41% compared to DJ’s 35% on more 3-pointers a game last season), but he can also dribble with a man in his face. Most importantly, he’s not a complete defensive liability, and he could even play some 2-guard in super small lineups if the Pacers wanted to go that direction.
Perhaps the biggest non-Granger upgrade came to the Pacers via Argentina in the form of Luis Scola. While Scola’s best years are undoubtedly behind him, he’s always had the sort of “old man game” that ages well. At 33, he still has at least three years left in the tank, and couldn’t be a better fit for Indiana’s offense if you tried to build one in a lab.
Offensively, in terms of production, he’s almost the spitting image of David West. He is able to knock down the 20-footer with remarkable consistency while also being able to get off a wide variety of shots off in the lane over larger defenders. Last season, Scola averaged 13 points per game while shooting almost 50% from the floor. Most importantly, he is a great passer, dishing out more assists last season than Tyler Hansbrough has over the course of his entire career. Yes, you read that correctly. To be honest, as long as the Pacers got a back-up big man that could catch the ball and do anything other than blindly barrel into the lane hoping for a foul, it would have been an upgrade this summer. The fact that they replaced Hansbrough with Luis Scola is icing on the cake.
Defensively, Scola leaves a lot to be desired, but the Pacers didn’t need bench stoppers; they needed guys that could come in and simply maintain their lead while their starters rested. Adding Granger, Copeland, Watson, and Scola should go a long way in accomplishing that goal.
Which of course brings us to our end game: What exactly is the goal?
Most people would tell you that that the end goal is a championship, or at the very least, to beat the Heat.
Even with their shortcomings last season, the Pacers were a game away from beating the World Champions. One has to think that the significant upgrades should all but tip the scales in the Pacers’ favor in a one-on-one matchup against the Heat. The cold truth, though, is that simply beating the Heat may not be enough next year. For the first time in more than fifteen years, the East has more than just one or two high-caliber teams; it may have as many as four. What good would it be to be better than the Heat but not be able to get past another team in an earlier round?
The question to me is not whether or not the Pacers’ upgrades make them better than the Heat, but do those upgrades make them the best in the East?
The Bulls were without their best player and 2011 league MVP Derrick Rose for the entirety of last season — and still lost just four fewer games than the Pacers. Brooklyn tied the Pacers in the win column and improved as much as anyone over the summer, adding Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, and Jason Terry to the lineup.
While most don’t expect the Nets to be that dominant of a regular season team due to their age, it’s a hard truth to ignore that a healthy Lopez, Garnett, Pierce, Johnson, and Williams lineup could be fantastic come playoff time. The Bulls also have the size and strength down low to play the Hibbert/West monster to at least a draw. Most likely, the Pacers will have to face one of those teams on their way to a matchup against the Heat. Thus, Indy should strive to be good enough in the regular season to earn a 2-seed or higher.
As good as the Pacers were last season; as much as they improved this summer; as much as I love this hard-working, overachieving team — I’m not sure they are good enough to go on the road and beat Chicago or a healthy Brooklyn in a head-to-head matchup.
So while we look ahead at 2013-2014, just remember that it’s no longer simply about beating the Heat.
The Pacers need to be Beasts of the East.