STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Pacers have become an irrelevant franchise the last four seasons. Never quite bad enough for a high lottery pick and bound by long-term commitments, Indiana has been off-grid while other teams created buzz. And this offseason was going the same way until August, when both good and bad news broke.
First, the good news. A four-team trade netted a starting point guard. Bringing in Darren Collison is a start to Indiana’s next competitive window. Coach Jim O’Brien had grown tired of T.J. Ford (the feeling is mutual), but the Pacers didn’t have a ready alternative. They do now. Collison joins budding star Danny Granger and second-year center Roy Hibbert -- two mid-first-round selections the team hit on. This will not be enough to challenge the upper tier of the Eastern Conference this season, but the Pacers will have money to spend in the summer of 2011. Losing Troy Murphy in the deal is a blow, leaving a big hole at power forward and in the overall depth of the big-man rotation, but this has the makings of a team that will matter in the coming years.
Now, the bad news. Brandon Rush, expected to compete for the starting shooting guard spot, was suspended for five games for violating the NBA’s drug policy. Filling in for Rush won’t be a problem, but the suspension calls into question the team’s immediate plans for him. Paul George was drafted with the 10th overall pick and word is that the rookie’s further along than expected at this stage. The other bad news is the off-court trouble (third-degree assault charges) involving second-round pick Lance Stephenson.
The excitement of Collison will triumph over the negative news, but the Pacers need a few things to break just right to reach a low-seeded playoff spot. But more important than the playoffs this year will be incorporating George into the nucleus, developing Hibbert as legitimate inside threat and letting Collison and Granger find some chemistry.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Collison clears up the point guard uncertainty that existed earlier in the offseason. T.J. Ford, not on coach Jim O’Brien’s fave five list, will back him up. Surely, O’Brien can tolerate Ford on the court in a limited role. While the trade cleared up the point, the loss of Troy Murphy leaves a vacuum at power forward. If Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Foster are healthy, those two should share the job. And when O’Brien goes small, Danny Granger or James Posey may get called in to play some four. Roy Hibbert starts at center, but needs to stay out of foul trouble, because front court depth is an issue. The rotation gets a little jumbled on the wing. Mike Dunleavy, Paul George, Brandon Rush, Posey, and Dahntay Jones are available. And that gets more squeezed if Granger’s playing more at the three than the four. There’s a few moving parts here, so pay close attention to preseason rotations. It might be a beneficial matchup for Indiana on some nights -- as well as a more efficient use of resources -- to go small with Granger at power forward.
Roy Hibbert: Hibbert put himself on the fantasy scene during his sophomore season last year, averaging 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 blocks. He is still developing, and he should improve his rebounding with an expected increase in playing time. Foul trouble has plagued him, so he'll need to improve his footwork if he wants to see more time on the floor. To that end, Hibbert worked on his conditioning, getting his body fat down to 10 percent, and the team brought in Bill Walton over the summer to help work on his low post game. Hibbert doesn't offer a ton of upside, but he's locked in as Indiana's starting center.
Jeff Foster: A healthy Foster will have a role on the Pacers. At 33 and coming off a back injury, a healthy Foster is also a risky assumption. He could fit in at power forward or backup center, two positions of need. Pacers coach Jim O’Brien would be pleased with a Foster/Tyler Hansbrough tandem at the four. Whatever Foster can give them, the Pacers will take.
Solomon Jones: Don’t look now, but Jones may be forced to play some minutes for the Pacers, who are thin at center. Depending on Jeff Foster’s health, Jones could be the only healthy backup center on the roster. He won’t be a consistent player from night-to-night, but Jones’ athleticism on the defensive end could translate into blocks and rebounds.
Danny Granger: After a breakout 2007-08 campaign, Granger has played only 67 and 62 games, respectively, over the past two seasons due to foot injuries. For that reason, Granger is probably most safely regarded as someone who'll deliver first-round production for 65-70 games. In terms of his on-court value, one of Granger's obvious strengths is his scoring -- particularly from 3-point range -- as he's averaged about 25 points and 2.6 threes over the last two years. With the departure of Troy Murphy, there's little reason to believe that Granger's scoring will do anything but remain static or, possibly, even increase.
Tyler Hansbrough: It's hard to imagine a more disappointing rookie campaign for Hansbrough. The college superstar was hampered by a variety of injuries ranging from shin problems to vertigo to post-concussion syndrome. But during the brief window when shin problems had subsided and the ear issues hadn't yet emerged, Hansbrough flashed double-double potential. Assuming he can get past all the health problems, the power forward job is there for the taking.
Mike Dunleavy Jr.: In 2007-08, Dunleavy’s first full season with the Pacers, he averaged 19.1 points, 2.0 threes and 3.5 assists – all while maintaining good percentages. Unfortunately, a problematic knee limited him to 85 games the next two seasons. When he played last season, it was only for 22.2 minutes per game. Reports out of Indiana suggest that the Pacers would like to move Dunleavy, who is in the final year of his contract. With several players looking for playing time on the wing, Dunleavy is unlikely to get the kind of playing time that matters.
Josh McRoberts: Like it can be said about any guy with height on the Pacers, a thin frontcourt could be turn into an opportunity for McRoberts. He hasn’t shown much in his three NBA seasons, so we’re talking a long shot here. He’s a decent rebounder with some hoop skills, but needs to bring it every night -- even when he’s getting little run.
Paul George: George is Indiana’s highest selection in years and will be given a chance to earn minutes right away. He’s an athletic scorer, but loves to shoot from the perimeter, especially the 3-ball. That’s something coach Jim O’Brien won’t discourage, but George tends to fall in love with the outside shot, when he could just as easily outrun defenders to the basket. Shot selection and decision making are the concerns entering his rookie season. The Pacers would be wise to develop George alongside Darren Collison and Danny Granger.
James Posey: Almost forgotten in the Darren Collison trade is that the Pacers also acquired Posey. He’s lost a step or two -- he’ll be 34 this season -- but can still defend one-on-one, is a good rebounder for his size, and is the ultimate glue guy for a team. With the shortage at power forward, Posey may be able to spot there in a smaller lineup. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough minutes available at small forward, his most natural position, and he doesn’t have the quickness to chase two-guards around all game.
Magnum Rolle: Long and athletic, Rolle is a high-energy athlete who can run the floor and finish around the rim, but doesn’t have the necessary strength to get into position in the low post. If the makes the final roster, Rolle will be nothing more than a end-of-the-bench player who will make the NBA-to-D-League trip a few times.
Darren Collison: Collison did an outstanding job filling in for Chris Paul last season in New Orleans, averaging 18.8 points, 9.1 assists, 3.5 boards and 1.4 steals while shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from long range. The Pacers have been looking to upgrade at the point since… since Mark Jackson retired! Collison represents a major upgrade over anyone the Pacers had on hand, and could thrive running the floor with Danny Granger and rookie Paul George.
Brandon Rush: The Pacers had some problems with health last season, but not with Rush. He played all 82 games, averaging 30-plus minutes a night. At this point, that's probably the most attractive quality about Rush as a fantasy player. If you squint, Rush's 1.5 threes, 4.2 rebounds and 0.8 blocks begin to create an outline of an interesting player. However, his inconsistency confounds coach Jim O’Brien, and now a five-game suspension for violating the NBA’s policy on drugs leaves his long-term future in Indiana up in the air. If the Pacers don’t exercise an option on him for next season by the end of October, that will tell you all you need to know about Rush’s value this season.
T.J. Ford: Pacers coach Jim O'Brien is not enamored with Ford and would love to have him off the team. Unfortunately for him, Ford did not accept the team's buyout offer and will be rostered for the 2010-11 season. The acquisition of Darren Collison means O'Brien won't have to give Ford too many minutes. Prior to Collison, the team was considering other point guard options, even though Ford was the best choice. Now that the starter is set and Ford's going nowhere, O'Brien may be more inclined to give him 15 minutes a night, spelling Collison. At some juncture, Ford could be sent packing in a trade.
A.J. Price: Price bobbed in and out of the playing rotation last season, particularly during T.J. Ford’s mid-season benching. He took a lot of shots for a point guard and wasn’t a particularly effective shooter, before losing minutes to the un-benched Ford. He’ll get third-string minutes this season.
Lance Stephenson: Dropping to 40th in the draft because of off-court issues, Stephenson was tagged with the low-risk/high-reward label. And it looked like all reward when he played well in the summer league. The Pacers splurged, signing him to a three-year deal and talked about having play some point guard (prior to acquiring Darren Collison). The good vibes unraveled in August when he was charged with assault. The Pacers are doing their best to re-condition him, but at this point, his role on the team is unclear. Obviously, character issues are a concern as is his ability to fit in with a team-oriented dynamic.
Dahntay Jones: Jones doesn’t fit coach Jim O’Brien’s ideal shooting guard - a guy that can space the court with the 3-pointer. He can defend, which is in short supply in Indiana, but it’s not enough to earn him a regular gig under O’Brien. If the Pacers could find a taker for Jones, they’d trade him.
Roy Hibbert: His offseason conditioning will keep him on the floor longer, if he can avoid fouls. He should develop as a scorer/rebounder in his third NBA season. He’ll get more touches, for sure, and is a willing passer out of the low post.
Brandon Rush: The five-game suspension for drug use could be his last straw with Indiana. There’s no shortage of bodies on the roster to take his minutes.