By Jeff Erickson
RotoWire Senior Editor
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Pacers are in a bit of a trap. They don't have the pieces in place to contend now, beyond hoping for one of the last playoff spots. But they also can't afford having a season where they can completely tank. The downturn in the economy has hit Indiana hard, and the franchise has suffered along with it. So instead they are now on what seems to be a perpetual treadmill, scratching and clawing to try to reach the playoffs. Striving for a championship seems like a farflung scenario at this point. The NBA is a star-driven league. You can find teams that haven't won while having an elite player, but precious few that have won something significant without one. Therein lies the dilemma for the Pacers – how exactly do they acquire such an elite player? There are three ways – free agency, trades or the draft.
Strike free agency off the list for the Pacers. Even if Indianapolis were a desirable location for marquee free agents, the Pacers are in salary cap hell until 2011. Trades are problematic too. While the Pacers have successfully traded for a high-upside player before (Dale Davis for Jermaine O'Neal), their most recent trades have been excisions, for salary cap reasons or otherwise. Absent Danny Granger, they don't really have much in the way of trade ammunition, not when nearly every team is trying to shed salary. That leaves the draft. They aren't bad enough to be a lottery team, or can afford to tank to become one. So they are usually drafting in the teens or later each year. Occasionally they net Reggie Miller or Danny Granger that way, but there's a lot more draft misses in recent history for them in that range. As such, they're resigned to an existence that doesn't include much hope of becoming a championship-caliber team.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Until Mike Dunleavy Jr. returns from his knee injury, the Pacers won't have many playing time battles. Troy Murphy will get his 35+ minutes no matter what, be it at center or at power forward. Danny Granger will get the same amount of playing time, be it at small forward or power forward. Those are the two constants.
When Murphy isn't playing the center spot, Jeff Foster and Roy Hibbert will play, and both should average about 20 minutes apiece, instead of the 25-15 split they had last year. Tyler Hansbrough's acclimation to the NBA game could cut into Foster and Hibbert's time – if Hansbrough can handle 20-25 minutes right away, Murphy will spend that much more time at center.
Until Dunleavy returns, Brandon Rush will start at the shooting guard slot and play about 30-35 minutes. Dahntay Jones will be his backup and play about 15 minutes. T.J. Ford has had durability issues in the past – asking him to play more than 30 minutes a game is probably asking too much. Earl Watson will pick up most of the remaining point guard minutes, with an occasional Travis Diener sighting.
Troy Murphy: Murphy was another multi-category monster last year, finishing in the top-five in both rebounds and in three-pointers. He fits like a glove in the Pacers' motion offense, often taking advantage of the fact that opposing big men don't want to have defend on the perimeter. All this while qualifying at center in most leagues. That said, make sure not to pay full retail value for his career year. The Pacers emphasized improving their defense over the summer, and a slower pace of play could result in fewer field goal attempts and three-pointers for Murphy. Moreover, he's a threat to miss about 10 games per season via injury, having not topped 75 games since his second year in the league.
Jeff Foster: Foster is useful in real life, but as a fantasy player he's the ultimate no-upside guy. He helps you in only one category, rebounding, and his production tailed off even there last season. Foster could see a drop in playing time, either if his chronic back problems flare up or if Roy Hibbert takes the next step in his development.
Roy Hibbert: Hibbert experienced the typical ebbs and flows of a rookie big man in the NBA, occasionally displaying some promise, especially defensively, but all too often he'd fall into foul trouble or out of coach Jim O'Brien's rotation entirely. With Nasho Resterovic gone, there's one fewer player to cut into Hibbert's time. There's a scenario out there where Hibbert could become a 10-10 guy, but a lot of things will have to fall into place first.
Solomon Jones: Jones is a defense-first energy guy that will occasionally come off the bench for the Pacers. It'll take a couple of injuries for him to play any more than 10-15 minutes per game.
Danny Granger: Granger has steadily improved in each of his four NBA seasons since the Pacers stole him with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2005 draft. About the only complaint that the Pacers had with Granger last season was with his defense, but he was hardly the sole guilty party or biggest offender on the team in that respect. Granger contributes across the board, making him especially valuable in rotisserie-style leagues. He spent the second half of the season dealing with a torn tendon in his right foot, after earlier dealing with a sore knee. Though he missed 15 games on the season, he arguably could have missed more, and performed well despite the injuries. Look for him either to maintain his current level or improve incrementally.
Mike Dunleavy Jr.: Dunleavy is one of the trickiest players to project this season. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery back in March, and at that time it was revealed that he had a bone spur without much tendon damage, giving cause for some hope for an early return. Unfortunately, he had a Grade 2 ligament strain behind his knee at the onset of training camp and will miss all of training camp. Right now a December return is about the best-case scenario. When he ultimately returns, his minutes could be limited some and he's no longer the first option in the offense.
Tyler Hansbrough: Pacers president Larry Bird really stuck his neck out to take Hansbrough with the 13th overall pick in the draft, passing on the likes of DeJuan Blair among others. Hansbrough draws praise for his toughness and his rebounding ability, and the Pacers have made a point to address those qualities this offseason. But will he be able to play effectively against bigger power forwards and centers? His development is already on hold with a shin injury that will keep him out for a few weeks in training camp.
Josh McRoberts: McRoberts is at the back end of coach Jim O'Brien's playing rotation, and he'll get further pushed back by the addition of rookie Tyler Hansbrough. He added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
T.J. Ford: When healthy, Ford is a perfect fit for coach Jim O'Brien's motion offense, and he thrived initially last season. Alas, as in previous years, Ford didn't hold up for too long, first suffering groin and back injuries in December. He's also a ticking time bomb for a long-term injury, due to his spinal stenosis, a condition he'll always have to play with. With Jarrett Jack moving on to greener pastures, Ford is the undisputed starter, with a lesser threat backing him up in Earl Watson. Occasionally he'll be a triple-double threat, other times a threat to get hurt in the first quarter. Ride him when he's fresh, and trade him at his peak.
Brandon Rush: Rush went through a stretch where he was afraid to shoot and fell out of coach Jim O'Brien's playing rotation halfway through season. But after Mike Dunleavy Jr. went under the knife, Rush really took off, averaging 18.3 points (on 78-of-141 shooting from the field), 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 treys over his final 10 games. Dunleavy already had a setback at the start of training camp, and both Marquis Daniels and Jarrett Jack are elsewhere. The Pacers will need Rush to produce immediately this season – he's a bit of a sleeper.
Dahntay Jones: Jones frequently started for the Nuggets last year, but don't let that fool you. He was in there for the occasional defensive stop, averaging just 18.1 minutes per game. He'll play a similar role for the Pacers, perhaps playing a smidge more.
Travis Diener: The problems facing Diener in the past are the same ones hurting him now. He's too slow to defend against the best point guards and too small to handle the two spot adequately. He'll have his moments running the offense when T.J. Ford needs rest, but now the Pacers have a more defensive-minded point guard in Earl Watson, marginalizing Diener.
Earl Watson: Unlike when Jarrett Jack was in a full-on competition with T.J. Ford for the starting point guard job, Watson is a classic backup. Watson could pile up the assists should something happen to Ford, but he's not much of a scorer or shooter, though that hasn't thwarted him from taking a fair number of three-point attempts.
Luther Head: Head was brought on board for one specific purpose – to hit three-point shots. In theory he could play a little point guard, but that's not one of his strengths. As such, he's pretty difficult to put on your fantasy roster, and his playing time is a threat to disappear at any given moment.
A.J. Price: The Pacers took Price in the second round in this year's draft out of Connecticut. There's some question whether he has the size or athleticism to handle the NBA. He'll almost certainly be chained to the end of the bench, given the Pacers' guard depth.
Brandon Rush: Dunleavy's setback opens the door for Rush to establish himself as the full-time starter at the two-spot, and if he builds off of last year's strong finish, he might still get 30+ minutes even after Dunleavy's return.
Mike Dunleavy Jr.: This is a bit of a layup, given that he won't be ready for the start of the season. But even if Dunleavy can return early, say by mid-November, it's not going to be the version that was such a fantasy force in 2007-08.
Article first appeared on 10/1/09