STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
As a team becoming a title contender, Indiana is right on schedule. The Pacers made their playoff return as an eighth seed in 2010-11. Last season, after finishing with the third seed, they reached the second round of the playoffs. They didnít always look like a three-seed. Danny Granger did not shoot well, while George Hill and David West had adjustment periods with a new team. But it all came together after the All-Star Game, culminating in an impressive 11-1 stretch in April that signaled a team coming together at the right time. It was during this run that coach Frank Vogel inserted Hill into the starting lineup at point guard.
Entering the 2012-13 season, the Pacers return the starting five that finished last season. It almost wasnít so, but the front office eventually matched Portlandís offer sheet to Roy Hibbert. The Pacers invested much development time in Hibbert, so it made sense to retain the center who became an All Star in 2011-12. West is further removed from knee surgery at power forward. Granger and Paul George start on the wing. And Hill now gets a full season as the starting point guard. The challenge for Vogel is to craft a deeper bench from a bunch of free agents of unremarkable pedigree: D. J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Sam Young and Ian Mahinmi.
The franchise is in a good spot right now. The players have responded to Vogel (62-42) since he replaced Jim OíBrien half way through the 2010-11 season. The problem is that they donít have one of the NBA super-teams and theyíll need to compete with the Heat and the Bulls for the next few seasons.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Coach Frank Vogel spread around the minutes in his first full season as coach with no Pacer playing more than 33 minutes. This playing-time socialism was both by design and necessity. At center, Roy Hibbert has yet to play more than 30 minutes in a season. Heíll be in the same range this year, leaving the rest for Ian Mahinmi and smaller lineups. David West should be in the low 30s this season at power forward. Tyler Hansbrough will back him up, though we could see some of Miles Plumlee there. Danny Grangerís playing time at small forward hinges on how well Gerald Green fits. Grangerís minutes will range from 32-37. With another year of NBA experience, Paul George should increase to 32-34 minutes. Green will be the first wing off the bench. George Hill will play 33-35 minutes at point guard, leaving the rest of the minutes for D.J. Augustin.
Roy Hibbert: Hibbert cemented himself as a reliable fantasy option in 2011-12. On the way to his first All-Star appearance, Hibbert put together career-high averages in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes. As a reward for his stellar season, the Pacers recognized Hibbert and inked him to a four-year, $58-million deal. He has shown steady improvement in his low-post game on both ends of the court. The fifth-year center has also improved his conditioning, leading to additional playing time. Given his age and year-to-year improvements, we probably havenít seen the best from Hibbert yet.
Ian Mahinmi: Mahinmi responded well to an opportunity in Dallas last season and the Pacers were convinced. In a sign-and-trade, they gave him a four-year, $16 million contract. His offense is very limited, but the Pacers didnít acquire him for that. As a 15-18 minute-per-game backup to Roy Hibbert, Mahinmi needs to rebound, defend and protect the rim. Thatís something the Pacers lacked in 2011-12.
David West: After offseason surgery, West experienced drops in several major categories while playing less than 30 minutes per game. The delayed start to the regular season worked to his advantage, though he clearly struggled early on. However, once the playoffs hit, the Pacers needed his postseason experience and he played nearly nine more minutes per game. Another half year removed from surgery should improve Westís mobility and stamina. But a return to the scoring average (19.0) he put up as a starter with the Hornets is not likely to happen.
Danny Granger: Granger has seen his numbers steadily decline each of the past three seasons, but he was still a top-10 small forward in 2011-12. That said, the writing is on the wall that Paul George and Roy Hibbert are the future in Indiana, and Granger very well may see his stats decline once again this season. Granger doesnít get to the line as much as he once did, but he still makes plenty of three-pointers. And thereís been some drop in the defensive categories. Heís still a valuable player in fantasy, just make sure your expectations are somewhat tempered.
Tyler Hansbrough: Hansbrough mostly served as David Westís back up at power forward last season. Hansbrough was coming off an encouraging sophomore NBA season and had some success early on, before defenses learned to challenge his shot. His offensive repertoire isnít diversified enough, making him easy to defend. Heíll open the season in the same role he held in 2011-12, but heís susceptible to losing minutes to rookie first-round pick Miles Plumlee.
Gerald Green: The Pacers are believers in Green, handing him a three-year contract. After he played himself out of the NBA three years ago, Green re-surfaced last season in New Jersey, and appears to have used his exile to become a better professional, showing a better outside shot than weíd seen before. Itís hard to tell if Green is a team-first convert who shed his individualistic ways, or if he was merely able to thrive on a Nets team that wasnít very good. Weíll certainly learn this season, as the Pacers want him to be the first wing off the bench.
Miles Plumlee: Advertised as an active rebounder and defender, Plumlee flashed more offensive game (13.6 ppg) than expected during the Orlando Summer League. Sure, itís only summer league and we never make any predictions based on it, but itís promising nevertheless. Plumlee will not be needed much at center with Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi ahead of him. However, if the mid-range game he showed this summer is for real, Plumlee could get minutes at power forward, where Tyler Hansbrough has regressed.
Sam Young: The Pacers signed Young late in the offseason. He barely averaged double-digit minutes with the Grizzlies in 2011-12 before being traded to Philadelphia. Defense is still his calling card and thatís something the Pacers could use on the wing.
George Hill: Hill struggled early on as the Pacersí third guard, and it wasnít until March that he started to get comfortable with his new team. Soon after, Darren Collison went down with an injury and Hill became the starting point guard and never relinquished the job. The Pacers had better chemistry with him in charge. The organization was happy enough to hand him a five-year, $40 million contract, and ship Collison to Dallas. As a point guard, Hillís been a better scorer than playmaker, so make sure your fantasy roster has another capable assist man. On the other hand, this will be the first time in Hillís career heís been handed a full-time starting job as a point guard.
Paul George: Georgeís confidence grew in his second NBA season and he emerged as a multi-category threat. Thereís still some growth for George, as a ball handler and decision maker, but he made himself into deep threat and ramped up his defense. The rangy guard created matchup problems, resulting in 1.6 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. If there is a nit to pick with George, itís that he noticeably regressed in the postseason. Fortunately for George, heís still just 22 years old, and part of his postseason struggles can be attributed to inexperience. Georgeís only real threat for playing time is Gerald Green, who may provide more offensive potential than George.
D.J. Augustin: The Pacers needed a backup point guard and Augustin was their man for the job. His four years in Charlotte were unremarkable, but Augustinís development was stunted by coach Larry Brown and a bad roster of talent. Getting out of that situation will help revive his career. Heís entering his age-25 season and is a high-IQ player with good court vision. Augustin maintains a career 2.75:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Coming off the bench with the Pacers will be an adjustment and weíll need to see how well the second unit comes together.
Lance Stephenson: Stephenson impressed the Pacers during summer league action, prompting coach Frank Vogel to say heís deserving of a shot to become Indianaís backup shooting guard. That sounds like summer-league hype to us. Stephensonís entering his third season in Indiana and heís barely sniffed the court (10.3 mpg). After a failed experiment at point guard and dealing with some maturity issues during his first two seasons, the Pacers are not ready to give Stephenson a big role just yet. Heíll have to earn a spot in the rotation during training camp/preseason, though weíre only talking about 12-15 minutes available as the reserve two-guard behind Paul George.
Sundiata Gaines: Gaines was a late addition to the training camp roster and doesnít figure to play a major role with Indiana. Heís a grinder and has been doing it ever since the Jazz gave him a chance in 2010. He can defend and is solidly built, which may come in handy some nights. At best, weíre looking at the third point guard spot with the Pacers.
Orlando Johnson: Johnson is a shooter. During three years at UC Santa Barbara, Johnson averaged 19.6 points per game while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three-point range. He was less successful during summer league games, but Pacersí management is impressed with his outside shooting ability. Johnson is likely to spend many nights in street clothes or toiling away in the D-League, but thereís a bench-scoring role in his future.
D.J. Augustin: Augustin steps out of a bad situation in Charlotte and finds himself with an important backup role with an Eastern Conference title contender. Heís more of a pure point guard than starter George Hill and could find himself on the court with Hill at off guard. Weíre not going to see him as a starter, unless Hill gets injured, but there will be a big enough role to be helpful.
Tyler Hansbrough: The league has caught up with Hansbrough, as defenders learned they canít let him catch and shoot open jumpers. Hansbroughís scoring numbers dropped when opponents started challenging his shots. He hasnít been able to adjust to that and remains a relatively one-dimensional player on offense.