Despite a season-long injury to Danny Granger and a fairly shoddy offense, the Pacers’ defense was good enough to get them to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Considering they finished 16.5 games behind the Heat, that’s quite a feat. Of course, this season, it’s Finals or bust for Frank Vogel’s squad.
Last season, outside of Lance Stephenson, the Pacers had a very strong starting five that featured George Hill, Roy Hibbert, David West, and a rising star in Paul George. This season, the Pacers get Granger back and fixed their biggest weakness – bench strength. The addition of Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, and C.J. Watson will go a long way in shoring up the rotation and should give Vogel the ability to get a full 48 minutes of strong production from everyone.
On defense, there are zero questions about this team. Vogel has created a tough team of defensive beasts who clean up the glass and steal balls at a head turning pace, simply robbing teams of possessions. The rebounds allow them to make up for a rough shooting percentage that comes from being a team that relies heavily on the deep shot. Let’s take a look at how this season’s much deeper Indiana Pacers club is shaping up as they embark on another attempt at unseating the Heat as the NBA’s best.
Points Per Game: 23rd
Points Allowed Per Game: 2nd
Rebounds Per Game: 1st
Notable Additions: Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson, Solomon Hill
Point Guards: George Hill, C.J. Watson – Grade: B
Hill was solid in his first full season as a starter, averaging 14.2 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.7 RPG, 1.7 3PPG, and 1.1 SPG while shooting .443 from the floor. He’s a shooter first and hasn’t shown the court general skills, nor the assist numbers, you’d like to see in an elite point guard. Still, his defensive skills are a good fit for the Vogel defense and he can put up some big games so the Pacers are in solid shape here.
If Hill is a good shooter, Watson is the opposite, shooting .418 last season for the Nets and .368 the season before. He averaged 19 MPG, 6.8 PPG, and 1.1 3PPG so he’ll be the typical Pacers bench contributor, a guy you can put in to spell the backcourt starters, play solid defense, and nail the occasional three-pointer. He’s likely an improvement over D.J. Augustin but Augustin may have had more upside.
Shooting Guards: Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Orlando Johnson – Grade: B+
George’s breakout was the biggest storyline for the Pacers last season as the 22-year-old averaged 17.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, and 2.1 3PPG. His 42% shooting isn’t optimal, ranking him 19th among shooting guards, but that’s to be expected of a guy who averages six three-point attempts per game. His defense more than makes up for it and he can stick with the best of them. It’ll be fun to watch if his offense continues to improve and catches up to his defensive prowess.
Stephenson got the chance to start last season in Danny Granger’s absence and posted decent numbers with 8.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, and 2.9 APG. That’s not great for a guy who played 29 MPG so he’ll return to a rotation player as long as the starters are healthy. Like the rest of the team, Stephenson fits the defensive scheme well and shot a strong 46% last season. He’s wildly inconsistent but at 23 himself, he continues to improve with every year in Frank Vogel’s system. Moving him to the bench is also one of the reasons that bench is so much improved this season.
A second-round pick last year, Johnson is primarily a three-point shooter but a good one, nailing 38.3% of his shots from behind the arc last season. Other than that, he doesn’t figure to see a lot of minutes off the Pacers bench.
Small Forwards: Danny Granger, Chris Copeland – Grade: B
Granger played a total of 74 minutes last season, shut down by a knee injury. His absence opened the door for a Paul George breakout and now the Pacers will see how the two mesh on the floor together. Granger is a notoriously inconsistent shooter, making less than 43% of his shots in three straight seasons before 2012, though still averaging over 20 PPG thanks to his 38+% three-point shooting. He grabs some rebounds and is no slouch on defense so if he can stay on the court, the Pacers could have the best starting five in the East.
Copeland looked very solid in his rookie year on the Knicks after playing in Europe for five years. He’s a good defender who fit well into the Mike Woodson defense and should slide into the Vogel defense nicely. He started 13 games last season and averaged 16.1 PPG. He averaged 8.7 PPG on the season but only played 15.4 MPG so his production extrapolates to 20.3 PPG per 36 minutes. He’s a very good addition and definitely an upgrade over what the Pacers had on their bench last season.
Power Forwards: David West, Luis Scola, Solomon Hill – Grade: B+
At 33, West is one of the oldest players on the team but a strong, tough veteran presence. With 17.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, and a 50% field goal percentage, West is one of the most underrated power forwards in the game and plays as tough as anyone. He fights for every ball and can be a beast on defense but his age is an obvious concern. This is right around the age that NBA players, especially big men, decline but expect no less than 110% effort from West in every game.
Scola is 33 as well and will transition into a rotation player after starting most games for the Suns last season. His .472 FG% last season is a far cry from the .531 we saw when he was in Houston but he’s a solid shooter in the paint and a serviceable rebounder, though certainly not at the same level as West. You have to question whether he was worth giving up a first round pick for but he’s here to help the Pacers win this year, not for the future.
Hill was the Pacers’ first-round pick in this year’s draft and while he’s listed as a power forward on the Pacers depth chart, it’s hard to see a 6-foot-7 small forward make that transition unless he hits a growth spurt. While playing in Arizona, he averaged 13.4 PPG and 5.3 RPG in his last season, shooting .458 from the floor and .390 from three-point range. His three-point abilities make him a good fit for the Pacers, although their reliance on threes can hurt them as well. He’s also a very solid defender (of course), finishing in the top 10 in Defensive Win Shares in the Pac-12 in each of his last two seasons.
Centers: Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi – Grade: B+
Hibbert’s 2.6 BPG is a monster average and good for fourth-best in the NBA. His 11.9 PPG and 8.3 RPG are solid numbers but his .448 FG% is unfathomable for a center who spends most of his time in the paint and was the lowest among any full-time center last season. He also had the third-most fouls in the league last year, but that’s to be expected of a swatter like him. Hibbert is clearly not here for his offense, although he has his moments, he’s here for his second-best defensive rating in the league and fifth-highest Defensive Win Shares. As we all saw in the playoffs, Hibbert can take over games.
Not surprisingly, Mahinmi is like a poor man’s version of Hibbert. He’s a solid blocker and gets a good amount of rebounds for the 16.5 MPG that he averages but also shoots 45% from the floor and gets in a lot of foul trouble. Ultimately, he’s a perfect choice to spell Hibbert since they play pretty much the same game.
Coach: Frank Vogel – Grade: A
This team is clearly built to Vogel’s system and he’s done a great job of building a top-5 defense. With Danny Granger back and a stronger bench, Vogel will have to improve their 23rd ranked offense if they want to beat the Heat but he took his team to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals and is very likely to do it again with an even better squad than he had in 2012.
Team Grade: A-