A Season On the Brink: Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers are at a crossroads. They have lost their top two scoring options from a season ago. A season that saw them fail to make the NBA Finals once again by being eliminated by the now wounded Miami Heat. The Pacers had built a young, defensive-minded nucleus centered around Paul George, Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson, and Roy Hibbert, and had high hopes of reaching the NBA Finals this coming season with the news of the best player in the world heading back home to division rival Cleveland.

Those hopes suffered a serious blow this season when the world watched as Paul George shattered his leg against the goal stancion in a World Cup exhibition. They also watched their estranged guard, Stephenson, take his talents to Charlotte (for whatever reason) and leave behind a president, coach, and team that put up with his on and off-court shenanigans for 4 seasons. For these reasons, this season will truly be a test of the “true” Indiana Pacers fan following one of the worst off-seasons ever, while Cavalier fans around the world can be found doing something along these lines after the of-season they had.

Now the Pacers are left with aging veterans and Solomon Hill, whom the Pacers drafted 23rd overall in last year’s NBA draft. Not exactly a competitive group on paper. Frank Vogel’s coaching will also be tested as he will have to figure out how to base an offense around players that aren’t offensively skilled players. Though no one can possibly predict who the Pacers will make their offensive go-to guy, one has to assume that Vogel will rely on veterans George Hill, David West, and Roy Hibbert when the time comes to put the basketball in the hole. For Hibbert, we have all yet to see if he can actually lead a team and considering that he is 27 and entering his seventh season in the league, we may have already seen his best. Hill is a home-grown two guard that starts for the Pacers at point guard out of sheer necessity for the Pacers. The Pacers have and are still in need of that floor general that they haven’t had since Mark Jackson was jiggling down the court in the late 90s. Hill at the two would give him the freedom to move without the basketball, which made him so talented in San Antonio when future Hall of Famer Tony Parker was feeding him the basketball. West is who brings a physical toughness to this squad, but much like Hibbert and Hill, has never been a ‘go-to’ guy for his team.

This off-season has brought many rumors about not only Roy Hibbert’s availability into question, but his value on the market. Hibbert is coming off the worst stretch of his career throughout the second half of last season, which included a brutal conclusion in the NBA playoffs in which Hibbert tallied 9.3ppg and 5.5rpg in just 28.5 minutes per game. That stretch included two scoreless games in Round One against the Atlanta Hawks including one in which he tallied 0 rebounds also, one scoreless and reboundless game in Round 2 against the Washington Wizards, and also a scoreless contest in the ECF against the Miami Heat. Not exactly prime numbers for the tallest player in the league at the moment making a base salary of $14,898,938M this coming season. The Pacers have stayed true to their big man in saying all of the right things as far as Hibbert’s future with the team, making him work with legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and staying in contact with Hibbert, but one has to wonder if the right offer came along, would Hibbert be up for grabs for a team in need of a rim protector?

George Hill, on the other hand, has been reportedly putting himself through training hell, according to Jared Wade at Fansided.com. Hill is coming off of his worst season as a professional in which he averaged a career-low 11.6ppg per 36 minutes. He was not aggressive and simply wasn’t the George Hill that made him the player the Indiana Pacers chose to give a 5-year, $40M contract to. His problem seems to be that he is out of position and, for whatever reason, Indiana has been reluctant to address a glaring need at the point guard position. The Pacers now have two SGs in their starting backcourt who can’t shoot, no point guard, and nobody to facilitate the offense in Indy.

For these reasons, much of the attention now focuses to the abundance of newcomers on the Pacers roster now and who is going to step up to shoulder the load. It could be Rodney Stuckey. It could be C.J. Miles. It could be one of the aforementioned Hills or Roy Hibbert.

The one thing that the Pacers do have going for them is the ease in which it takes to make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Their odds were cut in half to make the playoffs once George went down with his gruesome season-ending injury; going from 20-1 to 40-1. According to Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com, the Pacers still have plenty to play for this season. The Pacers are still a well-coached and well-managed team that has the potential to “stay afloat” in the Eastern Conference, much like the division-rival Chicago Bulls have done over the last two seasons after losing their star player, Derrick Rose.
Silver used ESPN’s NBA Real Plus Minus, which uses projections based on their performance and age over the last three seasons. This method projects that the Pacers will end the regular season with a 44-38 record, down from a 56-26 record last season.

The only other option would be to pull a “76ers” and tank this upcoming season by trading away Hibbert and West to playoff contenders and running with perhaps the worst offensive lineup in NBA history. If this highly unlikely option does happen, that would leave the Pacers with only PG13, George Hill, Ian Mahimni, and Damjan Rudez on the books after this coming season. That would give the Pacers a very likely lottery pick and boat loads of cap room to retool for the 2015-16 season.

Whatever the Pacers decide to do, they have a lot of unanswered questions as the season quickly approaches. Hopefully, Larry has at least one more trick up his sleeve to make sure that this franchise comes out on top after such a rough stretch of bad luck.

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