The Pacers exceeded all expectations last year, falling just short of its first NBA Finals appearance since 2000—the year when the likes of Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Dale Davis and Rik Smits battled the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Indiana will aim for more than just a Finals appearance. Its offseason moves should serve notice to the rest of the NBA how serious it is in bringing the Larry O'Brien Trophy to the city of Indianapolis.
However, it will be anything but easy.
Indiana Pacers 2012-13 Results
- 49-32 record (.605)
- 1st in Central Division
- 3rd in Eastern Conference
- Lost to the Miami Heat 4-3 in Eastern Conference Finals
Key Stats: The Good and the Bad
Two names that stood out in this area are 2013 NBA Most Improved Player Paul George and another most improved player in his own right, Lance Stephenson.
Both players showed tremendous ability in terms of rebounding, as either of them were capable of snagging 10 rebounds or more on any given night.
On the flip side, as good as the Pacers' starters were, their bench was one of the worst in the entire league in 2012-13.
A bad supporting cast results in lack of depth and too much reliance on the starting unit, things which the Pacers hope to have addressed in order to take a step forward.
Biggest Storylines Entering Training Camp
Now that Paul George got his well-deserved maximum deal, it sets aside a potential distraction.
With this, the Indiana Pacers' biggest storyline is the return of former NBA Most Improved Player Danny Granger, who sat out all but five games of the 2012-13 season due to a jumper's knee injury.
Indiana did well in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign which saw Granger start at small forward. The team finished at 42-24 that year and advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals but got outclassed by the Miami Heat in six games.
With the absence of Granger in 2012-13, the Pacers still managed to finish third in the Eastern Conference and put up a gallant effort against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now the big question looms: How fill Granger fit into Indiana's plans in the upcoming season?
Granger told Nat Newell of the Indianapolis Star on Sept. 18 that he's on course for his return as he's on the fifth month of a six-month rehab. He also added he expects to start.
Newell's colleague, Bob Kravitz, reported a week later that team president Larry Bird prefers to have Granger start and have Lance Stephenson come off the bench as a point guard.
Bird also says Granger and George are "interchangeable," which makes the Pacers "a better all-around team."
This being the looming scenario for Indiana, a large part of their success would now hinge on how soon the Danny Granger of old will return.
If he exceeds all expectations and the Pacers make serious noise in the playoffs again, look for Bird to keep him, although at a lower price taking into account George's maximum deal.
If Granger falters, he could be dealt before the trade deadline.
Key Additions and Losses
Key additions: Luis Scola, PF/C (two years, $9.3 million remaining); Chris Copeland, SF/PF (three years, $10 million remaining); C.J. Watson, PG (two years, $4.1 million remaining); Solomon Hill, G/F (five years, $10 million), Donald Sloan, PG (two years, $1.8 million); Nate McMillan, assistant coach; Popeye Jones, assistant coach
Key losses: Tyler Hansbrough, PF (two years, $6.5 million remaining with TOR); D.J. Augustin, PG (one year, $1.3 million remaining with TOR); Gerald Green, SF (two years, $7 million remaining with PHO); Miles Plumlee, C (four years, $7.5 million remaining with PHO); Jeff Ayres (formerly Jeff Pendergraph), PF/C (two years, $3.6 million with SA); Jim Boylen, assistant coach (signed with SA in June); Brian Shaw, assistant coach (signed with DEN in June)
Biggest Additions: Luis Scola and Chris Copeland
The acquisitions of Scola and Copeland both made headlines, instantly addressing the Pacers' glaring need for more scoring from their shock troopers.
When Indiana traded Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to the Phoenix Suns for Scola, they unloaded a high-flying small forward who was a disappointment and a center who didn't figure to see any major minutes.
What they got in return was a savvy 33-year-old veteran who is a slick low-post operator and is pretty much another David West off the bench.
For his part, Copeland is a sweet-shooting player who provides the second unit with an offensive spark. He can play both the small and power forward positions.
Both Scola and Copeland's defense is suspect, but having a Roy Hibbert or David West on the floor should help neutralize this weakness.
Biggest Loss: Tyler Hansbrough
Pacers fans are sure to miss Hansbrough's play: a bruiser who always plays gung ho on the defensive end and grabs loose balls with reckless abandon.
However, Hansbrough didn't really reach his full potential in four years in Indiana as a bench player. No matter how hard he tried, he simply was limited on the offensive end with no consistent medium-range game to speak of.
Accustomed to a starter's role during his college days with the North Carolina Tar Heels, he didn't hide his desire to assume this role once again in the professional ranks.
Perhaps a change of scenery with the Toronto Raptors bodes well for the man they call "Psycho T."
*Depth Chart includes players with non-guaranteed contracts and training camp invites.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: Stephenson vs. Watson
Here's an excerpt from a Sept. 25 report of the Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz:
Bird made no bones about it: He likes his team best with Granger starting and Lance Stephenson leading the second unit as a point guard.
Just imagine the energetic Stephenson leading the charge off the bench.
With the kind of play he showed last year, this make the Pacers a much more dangerous team. Stephenson did considerable damage at the 2-spot last season, showing how fearless he is in driving to the hoop and crashing the boards.
There's no reason not to believe he can't duplicate or even surpass his success with this new role, but the one major knock on Stephenson is his inconsistency. If he isn't up to the task at point guard, the entire offense is sure to suffer.
Watson has more experience at the 1-spot than Stephenson does, and he has the steadier outside shooting stroke—a key weapon for any point guard.
Stephenson, however, is a far better defender.
The battle for the right to be George Hill's chief reliever should be a very interesting one. Watson, by virtue of his experience, should have the slight upper hand.
It should be still a win-win situation for Stephenson. Even if Watson becomes the main backup, Stephenson can still make an impact at shooting guard.
Nonetheless, Stephenson manning the point should be an interesting sight for Pacers fans.
Battling For A Roster Spot: Butler vs. Howard vs. Jackson
Rasual Butler will attempt an NBA comeback with the Indiana Pacers. Butler was given a non-guaranteed contract by the Pacers earlier this month, and he will look to compete for one of the two remaining roster spots.
His shooting hasn't been all that great, especially in his last two NBA seasons. Although the 34-year-old Butler did chip in with 6.2 points per game in the Orlando Pro Summer League with Indiana, his better days in the league are behind him.
A more intriguing prospect is Ron Howard, a 6'5" point guard from the Pacers' D-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
Howard has never cracked an NBA team's regular-season roster, but that could change. He averaged 19.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists with a career-high 18.2 PER for Fort Wayne last season.
The last NBA hopeful the Pacers are bringing into training camp is 6'9" power forward Darnell Jackson.
Jackson averaged 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds with the Reno Bighorns last year and was reported to have shown up for the D-League Select Team in Las Vegas "in even better physical shape."
While Butler is on the downside, Howard, at 31, is starting to peak. He should be able to crack the Pacers' regular-season rotation and contribute at point guard and shooting guard.
Count on Jackson to complete Indiana's 15-man lineup. He should provide the Pacers with another big body and depth at power forward.
Biggest X-Factor: Danny Granger
Last season, Lance Stephenson stepping up big for the Indiana Pacers in the absence of Danny Granger made him their biggest X-factor.
Now, it's Granger's turn to be the X-factor. Just how effective will he be after an almost year-long hiatus?
A lot is riding on his comeback. First of all, with him to be the projected starter at small forward, Paul George will slide over to shooting guard.
This was the scenario in 2011-12, when George was still a timid NBA sophomore who made people cringe. As of Sept. 25, when he signed his new five-year deal, he's their franchise player.
Considering George's breakout campaign in 2012-13, his best position is at small forward, a role Granger will most likely re-assume.
With his work ethic, look for George to make the necessary adjustments and build on his success from last year.
The other thing to consider is Stephenson's new role (which Bird envisioned) as a point guard off the bench with Granger's return.
The thought of him overpowering and clamping down on opposing point guards is an interesting one, to say the least.
Best-case scenario: Granger gets off to a slow start but manages to regain his old form. He complements George beautifully on both ends of the court. He won't score as much as he did, but his performance will be enough to help the Pacers go deep in the postseason and end the trade rumors once and for all.
Here, he should average around 16-17 points, six rebounds and two assists per contest.
Worst-case scenario: Granger is struggling to shake off the effects of his jumper's knee injury which results in a slow start to the season. He continues to make questionable shot selections as he did in years past but is still a formidable weapon at small forward.
He should go no lower than 12 points, five rebounds and two assists per game.
Pacers' Best-Case Scenario in 2013-14
Indiana continues to dominate on defense and rebounding. However, the Pacers' second unit is a far cry from what it was a season ago, and it shows. Anybody, especially Scola, Copeland, Stephenson and even rookie Solomon Hill, can contribute on any given night.
The starters are solid, as usual. George Hill goes under the radar again but gets the job done at point guard.
Paul George cops All-NBA Second Team honors while Roy Hibbert earns the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.
Granger is not as explosive a scorer as he once was but contributes in double figures, nonetheless.
The Pacers will finish with a 54-28 record, good enough for second in the East.
Indiana will also finally put an end to their 0-2 record against the Miami Heat in the postseason by winning the Eastern Conference Finals in seven hard-fought games.
They will go on to win their first-ever NBA title.
Pacers' Worst-Case Scenario in 2013-14
The Danny Granger experiment fails. Indiana is just five games above .500 in late December. In spite of his decent play and Paul George's strong showing at shooting guard with his 22 points per game, head coach Frank Vogel decides George would be better off at the 3-spot.
Granger goes to the bench and never gets acclimated to his role as the sixth man. He gets traded before the deadline.
Stephenson returns to the starting lineup to complement George Hill in the backcourt. He is still inconsistent and fails to make amends for his average free-throw shooting and non-existent mid-range game.
However, Stephenson still contributes in another game facets such as rebounding and defense.
Copeland, Scola, Watson and Solomon Hill will continue to show everyone how good a second unit the Pacers have.
In the end, Indiana, as good as this team has become, still finishes with a 50-32 mark. It secures the third seed in the East only to bow out in the Eastern Conference Finals yet again.
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