First of all, Pacers Pulse got a mention in Dime magazine on an article predicting the team's future! Check it out here.
Anyway, with training camp just a few weeks away, it's time to have a think about how the Pacers will do this upcoming season. After not doing much for the majority of the offseason apart from signing their "steals" from the draft, rookies Paul George and Lance Stephenson (and possibly Magnum Rolle), the Pacers finally pulled the trigger and landed Darren Collison and James Posey for Troy Murphy. The deal, part of a four-team trade, had most declaring the Pacers the big winners, as they not only added their point guard of the future, they still managed to wipe $4 million off their books next year.
The Pacer's projected roster for the upcoming season currently looks like this:
PG - Darren Collison
SG - Brandon Rush
SF - Danny Granger
PF - Tyler Hansbrough
C - Roy Hibbert
G - TJ Ford, AJ Price, Lance Stephenson
G/F - Mike Dunleavy, Paul George, Dahntay Jones
F - Danny Granger, James Posey
F/C - Josh McRoberts, Jeff Foster, Solomon Jones, Magnum Rolle*
*Has not signed contract; someone will have to go for him to stay.
On paper, there have not been that many changes to the roster. The Pacers have added Collison and Posey as well as rookies George and Stephenson (and potentially Rolle). They lost Troy Murphy via trade and Luther Head and Earl Watson via free agency. How will these changes affect a team that went 32-50 last season? Let's look at the 10 biggest unanswered questions facing ther Pacers for the upcoming season:
1. Who will be cut?
As of now, the Pacers have 16 players under contract, one more than the maximum allowed for an NBA team. Unsigned econd round pick Magnum Rolle, a player the Pacers like a lot, will have to be cut unless the team can move someone else. Of course, TJ Ford is the prime candidate, but he has been adamant that he will not take a pay cut to be bought out. Will TJ budge, or will the Pacers cut Rolle? Or will they try and move someone else, like newly acquired James Posey, or perhaps Mike Dunleavy or Jeff Foster (both expiring contracts)?
2. What will happen to Lance Stephenson?
Unless you've been sleeping under a rock the last few days, you'll be aware that the number 40 pick, Lance Stephenson, a player the Pacers are extremely high on (especially after his performance in Summer League) was arrested for allegedly pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs and hitting her head against the bottom step.
After desperately trying to clean up their image since the 2004 brawl, the Pacers are now in a difficult position. Do they cut a promising player with known attitude and chemistry problems, or do they give him another chance despite calls from fans to send him packing?
3. Will TJ Ford be moved?
This is the biggest headache for the Pacers at the moment (apart from Stephenson). The Pacers have painted themselves into a corner by publicly declaring since last season that they wanted to get rid of TJ Ford. This admission, coupled with Ford's erratic play, has dropped the formerly attractive point guard's value down to practically nothing. Now the Pacers can't give him away.
The Pacers will continue to try and work out a solution with Ford and try to get him out of Indiana so they can sign Rolle. But if that doesn't happen, like it or not, Ford will be on the roster. I'm not sure that is necessarily a bad thing. Ford is a professional and this is a contract year for him. There is a good chance he can come in and give Collison and Price a run for their money, and if there is an unfortunate injury, he can certainly still fill in.
If Ford can get some playing time and play well, this will give the Pacers a better chance to move him before the trade deadline. And even if they can't, his $8.5 million comes off the books at the end of the season anyway.
4. How will Team USA affect Danny Granger?
Danny Granger has exceeded my expectations and remained on Team USA, played extraordinarily well. He has even been ranked as the second most important played on that team after Kevin Durant because of his size, experience and ability to put the ball in the hole.
After a disappointing last season where he took a step back, Granger is ready to move forward again. Will the Team USA experience give him the confidence to take his game to the next level, or will it tire him out for the upcoming season?
5. Will Hibbert continue to ascend? Will Rush finally awaken?
A key year for these two third-year guys. The 7'2" Hibbert has played reasonably well when called upon over the last couple of years, and by all accounts, he has been working his butt off this offseason. This is the year Hibbert could establish himself as one of the better pure centers in the NBA -- if he can stay out of foul trouble, that is.
The stakes are much higher for Brandon Rush, who most believe is extremely talented but has not been able to make the mental adjustments necessary for the NBA level. A lot of people are already calling Rush a bust, and this will be his final chance to prove himself. If he puts up another sub-par, inconsistent season, then don't expect him to be a part of the team's plans moving forward.
6. How will the new additions fare?
Darren Collison is the one with the most attention on him right now. After playing behind arguably the best PG in the league in Chris Paul, Collison will now have a chance to run his own team. In New Orleans, Collison had very low expectations as a rookie, but in Indiana, all eyes are going to be on the second-year player. If the Pacers make the playoffs, chances are Collison will be considered the primary reason. But if the Pacers stumble out of the race like they did last seaosn, then will the fingers of blame also be pointing in his direction?
James Posey brings championship experience and a verteran's mentality to the Pacers, both very underrated assets. But will he actually get any playing time? Will he even be around when the season starts? The Pacers have not said much about their plans for him, which leaves this a very open question.
As for the rookies, Paul George looks like he can be a solid player in the NBA in a few years. But playing behind a stacked wing, will Paul get the minutes he needs to develop? Will he get his time at SG or SF or both? On the other hand, big question marks loom over Lance Stephenson and Magnum Rolle. Now that they have Collison, the Pacers no longer value Stephenson as much as they did before. With his legal troubles, will the Pacers cut ties? Even if they let him stay, will he be happy playing limited minutes? And Rolle, if he makes the roster -- can he get minutes behind the likes of Hansbrough, Foster, McRoberts and Jones?
7. How is Tyler Hansbrough's health? Who will fill the PF spot?
Tyler Hansbrough's illness remains a mystery. Reports are that he is "better", but still suffering from vertigo. Either way, the illness, which took him out of games and practice, must have set him back quite a bit. Not that he was tearing up the league before that, but Hansbrough looks like he has a ways to go before returning to peak condition.
If that is the case, and with Troy Murphy gone, who will be the one to count on at the PF spot? Veteran Jeff Foster (returning from back surgery)? Inconsistent Solomon Jones? Unpolished energy guy Josh McRoberts? Or rookie Magnum Rolle? To be honest, none of these guys look very appealing. The Pacers definitely need to do more work here and find a dependable big that can give them defense, boards, hustle and the occasional basket, night in and night out.
8. What will become of AJ Price?
Remember when AJ Price, last season's second round pick, was the darling of Indiana after putting up some solid numbers out of nowhere? There was even talk, before the acquisitions of Stephenson and Collison, that Price was going to turn into the PG of the future for the team. Then Price suffered a knee injury, which is devastating for guards who rely on quickness. Will he miss any time next season? If not, will he be the same or better? And will he even get a chance behind Collison?
9. Will there be more moves forthcoming?
This is the question that everyone is asking at the moment. Obviously, with 16 guys on the roster, more moves will have to be made, but what about moves that will take the team to the next level? Larry Bird has preached patience, but more things need to be done to take this team back to the elite level.
The most obvious moves involve the guys with expiring contracts -- Mike Dunleavy (10.5M), Jeff Foster (6.7M) and TJ Ford (8.5M). The Pacers are not a team that traditionally does well in free agency because it is a small market that few stars would want to play for. Besides, next year's free agent crop is relatively weak. That means the best chance for the Pacers to get something of value in return for these guys is before the February 2011 trade deadline.
With the PG, SF and C positions locked in for the near future, the Pacers are now in search of a dependable PF or SG (an athletic, high octane finisher would also be welcome). Look out for unhappy players not getting minutes or guys that need to be moved because of salary cap concerns.
10. Will the Pacers make the playoffs?
That brings us to the last question -- will the Indiana Pacers make the 2010-2011 playoffs?
It's still too early to tell, but past experience tells us to be conservative. The Pacers did, after all, finish 32-50 last season, despite a pointless burst at the end that took them out of prime position for a top 5 lottery pick.
There are so many unknown factors at this stage, many of which have been flagged in the questions above. The biggest one, in my opinion, is Collison, and whether he can replicate the kind of performance he had last season, but on a different team, playing less minutes and with higher expectations.
But that's not all. Has Hansbrough recovered? Have Hibbert, Rush and Granger made strides? Will Lance Stephenson be a blessing or a nuisance? Any one of these factors could have a huge impact on where the Pacers end up on the standings.
Right now, if we assume no more changes to the roster are made, I would give the Pacers an outside chance of making the playoffs in 2011. Given the stronger competition in the East with the Heat, the Celtics, the Magic, the Bulls and the Hawks, the Pacers will have to tussle with the likes of the Bobcats, the Knicks, the Bucks and maybe even the Cavs for a spot.
My prediction is that the Pacers can finish anywhere between 7th and 10th this season. Let's hope it's in the first half of that range.