Here we go. The 2012-2013 NBA season kicks off on Tuesday, with the Indiana Pacers opening their campaign against the Raptors in Toronto on Wednesday.
It's an exciting time to be a Pacers fan, after this rising team of young talents and experienced veterans defied expectations to finish with a 42-24 record last season (equivalent to 52 games in an 82-game season) before pushing the eventual champions Miami Heat to six games in the second round.
During the offseason, they accomplished their two main goals in keeping franchise center Roy Hibbert and the team's starting point guard of the future, George Hill.
They also kept the rest of the starting five in tact, and lucked out when associate head coach Brian Shaw inexplicably failed to land a head coaching jon (again) and decided to stick around for another season.
The Pacers made most of their changes on the bench, essentially swapping former starter Darren Collison and defensive ace Dahntay Jones for Mavs back-up center Ian Mahinmi, who takes over from Lou Amundson (who was not re-signed) in the reserve center position. To account for the gap left by Collison they signed Bobcats starting guard DJ Augustin. They let go of bench scorer Leandro Barbosa, who was a late addition last season, but signed swingman and high-flying dunking machine Gerald Green.
In the draft, they surprised a lot of people by drafting Miles Plumlee, a Jeff Foster clone with an amazing vertical, as well as volume shooter Orlando Johnson.
Rounding out the full 15-man roster was Tyler Hansbrough's brother Ben Hansbrough, a guard, and Sam Young, a defensive-minded small forward who has played sparingly for Philly and Memphis in his last two seasons.
The Pacers depth chart for this season is as follows:
PG: George Hill (starter), DJ Augustin, Ben Hansbrough
SG: Paul George (starter), Lance Stephenson, Orlando Johnson
SF: Danny Granger (stater), Gerald Green, Sam Young
PF: David West (starter), Tyler Hansbrough, Jeff Pendergraph
C: Roy Hibbert (starter), Ian Mahinmi, Miles Plumlee
Of course, this is a full roster of 15 and on most nights the third name in each position won't be getting any minutes. Chances are, coach Frank Vogel will employ a core rotation of 8 to 10 players, with Augustin, Green and Mahinmi being the three key guys off the bench, with Tyler Hansbrough and Stephenson inserted when necessary.
My guess is that we will see a range of different roster combinations, including pairing Augustin and Hill in the backcourt and shifting George to small forward, or Mahinmi playing power forward alongside Hibbert. Granger might also play some minutes at power forward, Green could also play some shooting guard, and Stephenson could see some minutes at the point.
On paper at least, this looks like a very solid lineup that has reasonable depth at every position and players who offer flexibility by being able to play multiple positions.
I am most intrigued by the three new additions off the bench.
Augustin, who recorded 11 and 13 assists in his final two preseason games, will provide the Pacers with a much needed pass-first presence, especially as the team finished 29th in the league in assists last season. As we saw during the playoffs, the second unit was in dire need of someone who could create opportunities for teammates. The first unit actually could have used it at times too.
Gerald Green has proven that he belongs in the NBA and is possibly the league's most dynamic dunker. He also gives the Pacers a legitimate, versatile offensive threat off the bench, someone that can shoot, drive and jump over everyone. Indiana has not had a bench player like him in a very long time.
And Mahinmi has surprised me with his offensive efficiency. He didn't score or rebound much in Dallas, but he has opened a few eyes with a bunch of consistent performances in the preseason. He also provides the Pacers with something they haven't had in a while -- a backup big who isn't undersized, can defend opposing centers and can score in the low post.
While I really did not like losing Collison, it appears the Pacers have done well to address some of the team's most glaring weaknesses this offseason.
I have serious concerns that Granger, the team's leading scorer, is not going to be 100% this season and might miss multiple games because of a nagging knee injury. Recent reports say that Granger remains bothered by the knee and it is not clear whether he might need surgery or if he is expected to make a full recovery with rest. Granger struggled mightily at the start of last season because he wasn't in shape or form, and it looks like that might be the case again this season.
It's a worrying sign and I wouldn't be surprised if the Pacers start shopping him around before the trade deadline in February, especially if Paul George starts taking giant leaps in his game. My prediction is that Granger's shooting percentage will improve (it can't go much lower than last season's 41.6%) but his scoring will dip again, possibly to below 18 points per game. As long as the rest of the team picks up the slack I am not too concerned.
With great money comes great responsibility, and it appears Hibbert has at least addressed those responsibilities off the court. Whether he will produce like a max player on the court remains to be seen, and my guess is it will be unlikely. That's not to undermine Hibbert's importance to the team, because he might very well be the Pacers' most important piece, but as much as he has improved Hibbert is still very much a work in progress.
Hibbert will never suddenly start overpowering opponents like Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum and he will never start popping jumpers over opponents like Dirk Nowitzki, so all I am hoping for this season is a more consistent and focused offensive game, improved fitness and less foul troubles. If Hibbert can do those things I am predicting a solid year for him -- maybe around 14 points and close to 10 rebounds and a couple of blocks a game.
One guy that has slipped under the radar a little is West, who should be a lot more assertive and effective this season as he appears to have finally gotten his legs back completely after ACL surgery. When West enters beast mode this season, look out, because he will start dominating again like the old days. My prediction is that we will see around 15 points per game from him at a very efficient percentage, and there will be games where he will clearly be the team's go to guy.
George is starting to get more and more pressure to play like the star he is supposedly destined to be, and I think that is a good thing. I'm not expecting him to take the jump to the next level all of a sudden, but his improved handles and added experience should allow him to take another solid step forward. George averaged 12.1 points last season and I think anything around 14-16 points per game is a realistic target for him. It's not just scoring though -- I think George will also fill up the stat sheet across the board.
George Hill might potentially be heading into a disappointing season. He is one of my favorite players on the team, but being the Pacers' starting point guard hasn't worked out too well for all those that have tried before him in recent years. Plus he didn't even play a single preseason game with a hip and thumb injury, meaning he might not be in game shape until later into the season. Is it possible that Augustin might do what he did last season and replace him in the starting lineup before the season's over?
I think Hill will have a handful of really excellent games but on the whole his numbers won't be too different from last season. 10-13 points and 3 assists per game might not be too far off.
Is DJ Augustin an upgrade or downgrade from Darren Collison? I'm not sure, but I'm itching to find out. Both are undersized, speedy point guards who can shoot and aren't great defenders, but from what I've seen so far it seems Augustin is a much more willing passer. Did you know Collison only had 3 double-digit assists games all of last season? Well, Augustin had 9, and that was passing to scrubs in Charlotte. I'm looking forward to him changing the dynamics of the secound unit's offense, and helping out the first unit's as well.
I don't expect him to average double digits in points this season, but even as a reserve I believe he should lead the team in assists with an average between 5 to 7 per game.
The thing I am certain of is that the Pacers are going to get a lot more Sportscenter highlights because of Green. I had wanted the Pacers to keep Barbosa for his offense but I am happy they got Green instead. His shooting and his ability to get to the rim with his astounding athleticism makes me suspect that he could be on quite a few Sixth Man of the Year ballots by the end of the year. He should no doubt lead the second unit in scoring and could average anything between 12 and 15 points a game, and potentially higher if he has to fill in for injured starters.
Mahinmi's performance this season will largely depend on the type of minutes he gets. If he can average around 18-20 minutes then I wouldn't be surprised if he can get around 7 or 8 points and 5 or 6 boards a night. However, his scoring is not that important in the scheme of things. My hope for him is to be able to be a presence on defense and potentially form a formidable shot blocking duo with Roy Hibbert when the team needs to lock down.
I really don't care how many points Tyler scores or how many rebounds he grabs this season. He just needs to get his confidence back and continue hustling for every loose ball and rebound. He needs to improve his defense and continue to get under the skin of his opponents. And if he can start hitting that line drive mid-range shot again it would be a huge bonus.
Interesting year for Stephenson. We keep hearing how this guy is a big part of the future of the Pacers and will be getting significant minutes this season, but so far he hasn't proven to me that he deserves the accolades and opportunities. We know he is strong and crafty and has excellent court vision, but it's time for him to finally deliver when it counts. I think he will have his moments this season but I would be very surprised if he suddenly starts putting up big numbers. Is 5 points per game asking for too much or too little? You tell me.
Plumlee has a lot of critics but I guess when you're not expected to do anything you will have opportunities to surprise. I doubt he'll get a lot of burn this season behind the veterans but when he's on the court I think he will be solid. He won't win Rookie of the Year but he won't be the worst first rounder this season either.
Pendergraph is supposedly improved, but I don't think that means much if he's not getting court time. My guess he will still be a strictly garbage time player unless the team is hit by a slew of injuries to its big men.
Memphis fans swear this guy is horrible. If that's true, then I guess it's a good thing he's at the end of the Pacers' bench. At least he is said to be a good defender.
This second rounder is a chucker by most accounts, and I think garbage time will give him ample opportunities to put up a lot of shots. Seriously though, he hasn't shown that his touted shooting can cut it in the NBA yet.
I continue to have a nagging suspicion that the Pacers signed Ben to a non-guaranteed contract to keep is brother Psycho T sane. Ben is the team's third string point guard (fourth if you put Lance Stephenson at the third string) and unless he turns out to be the second coming of Jeremy Lin I doubt he will still be on the team by the end of the season.
Outlook and Prediction
The Pacers have been ranked everything from second to fifth or six in the Eastern Conference, and it's easy to see why. Apart from Miami, a lock for the first seed, a whole bunch of revamped teams are vying for the remaining playoff spots.
There's the new and improved Boston Celtics, which lost Ray Allen by added the likes of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green, as well as former Pacer Leandro Barbosa. There's the new Brooklyn Nets, which added Joe Johnson to its core of (now healthy) Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez. There's the Philadelphia 76ers, which lost Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams but added Andrew Bynum. What about the New York Knicks, which lost Jeremy Lin but added Ray Felton and Jason Kidd? And let's not forget about the Chicago Bulls, which won't have Derrick Rose for half the season but still fields an extremely strong team. The Atlanta Hawks also now have Lou Williams, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris.
Whichever way you look at it, it's not going to be easy for the Pacers to secure that number 2 seed, which absolutely should be one of their goals for the season.
One thing pointed out by a lot of analysts is that the Pacers had an unusually healthy team last season, which certainly helped the team's record in a lockout shortened schedule with multiple back-to-back-to-backs. This season, we already have Danny Granger sporting a knee injury and George Hill battling a hip and and thumb problem. Having lucked out last season, it's not out of realms of possibility that the Pacers could have a few significant injuries this season that could affect where they end up on the standings.
On paper, I can't be certain that the Pacers are a better team this season than last, but I do believe they attempted to address perceived weaknesses without blowing things up.
On the starting lineup, with the exception of Danny Granger (who might be headed for another minor decline), I think it is safe to say that the Pacers will improve at every position. George Hill is only 26 and entering his fifth pro season, while Paul George is only 22 and heading into his third season. Roy Hibbert is still improving and will be working hard to live up to his big contract, while David West should be in much better condition after not having to rehab all summer.
On the bench, DJ Augustin pretty much cancels out Darren Collison but has a higher potential to make his teammates better with his passing. Gerald Green is less experienced than Leandro Barbosa but is a much more explosive and dynamic scorer, a better defender and an overall upgrade in that spot. And Ian Mahinmi is an upgrade on Lou Amundson, that's for sure.
The rest of the bench is more uncertain. Of the guys that might crack the regular rotation, Lance Stephenson is the X-factor. If he starts living up to his so-called potential then he could definitely take the bench squad to another level. Tyler Hansbrough is another guy that can make a difference out of the blue, and he certainly can't play worse than he did last season.
But as often is the case with teams that sort of overachieved in the previous season, the Pacers are potentially due for a letdown. They played hard last season but now they might feel too happy with themselves and start getting complacent against weaker teams. Their opponents will no longer overlook them either. In this full 82-game season, the Pacers could win anything between 45 and 55 games, and much of where they end up on this spectrum will depend on health, the chemistry of the new additions and the development of Roy Hibbert and Paul George.
My personal tendency is to be conservative so I can be pleasantly surprised. Accordingly, my prediction for the Pacers in 2012-2013 is a 51-31 record and the third seed in the East.