And just like that, the Indiana Pacers' 2012-2013 NBA season is over.
Right now it hurts. Of course it does. Even though no one expected them to push the defending champs this far, losing game 7 in a blowout that wasn't even close after half time has to be demoralizing. The final score, 99-76, showed that the Pacers still have a lot of work to do if they want to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000. Right now the Heat just have that extra gear -- at both ends of the floor -- that the Pacers don't have. Yet.
(What annoys me, however, is the credit that still eludes the Pacers. When the Pacers win, it's because the Heat are playing poorly. When the Pacers lose, it's because the Heat are too good. How about recognizing, matchup advantages notwithstanding, that the Pacers are just really really good?)
(Another note. Stop saying the Pacers would have won the series had coach Frank Vogel kept Roy Hibbert in the game on the final possession of game 1, which LeBron won at the buzzer by blowing by Paul George to score with a left handed layup. Unless you can prove that the rest of the series would have been played exactly the same way by both teams, down to every single possession, then don't make such stupid and pointless assertions. It might shock some people to know that teams make adjustments in the playoffs.)
A surprisingly successful year
But in disappointment lies promise. Two years ago, the Pacers, as the number 8 seed, pushed the top seed Chicago Bulls to a tight 5 game series in the first round. Last year, they made it to the second round, gaining a 2-1 advantage against the Heat, the eventual champions, before losing in 6. This year, they took another step forward in winning 2 series and making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, arguably outplaying Miami for more quarters overall before succumbing in 7.
Who would have thought this was possible at the start of the season? Let's see. Their leading scorer and best player, Danny Granger, was ruled out for months before the opening game. He came back for 5 ineffective games before being shut down for the rest of the season.
Paul George, entering his third season, was supposed to rise to the challenge. He tried to do too much early and crumbled under the pressure. He averaged around 14 points and shot less than 40% through December.
Roy Hibbert, fresh off a max contract, was dreadful to start the season. We found out later that he was nursing a nagging wrist injury that didn't fully recover until well into the second half of the season. He didn't even average double figures for a full month until February, and as a 7'2" center, somehow shot around 40%.
And Lance Stephenson, who had played sparingly in his first two seasons and was almost cut several times for off court and locker room incidents, was suddenly thrust into the starting lineup.
Lastly, the touted bench acquisitions during the offseason were not paying off. DJ Augustin was so appalling that he was replaced by Ben Hansbrough! Ian Mahinmi looked lost, and Gerald Green had no idea what he was doing. The Pacers were forced to play Ben Hansbrough, Sam Young and Jeff Pendergraph. That's how bad it was.
Despite how grim the season looked at times, the Pacers were sporadic enough offensively, and good enough defensively -- according to advanced stat analysis they were one of the top defensive teams in the history of the league this season -- to somehow grab the third seed in the East. They would dispatch the Atlanta Hawks in 6, and then upset the favored New York Knicks, also in 6 but without homecourt advantage. They were heavy underdogs against the Heat, whom most picked in 5 or 6 games, but pushed them to 7, with many suggesting that the Pacers could pull off the impossible.
The future is bright. The team will get better.
First of all, I am confident that Paul George -- who captured the Most Improved Player Award and was named a first-time All Star and made the All-NBA Third Team this year -- will take another leap in his game next season. He has arguably already become a two-way superstar in this league, but he will have to continue to polish his offensive game in the offseason to become the guy the Pacers need most -- the guy who can take over the game and get them buckets when the team is struggling. PG24 averaged 19.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game on 43% shooting this postseason (along with 3.9 turnovers), up from his regular season averages of 17.4, 7.6 and 4.1. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect him to average 20, 7 and 5 next season, but I think the main focus should be on increasing his shooting percentage (to 44% or above) and cutting down the turnovers (to 2.5 or less). It's scary to be reminded that George just turned 23 and will be entering just his fourth season in October. He is the future of the franchise.
Secondly, Roy Hibbert has established himself as one of the premier rim defenders in the league. It looks like after years of being either too high or too low, Hibbert's mental state is finally stable enough for him to be a force on the defensive end every night. And as he showed in the Miami series, given the right matchups, he can also be an effective offensive threat. Do people realize that Hibbert averaged a staggering 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds on 56% shooting against the Heat? For the postseason, his averages were a little more modest (17, 9.9, 51%), but still gaudy compared to his regular season numbers of 11.9, 8.3 and 45%. If Hibbert can channel his postseason self for all of the regular season, expect 2013-2014 to be a big one for the big fella. 15, 10 and 50% shouldn't be asking for too much -- oh, and a serious run at the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Roy's only 26 and is entering his prime.
Thirdly, George Hill, who is 27 and also entering his prime. He's had good and bad moments this year because he's still learning how to be a proper point guard in this league. All things considered, including that this was his first year as a full-time starting PG, Hill did exceptionally well, averaging a career-high 14.2 points and 4.7 assists on 44% shooting from the field and a respectable 37% from beyond the arc. He was also the Pacers' closer in many big games, either hitting the big shot or knocking down clutch free throws. I don't expect his numbers to change much next season, but I do expect his decision-making and consistency to improve as he takes another step towards becoming an elite PG in the NBA. Being able to deal with the kind of trapping and pressure defense Miami was throwing at him will be key.
Fourthly, the X-Factor, Lance Stephenson, who has gone from one of the most reviled players in the NBA to its newest darling. The close-out game against the Knicks was one heck of a coming out party and just a glimpse of what he's capable of when he remains focused and aggressive. Stephenson averaged 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists this season, not flashy but solid for the fifth option in the starting lineup. In the postseason, he had 9.4, 7.6 and 3.3, but his shooting percentage was down to 41%. Next season, I expect Lance to take on a bigger role. He's the most gifted passer on the team and is virtually unstoppable when he takes charge on the break. We've all heard of the mini-LeBron comparisons in that regard. Like George Hill, consistency and better decision-making are the areas he has to focus on.
The core of the Pacers would not be in tact without David West, the heart and soul of the team. The Pacers' rock. West has almost single-handed changed the culture of the locker room. Now all we hear about is this team being professional and loving one another. The phrase "there are no egos" gets thrown around a lot. Each player apparently interacts with every other player on the team every day. West has to take credit for a lot of that. He had to shoulder the load early in the season while Paul George found his feet, and coupled with an injury late in the season, he was perhaps not as effective as he could have been in the playoffs. Still, he was the team's most consistent player and the most sure thing when the team needed a basket.
Now West is heading into the offseason as a highly coveted free agent, having shown that he can still produce at a high level 2 years removed from ACL surgery. He made $10 million a year for the last 2 years and probably deserves a pay rise. Except the Pacers might not be able to afford paying him based on how much he means to the team. On the bright side, West has insisted that he intends on staying.
"I can't see myself going anywhere else," he said in a recent interview, adding that the players on this Pacers team are "my guys."
The Pacers can probably offer him somewhere in the $10-12 million range, maybe more, depending on other movements, including the one with a big question mark hovering over it (which I will get to in a minute).
So allow me to breathe a sigh of relief. As good as Paul George is becoming and will become, and as lovable as Roy Hibbert is, David West is still my favorite Pacer on this team. The dude is just a beast. "And one!"
As for the bench...well, it's not as bad is it has looked at one time during the season, but it's also not exactly making me want to break into a tap dance. The DJ Augustin experiment has had some up and downs, to put it nicely. He has gone from possibly the worst PG in the entire league to a guy who can hit the open 3 and not stuff up too badly in other departments. Is that good enough for a contending team? Er...no. Is it possible he will rededicate himself in the offseason and come back stronger than ever? Possible, but unlikely. His ceiling is painfully limited. To be honest I can't see the Pacers re-signing him.
Ian Mahinmi, on the other hand, has established himself as an upgrade over whomever the Pacers had before him in the backup center role. His spot should be safe. He's serviceable, and that's good enough.
Tyler Hansbrough is a restricted free agent, and I am still scratching my head over whether the Pacers should or want to keep him. He can be great, he can be terrible, and his style is always ugly to watch. His previously reliable mid-range jumper and free throw shooting appear to have disappeared. The guy is a psycho, and that can be good or bad for the team. He's one of those wild cards that can swing the game one way or the other. Your guess is as good as mine. He made just over $3 million this season and would earn $4.1 million next season if the Pacers keep him.
Gerald Green...sigh. Nice hops, great dunks, sporadic 3-point shooting, below average defense, and frequently lost in the headlights. There is a reason why Green, who is owned $3.5 million for each of the next 2 years, was pulled out of the rotation completely. He stinks. Could he improve to become a contributor? Maybe. But I'm not holding my breath.
Jeff Pendergraph, Orlando Johnson and Sam Young (forget about Ben Hansbrough) are guys you don't mind having on your team but you would trade in a heartbeat if something better was available. Let's be honest about that. All of them have shown glimpses of promise, and they ARE cheap. Pendy is a restricted free agent and Young is a free agent. Johnson is owed just under $800,000 next season. My guess is the Pacers will look for alternatives before committing to Pendy and Young. Baby Hansbrough will be let go because he's not really good enough to be a third-string PG in this league.
The Granger question
The Pacers have indicated that they would like Danny Granger back. But the problems still remain. First of all, will he ever be the same? His numbers have slipped every year for the last 3 years, and his knee is stil an unknown factor. He has a valuable expiring contract worth $14 million, and a shooter's services are always in demand.
The Pacers can afford to keep both West and Granger, but they need to do some tweaking, and it will limit their flexibility in the future because of big contracts already handed out to Hibbert and Hill.
The question is -- should they trade Granger for more flexibility and to upgrade the bench? The starting 5, which will only improve, is already one of the best in the league. Depth is what they lack. If Granger can be flipped into a few solid pieces on the bench, is that worth it? Or do the keep him and hope his health holds up? What sort of production can be expected from him? And what will be his role if he stays? Will he come off the bench? Will he replace Lance in the starting lineup and move Paul to the shooting guard spot? The decision will have ripple effects either way. We've already seen that Lance is better with the starting unit and Paul is better as a small forward. Keeping him will complicate things, but it will also make the Pacers instantly better. I suppose it's up to the decision-makers to come up with a viable solution.
Brian Shaw is as good as gone
An underrated presence on this Pacers squad is associate head coach Brian Shaw. His services are in demand and he has longed to be a head coach in the league. I hear the Brooklyn Nets are taking a long hard look at him. He was supposed to be gone after last season, so having him around this season is really just a bonus. Shaw deserves a head coaching gig in the NBA and I can't see him not getting it this offseason. He will be missed. The young guys owe him a lot.
Provided they remain healthy and improve the bench, there's no reason why the Pacers can't return to the Conference Finals again next season. Miami is getting older and D-Wade's body is breaking down, so you never know if the two teams meet up again.
On the other hand, the Pacers can't just keep their eyes on the Heat. Derrick Rose will be back and that might give them an instant edge over the Pacers. Brooklyn and New York are still huge threats. Atlanta could get Dwight Howard or CP3 or both. It's going to be wild, and I can't wait.