Once again, Indy Cornrows is pleased to participate in the 2009-10 NBA blogger previews orgainzed by Jeff Clark at Celtics Blog.
Team Name: Indiana Pacers
Last Years Record: 36-46
1.What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Get your programs, people.
After the 2007-08 season, the Indiana Pacers used the draft and a couple of trades to bring in seven new players and begin overhauling the roster in the post-Jermaine O'Neal contract era. Beggars can't be choosers, so the moves two summers ago were more about the players leaving the roster than the players joining the roster. But those moves made the salary cap more manageable and allowed Larry Bird and David Morway to make a few more moves this past summer to address the team's defensive deficiencies.
Since the salary cap remains an issue for at least two more years, the Pacers' decisions weren't solely based on basketball but more on the bottom line. The team let Marquis Daniels and his $7.5 million team option go and were unable to match Toronto's free agent offer for Jarrett Jack. The Pacers also preferred to use Rasho Nesterovic's expiring contract space instead of spending the money re-sign the veteran big man. Sparsely used free agents, Stephen Graham and Maceo Baston were also let go to find another team.
With six open slots on the roster, the Pacers went bargain shopping to fill specific needs without taking the team's cap number over the lowered luxury tax threshhold. To bolster the team's perimeter defense and backcourt options the Pacers signed Dahntay Jones to a four-year contract and agreed to a couple of one-year deals with Earl Watson and Luther Head. To fill a frontcourt need, center Solomon Jones signed a two-year free agent deal with the Pacers. Jones was seldom used in Atlanta but is a young player who has shown plenty of upside in early preseason action.
The Pacers used the draft to select Tyler Hansbrough fresh off a national championship at North Carolina. Hansbrough performed well in summer league games but a shin injury has kept him from testing his game against an NBA lineup. He is not expected to return to action until the end of October.
In the second round, the Pacers took UConn point guard, A.J. Price who had a successful college career but came out of the draft with questions about his shooting ability and athleticism. So far, he's shown plenty of NBA ability and looks real comfortable on the floor for a rookie. The Pacers don't expect much from Price this year and instead look to him as a point guard for the future, but he appears ready to go should the opportunity present itself in his rookie year.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
The Pacers biggest strenghts remain their ability to push the pace and score lots of points. Last season they beat every top team in the league thanks to their ability to run, knock down threes and score in bunches. When things are clicking the Pacers can wear down an opponent, any opponent, and give themselves a chance win.
Consistent offensive output from Danny Granger and Troy Murphy are the basis for any offensive success the Pacers achieve. When supplemented by some combination of T.J. Ford, Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers will have enough points to win any game this year. The more consistent production they can get from these three players the more W's they'll accrue. Hibbert's development is especially important since he's shown the ability to score in the low post if he can just avoid foul trouble and stay on the court long enough to get the requisite touches.
The Pacers depth could be a surprise strength this year if Mike Dunleavy and Tyler Hansbrough can return healthy and ready to play. With Earl Watson, Dhantay Jones and Jeff Foster in the mix, Jim O'Brien has ten players capable of contributing minutes with a variety of skill sets to allow the coach the flexibility to match up better with other teams. It also gives the Pacers a chance to keep fresh bodies on the floor to keep the pace fast and help wear down opposing lineups.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Defense and backcourt consistency are two weaknesses the Pacers hope to improve on this year. Earl Watson, Dahntay Jones and Solomon Jones have already shown they will bolster the defensive end which should show vast improvement from last year.
Still, mixing and matching all of the new faces and integrating them into a team defensive scheme could take some time to see positive results. Increased ball pressure is the goal, but until we see this team consistently prove they can make a positive impact at the defensive end it will remain a weakness. Foul and free throw attempt differentials were a glaring problem in losses last year and improving the defense is the only way to turn those numbers around.
As for the backcourt, T.J. Ford will begin the season running the team at point guard, with Earl Watson and Travis Diener coming off the bench. Watson has played some two guard in the preseason, ala Jarrett Jack which will likely happen during the season when JOB goes with a small lineup. These guys have to tighten up the decision-making and turnovers which may be wishful thinking.
Jim O'Brien prefers passing to dribbling which was a shock to Ford's system last year. He did finish last season well coming off the bench and appeared to be moving in the right direction. If he improves in one area let that be the blind pass for a turnover. Often times, Ford takes the ball in the lane knowing Murphy, Rush and/or Granger are set up behind the arc should the defense rotate to stop him. Unfortunately, he'll jump to turn around and kick the ball out, but if a defender has the shooter covered the ball goes the other way. Regardless of the team's desired pace, there are times Ford would be better served to slow down his game a notch to remain in control, not to mention in possession of the ball.
4. What are the goals for this team?
After back-to-back 36 win seasons, the Pacers are looking to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. That's the goal this team talks about at every opportunity and when you look at all of the close games the team dropped last year it doesn't take long to find a few more wins which would've put them in the playoffs.
Only problem is that there are several more teams in the mix in the Eastern Conference this year. Once you skim the cream off the top you could make the case that every team in the EC could make the playoffs if they stay healthy and play well. That alone exposes a mediocre middle of the conference, but the opportunity is there. Some teams don't necessarily have to stay healthy nor play exceedingly well, but the Pacers are one of the teams that will indeed need good health and must come together to play better than the sum of their parts in order to make the playoffs.
5. Can the Pacers stay healthy enough to give themselves a chance this year?
Mike Dunleavy hopes to return to the court after fixing a knee that kept him out for the bulk of last season. Just when he returns and how long before he's playing at full throttle remain up in the air. The season will play out quite differently if Dunleavy can play even 50 games.
Tyler Hansbrough isn't expected to have a big role on the team this year as he works his way through his rookie season, but he definitely needs to play. Considering a shin injury has him on the shelf until the season starts, it's reasonable to assume Hansbrough won't be playing much if at all over the first few weeks of the season.
These are two known injury issues that, if they improve, will be a boon for the Pacers. But there are always other injuries throughout a season and dealing with those injuries will make or break the Pacers this year. T.J. Ford is always considered an injury risk because of past neck issues. The neck wasn't a problem last year and he appears healthy and ready to roll this year, but with a slight build, taking his share of hits while racing into the lane keeps him on the injury watch list.
Finally, Danny Granger had a minor knee issue over the summer and missed a few games last year, so any game DG misses is tough for the Pacers to overcome. At full strength, this team has the right combinations to make a run at the playoffs, but the margin of error is slight so maintaining their health is critical. Hopefully, the team can avoid the "flu-like symptoms" that wiped out nearly everyone for a few games last season.
Predicted Record: Easy to speculate on a broad range for the Pacers' win total. If the team stays healthy and the defense improves even a little, a win total in the mid-40s is possible. On the other hand, if injuries and familiarity prove to be too much to overcome the wins could easily dip into the lower 30s. Taking these scenarios into account, I'll split the difference: 40-42