[From the FanPosts, @Pacers_Chants offers up his review of the regular season as seen from Area 55. - TL]
They say everything’s (BIG)ger in Texas. Read the papers lately? Yesterday’s Indianapolis Star indicated the governor from this little, ‘ole lovable Hoosier state will run for president of the whole, entire country. So as the Pacers try to pull off the (BIG)gest first-round upset in NBA playoff history, why settle for less? As usual, the Association did not disappoint, and the theme here is more review, more memories, more perspective, and more numbers. Enjoy this rather large, immense, and rotund 2010-2011 Indiana Pacers Season in Review.
Final Record: 37-45 (16-25 first half, 21-20 second half)
(BIG) Grade ... B-
More than any other Pacer team of the last six years, this group is exactly what its record says it is. No major injuries or suspensions disrupted the '10-'11 season. That is peace of mind for fans irritated by the injury list constantly muddying a true evaluation. On the other hand, reality hurts, because 37-45 is not good. In the Western Conference, the eighth seed went 46-36, nine games better. In a broader context, the Pacers are not great and not awful - just about smack in the middle. But they need a lot more talent. And an identity. Think hard. How would you describe the Pacers under Frank Vogel? An offensive team? A defensive team? A rugged, physical, half-court unit? An up-tempo, dribble drive, finesse club? Jump shooters? Back-to-the basket, inside-out? Give me a score. What does the ideal Pacers win look like? 112-100? 94-90? What plays does Indiana run when it absolutely needs a bucket? Which players offer consistent production night-in and night-out? Hint: there are no right answers to these questions. The Pacers don't know who they are anymore than a casual observer does.
In the first few months, defense was the team's identity. The players knew it. The coach knew it. That was the story. But the offense was losing games, and both O'Brien and then Vogel focused more on that end of the court. They let up their demand for defense, and the players relaxed their focus, too, until, eventually, both sides of the ball became average, and Indiana's chances of winning became dependent on both the offense and the defense being at least average on the same night.
You may recall Larry Bird, Herb Simon, and Jim O'Brien kicked off training camp selling a win-now philosophy. Certainly, the playoffs were a goal, and eventually an expectation, and an ambition that, regardless of circumstances, was realized. However, the eighth seed doesn't make the season a blanket success. Coaches don't get fired if things are all peachy-dreamy, and the organization still has much work to do. Bird and the front office couldn't capitalize on about $28 million worth of expiring contracts at the February trading deadline, a setback for the franchise's long-term future. True, it means the Pacers have cap space, but on whom will they use it? Big-name free agents aren't likely to sign here, even if Indiana does become a regular playoff team as it was in the 1990s. And as much value as expiring deals have to other teams trying to clear salary, they're a huge asset in the NBA and a way for small-market teams to obtain talent in a trade as opposed to free agency. Now, whoever's in charge this summer, Bird or David Morway or a new GM, should probably just save Indy's cap room and try to trade a few young players for an established star. The Hawks could make Josh Smith available. Whatever the plan, the Pacers need to be creative and bold without overpaying (and overrating) their own players.
Indiana turned heads around the league with a 9-7 start out of the gates and then did one better by opening the second half of the season with a 10-6 hot spell. Those two streaks of solid basketball propelled the Pacers to a playoff berth. In all other games, the team went just 18-32 (.360).
With 12 seconds left, a funny thing happened on the way to Kobe Bryant draining a cold-blooded (Jim Durham voice) three. The Pacers, on Sunday night, November 28, were winning 95-92 across the country at the Staples Center while Indianapolis watched the injury-riddled Colts get smashed in the mouth by the Chargers. Just as people finally decided to change the channel, it seemed one of the greatest players of all-time was about to erase the last of what had been a 15-point Pacer lead. Roy Hibbert's heart sank. The Lakers got Kobe an open look. But, soft! Bryant missed. Ron Artest rebounded. Big Roy's heart sank again. Back to Kobe, who threw up a final, long prayer that didn't hit rim. The Pacers, slayers of the world champs, leapt with joy and hugged their teammates and coaches. Afterward, following what should go down as the best game of his career to date (24 points, 12 rebounds, six assists), Hibbert said, "We can play with anybody. In the future, we don't want this to be a surprise."
Head coach Jim O'Brien got the pink slip on a Sunday morning after the team returned from a tough loss the previous night (Jan. 29) in Chicago. The score was lopsided, although the Pacers had only trailed by five after three quarters. Nonetheless, O'Brien's ejection at the United Center summed up the frustration held by fans, coaches, and players, and the former Celtics and 76ers head man was gone after three and a half seasons in Indiana. This spring, once the playoffs are complete, Pacers brass will look for a replacement. That choice will define the direction of the team for (ideally, if everything goes right) the next six or seven years. Proven winners in the Eastern Conference are available in Lawrence Frank, Mike Brown, and Mike Woodson. Vogel's done okay, but the stench of Milwaukee and Charlotte was probably more responsible for the playoff berth than Vogel's coaching. The players praised him, but Marc Stein reports Frank is a real long shot to hang around. This next hire is important for the development of this young team. The Pacers need to get it right.
Indiana finished dead last in attendance this year. An average of just 13,538 fans saw a Pacers home game at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pacers also had the worst cumulative attendance in the NBA (555,077). Indy had finished 27th and 28th in '09-'10 and '08-'09, respectively, drawing an average of over 14,000 fans in each season. So although the team improved, fan turnout went in the opposite direction. Sugarcoating the situation won't do any good. Hoosiers just need to come out and see a team that's fun to watch and deserves their support. It's uncertain how quickly the attendance problem can reverse itself, but for the sake of team revenue, it better happen fast.
Indiana went five years and four seasons without participating in a playoff series. That drought ends Saturday afternoon in the Windy City.
(BIG) Roster Rundown
Danny Granger – 20.5 ppg, 5.4 rbg, 2.6 apg
Let’s see: still Indiana’s best player. Contract extension in hand (more reasonable from the team’s perspective than J.O.’s). Newly married. Finally got to play with a point guard who can beat you off the dribble. Missed two measly games all year not counting the meaningless finale (20 last season, 15 in ’08-’09). No significant injury. At age 27, in his sixth season, right in the prime of his career.
For Danny, it all added up to … his lowest field goal percentage (42.5) as a professional? A continued decline in scoring? "All-Star afterthought" status? An inability to take over down the stretch? Occasional shutdowns by top defensive small forwards (Iguodala, Kirilenko, Deng, Prince)?
Mystifying, to say the least. His season was far from great. Perhaps the Team USA experience messed with Granger’s head. Or did it wear on his legs? Has all the losing drained him mentally? Is there a physical ailment the team kept hidden? One thing’s for sure. Fans can’t fall back on the old tried and true "Jacks Up Too Many Threes" argument. Granger took two fewer threes a game in 2010-’11 than he had averaged the past two seasons. Also noteworthy is that his overall field goal attempts fell by about the same amount. At the season’s midway point, the team’s offense was horrible, so it’s hard to chalk that up to new and improved additional scoring options. Danny still needed to take shots. He just chose not to shoot as many.
According to 82games.com, Granger averaged 26 points per 48 minutes of clutch time, which sounds great until you realize that Darren Collision did two points better. And until you notice that Danny shot 32 percent in those situations (4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes to play, no more than a 5-point lead either way). So, certainly, the notion that Granger isn’t reliable down the stretch held true this year, although from a career perspective it’s less valid (34 pts per 48 min, 40% shooting in clutch in ‘08-’09). But the bottom line is you want your best guy to own the end of every game. Granger hasn’t yet learned how, and he definitely wasn’t going to learn from James Posey or Jeff Foster, unfortunately.
The best thing the Pacers can do is bring in a veteran who’s been in Granger’s position as the face of a franchise, for his sake and the locker room’s. Danny is a bit too goofy and reserved to be a Garnett-‘esque leader. Maybe if the Pacers can delegate that responsibility, Granger will feel less pressure. Decline and all, only three small forwards scored more (‘Melo, LeBron, and Durant), and the team needs to continue to appreciate Granger’s loyalty. He never complains. Indiana was extremely lucky to find him in the draft. He’s a great person. It’s just that this season more than ever has proven how much the Pacers desperately need another star player.
Tyler Hansbrough – 11.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg
Tempting to wonder how many more games the Pacers would’ve won had Hansbrough started from Day 1, isn’t it? He should have. That mid-range jumper was no new development. Anyone who watched Tyler’s 29 games as a rookie and/or his decorated career at North Carolina (where he became the ACC’s all-time leading scorer: chew on that) knew he could shoot it. And once Psycho-T joined Collison and Granger in the first five, Indiana’s offense opened up. Driving lanes for Darren. Spot-ups on the wing for Danny. Room in the paint for Roy Hibbert. Hansbrough was like a tight end finding an opening in the middle of a zone defense, or in this sport, the space around the free-throw line. For a stretch in March, Hansbrough carried the whole team. As the season went along, he developed more and more post moves and strength around the rim and blossomed into a member of the Pacers’ core. And of all their core players, his field goal percentage won out (47 percent).
Long-term, Hansbrough’s more of an ideal sixth-man. He’s not nearly as big or as fast as the best power forwards in the league. It’s an open question as to whether Indiana can find a new starter in time for next season. In the meantime, we can celebrate the fact that that often-doubted, often-derided No.13 draft pick is turning into someone who’ll be in the NBA a long, long time
Roy Hibbert – 12.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.75 bpg
A season on the roller coaster may or may not have hit a valley in which Roy saw a sports psychologist (planned to, never confirmed it). After four years at Georgetown and three years as a pro, the 7’2 Hibbert is still wavering between hitting his peak and becoming a polished product. The best thing about Roy’s 2010-’11? Rebounding. Boards. He became much better, as a center, at doing what centers must do, adding about two rebounds to his nightly average. His defensive rebound percentage rose big time (from 15.5 to 21.0). Granted, is 8 rebounds a night going to lead the league? Of course not. But it’s at least sufficient.
In an era when the center position is so diverse (Andrea Bargnani, Channing Frye, and David Lee wouldn’t have lasted a quarter in the ‘90s), Hibbert is actually one of the best pure, low-post scorers. He ranked ninth overall among centers who qualified. On the other end, Roy’s a great shot blocker (142, 8th in the NBA). You’ll remember the Most Improved talk and the nasty winter slump, followed by a steady spring, but this season will leave an impression that Hibbert improved over where he was in his second year. Curiously, several key advanced metrics (PER, true shooting percentage, turnover percentage, and Win Shares) showed either no progress or a decline. If Hibbert’s reached his peak, he’s a solid but not great contributor who you probably want as your fourth-best player on a title team. End on this: great teammate, supportive, and a hard worker. Those attributes always count.
Paul George – 7.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.02 spg
Who knew Fresno State spit out NBA-ready swingmen? From that first game in Charlotte, George proved transition periods were for suckers and heralded youth royalty like Xavier Henry. Paul was never afraid to shoot, 3’s in particular (even when he rarely hit them), but he showed an NBA body that Gordon Hayward didn’t have and an athleticism that Top-5 picks Evan Turner and Wesley Johnson never will. Safe to say, Paul’s a keeper. Vogel made him a starter when Rush and Dunleavy were both injured, then erroneously left him in that role once they returned. George struggled against the opposition’s first unit. But that has nothing to do with talent. Paul’s loaded. Shooting, driving, rebounding, passing. He has a wingspan to bother shooters. If the eye test is any indication, Bird hit a hommmmmerun (Reb Porter voice). None other than Reggie Miller said Paul George is a future All-Star. We didn’t see it coming, until we did.
Darren Collison – 13.2 ppg, 5.1 apg, 2.8 rpg, 1.1spg
Not convinced DC’s been a disappointment in Indiana? (Warning: the following information may cause uncontrolled sobbing, nausea, and irrational dreams of selling the farm for a soon-to-be-available-in-a-trade Steve Nash.) Okay, ready? Here goes: Collison ranked 23rd among point guards in assists, right behind Luke Ridnour and Ramon Sessions and just ahead of Jordan Farmar and Beno Udrih. (Pause while you reach for Kleenex). Sucker punch, numero dos. Darren finished 50th in the NBA and 39th among point guards in assist-to-turnover ratio, behind former Pacers Jarrett Jack and Earl Watson, for those of you documenting team history.
For the umpteenth time, it must be noted that Collison raised expectations by averaging 19 points and 9 assists in 37 games he started as a rookie for a team that didn’t even have enough talent to make the playoffs. What Darren did in New Orleans he couldn’t come close to replicating in 79 starts for Indiana. Sure, for the price of a player we weren’t going to re-sign anyway, the Collison trade still looks great. The Pacers got a 23-year-old point guard without giving any up any relevant long-term asset. Collison’s contract is dirt cheap at $2.3 million and $3.3 million for the next two seasons. But if Darren doesn’t become what many expected – a player to finally create easy baskets for other Pacers – then Indiana might not resign him in 2014. Silver lining before we move on: Collison showed a total lack of fear for taking the big shot. At Golden State in March, DC made a driving layup, got fouled, and hit the free throw for a three-point play to tie the game at 108 with 18 seconds left. He shot 45 percent in the clutch this season.
Jeff Foster – 3.3 ppg, 6.3 rbg
The career-Pacer and free-agent-to-be had but one flare-up in his previously problematic back, a good sign for the health of a 34-year-old center. Foster was reduced to 17 minutes per game, or about seven fewer than he had averaged over the preceding seven years, so that may’ve helped. Hopefully, he and the front office can work out a deal. Even though our lasting image of Foster from ’10-‘11 will be him not jumping to try to deflect Andrew Bogut’s game-winning tip-in, Jeff’s effort can never be questioned, even when his diminished athletic movement can. Besides, the other images – of Foster swaying back and forth like a caged tiger during a lengthy national anthem, or of the 11-year vet pumping that stationary bike to unleash energy in between stints on the court – embody what Pacers fans love about No. 10. He has an unbreakable will to compete, and besides, how many backup centers are available with his talent for rebounding
Mike Dunleavy – 11.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.7 apg
Hard to believe the following: a) he’s only 30 years old, and b) he was a top-5 pick in the 2002 draft. Nonetheless, Mike started 44 games this year (15 more than the last two seasons combined) and avoided more knee problems, though his broken left thumb did stand as Indiana’s only significant injury in a fortuitous season. Of course, a fractured finger is more of a fluke than a sign of aging, and Dunleavy probably has several good years left in him. Just don’t expect them to be in Indianapolis. Since coming over in the Stephen Jackson trade in 2007, Mike’s been a low-maintenance player, solid citizen, and three-point marksman (40 percent this year, 42 percent in ’07-’08). But with Dahntay Jones under contract for two more years, Rush signed, and Paul George a likely starter on Opening Night next fall, space is limited at shooting guard. Dunleavy’s a free agent at the wrong time. Pacers should thank him for his contribution and move on
Brandon Rush— 9.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg
To recap: a five-game suspension at the beginning for three positive drug tests, 10 straight missed games in February with a sprained right ankle, and nearly a new address in New Orleans before a trade fell apart at the deadline for a second consecutive year. Yes, it was a busy season for Rush. Unfortunately, he needed to do more on the court. Anytime a 25-year-old former lottery pick only starts 21 of the 66 games in which he appears in his third season, you understand his career might not be on a Hall of Fame path. Rush cut to the basket for a dunk that turned a one-point loss into a one-point win at home versus Detroit, but what else did he leave us with? An appearance in Josh McRoberts’ "White Men Can’t Jump" video? Rush is a niche player at this point. He’s a 6’6 guard and a career 40 percent three-point shooter, so a team such as Memphis, Miami, or Oklahoma City that needs help from the outside will have a roster spot ready. But with the Pacers, sadly, Brandon’s mostly an afterthought
Josh McRoberts – 7.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.1 apg
For the first time in his professional career, McRoberts truly demonstrated that he deserved to be a regular part of a rotation. After a breakout season with 18 games in double figures, whether it’s here or elsewhere, Josh is going to get a nice raise (remember, this is a league where even Johan Petro gets paid in free agency). He was miscast as a starter early on by Jim O’Brien, got benched, then stepped in again while Tyler handled an illness, remained a starter under Vogel for a few more weeks, and then was finally sent to the bench a second time in March. You don’t mind Josh McRoberts as your backup forward; a perfect energy man on the second unit. Just remember his two proven limitations: a) cannot create his own shot and b) is a train-wreck trying to post up. Don’t expect that out of your 4-man, and McRoberts can wow the fans with a dunk show. Gut feeling is McRoberts won’t be a Pacer next year, because if Hansbrough’s ultimate destination is a sixth-man role, there isn’t space for both of them. But at the right price, and if David West can’t be signed, Josh could return
A.J. Price – 6.5 ppg, 2.2 apg
Perhaps the karma of Price’s victorious UConn Huskies will rub off on the Pacers’ playoff run. Although, let’s hope A.J. doesn’t shoot 12 times in five minutes trying to find out. Backup point guard was one of the Pacers’ most ineffective positions this year, and when Price got the job just before O’Brien’s firing in January, it got worse. First off, according to 82games.com, 93 percent of Juice’s attempts were jump shots. Price couldn’t drive to the rim if the officials put him in a military tank and sent two defenders to a hockey-style penalty box. Now, the really bad news. Drum roll please. (Louder! This is important!) Price averaged 14.6 field goal attempts per 36 minutes of playing time. That was … maybe ninth on the team? Eighth on the team? No, second among all Indiana Pacers, behind Danny Granger at 16.4 shots! Okay, Price loves to shoot, you say. So what? He’s probably good at it. Um, not so. A.J. hit just 35.6 percent from the field and a miserable 27.5 percent of his three’s. Lot of misfires, and neither is passing his forte. A.J.’s easy to like as a person, but Frank Vogel can’t possibly still believe Juice is good enough to be a starter in the NBA. The Pacers could use an upgrade in just the backup role over the trigger-happy Price.
Dahntay Jones – 6.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg
Dahntay was on TV in a suit in 2010 more often than that graybeard who hawks them for Men’s Wearhouse. Jim O’Brien didn’t like the way Jones looked, and certainly didn’t guarantee any playing time. So a rare free agent splurge went unused until Rush’s injury and a coaching change opened the door in early February. Jones played well when given the chance. Aside from his usual tough perimeter defense, Dahntay’s true shooting percentage (.558) and PER (13.7) were the best of his career. A new coach figures to make Jones a regular reserve next year.
James Posey – 4.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg
After spending the previous two years in New Orleans, Posey came over as a throw-in to the Darren Collison trade. At age 34, his three-point shooting (literally his only offensive skill) declined for the third consecutive season. O’Brien used JP as a backup power forward -- a position the veteran had not played in the NBA -- to little effect. Posey had three big efforts (19 points at home against Houston, 15 points at home against the Hornets, and 12 points at home against the Clippers) while being essentially useless the rest of the time, as a 7.5 PER would suggest. Expect Posey to ride the pine in the final year of his contract next season.
Solomon Jones – 3.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg
Solo played in fewer than half of the Pacers’ games and continues to be little more than a warm body. At 26 years old and a veteran of five seasons, Jones isn’t getting any better. He’s a free agent this summer, and his resume should probably read, "I’m 6’10. You can’t teach height!"
T.J. Ford – 5.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.0 rpg
He played hard as Indiana’s backup point guard for the first 38 games before O’Brien benched him Jan. 19 amidst a shooting slump. As usual, T.J. made do. Reporters, coaches, general managers, and the team president all attest to Ford’s professionalism and spill the praise, so he must be a pretty good person. He never really fit here despite being the key piece in the Jermaine O’Neal trade. A lot of fans were irritated by his tendency to dominate the ball and over-dribble. Whatever the case, Ford’s time is just about up. His $8.5 million salary this season will be his last in Indiana and opens some cap room.
Lance Stephenson – 3.1 ppg, 1.8 apg, 1.5 rpg
The ex-Cincinnati Bearcat came out of an impressive summer league run with an ugly off-the-court incident in which he was accused of pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. Then the kid they call "Born Ready" was apparently not, in fact, ready. Stephenson didn’t get into his first NBA game until Feb. 27 on a Sunday afternoon at Conseco Fieldhouse. He averaged 10 minutes over 12 appearances the rest of the year, at times displaying poor shot selection and at others a magnetism for the rim or eye-opening passing skills on one Western road trip. Things went sour again when Lance violated a team rule in the season’s final week, earning a demotion to fourth-string. Talent is not a question, and the Pacers were happy enough to find him in the second round that they granted him a two-year, guaranteed contract. But Lance is a lightning rod among fans because of the controversies in the locker room and legal system. Both sides should probably keep in mind his age – 20 years old
These are rapid fire awards … MVP (Danny Granger) … Best Supporting Actor (Roy Hibbert)…Fastest Pacer (Darren Collison) … Strongest Pacer (Josh McRoberts) … Jumbotron Game Show Face Time Award (Dahntay Jones) … Attitude Award (T.J. Ford, Paul George) … Boom Baby Marksmanship Medal (Brandon Rush) … Best Shot (Mike Dunleavy, Dec. 20, game-winning, roll-around tip-in) … Best Dunk (Josh McRoberts, Nov. 30, right-handed alley-oop) … Best Almost Bargain Trade (Larry Bird, for O.J. Mayo) … Best Blocked Shot (Danny Granger, Jan. 19, fast break, Dorell Wright launches for a dunk with his left-hand, Danny blocks it clean with his right) … Best Game (Nov. 26, Oklahoma City over Pacers 110-106 in OT, and March 18, Indiana over Bulls 115-108 in OT) … Worst Game (March 9, Timberwolves over Indy 101-75) … Best Game Face (Tyler Hansbrough) … Defensive Player of the Year (Roy Hibbert) … Most Improved (Josh McRoberts) … One Shining Moment (Pacers hit 20 shots in a row to start the second half against Denver, Nov. 9) … Feel Good Story (Slick Leonard returns to the radio booth less than a month after having a heart attack) … Best Picture (Dunleavy makes the aforementioned tip-in, raises a finger in the air, sprints all the way to the other end of the floor, and is mobbed as Hibbert, Granger, and Collison fall on top of him in a pile of celebration and pure joy)