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The Pacers kept their starting unit together but made a few key tweaks to the bench, hoping to build on their playoff run last season.
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Team Name: Indiana Pacers
Last Year's Record: 42-24 (3rd in Eastern Conference)
Key Losses: Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, A.J. Price, Lou Amundson
Key Additions: D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Ian Mahinmi, Miles Plumlee
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
The Indiana Pacers shook up their second unit after the reserves struggled through the playoffs last May. Reserve point guard Darren Collison lost his starting job late in the season due to injury which everyone involved admitted wasn't fair. But Frank Vogel preferred his starting unit with George Hill running the point, so the team signed Hill to a 5-year contract extension and dealt D.C. to Dallas to avoid any future conflict and give Collison a chance to earn a starting spot elsewhere.
Back up big man Ian Mahinmi joined the Pacers as part of the Collison trade to Dallas. Mahinmi provides a backup center for Roy Hibbert with actual center size to replace the undersized Lou Amundson who left the team through free agency. Hibbert returns to the starting lineup after flirting with the Portland Trail Blazers as a restricted free agent over the summer. Hibbert's return is a PR boon for the Pacers due to the big fellas connection with fans and the community. Now he has to deal with the expectations of earning his big salary on the court.
Reserve wing Dahntay Jones also joined Collison in the trade with Dallas which opened up a spot on the roster for economical free agent Gerald Green. Green has considerable talent that he's just figuring out how to use at the NBA level and should improve the Pacers offense on the second unit.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Continuity and depth are the Pacers biggest strengths heading into the 2012-13 season. By signing Hill and Hibbert, the Pacers kept their starting lineup together after a strong finish last season. The starters were impressive in the playoffs, playing to a +58 against the Miami Heat while losing the six-game series.
While the faces are the same for the productive starting unit, there remains room for growth. Gone is "second-year" Paul George going through his first season as a starter in the NBA. In his place is "third-year" Paul George armed with experience and a list of problem areas he continues to develop to help PG make a bigger impact this season. Roy Hibbert and George Hill got paid this summer but they remain developing players. Even David West, despite his veteran experience, expects to be better this year considering he will be an additional year removed from ACL rehab and able to do more on the court.
The Pacers utilized their depth in the regular season last year to wear out teams with a 10-man rotation that tried to keep the pressure on opponents for 48 minutes. The Pacers will likely use a 10-man rotation again this year although expect to play the starters more minutes than last season.
The Pacers also maintained continuity on the bench with associate head coach Brian Shaw returning after wading into the NBA head coaching job market over the summer. Shaw's return was a pleasant surprise and keeps the team's leadership structure in tact and ready to build on last season.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The biggest weakness for the Pacers stems from that depth they rely on to wear out more star-filled teams with shorter playing rotations. The Pacers are a true team that enjoys playing for one another but there are always times in a season and more specifically in tight games when NBA teams need a no-questions-asked-take-over-the-game superstar to make a play and finish off the opponent.
The Pacers have a few good options for those scenarios but no sure-fire superstar to lean on. Danny Granger and David West have been there and done that on occasion and remain the top go-to options down the stretch. Paul George wants to be that guy eventually but expecting that big of a jump out of the 22-year old is foolish. He simply has a ways to go before assuming that role.
Other more technical areas of the game where the Pacers struggle are with fouling opponents. Last season the Pacers were third in the league in fouls which was a product of defensive inconsistency. Also, when things go sideways for the Pacers you can find turnover and rebound woes creeping into the picture.
4. What are the goals for this team?
The Pacers made their offseason changes to improve their team for a playoffs. If you ask the players about their goals, a trip to the NBA Finals is the first thing you hear. But getting through the Miami Heat will obviously require a confluence of spectacular play and breaks. All things being equal though, the Pacers also maintain a goal of improving on last season.
After finishing third in the East last year, while taking advantage of good health and several key injuries among other contenders, the Pacers remain among a group of about six teams that will be battling for playoff seeding. The Pacers may very well play better this season, but with a more teams in the mix could finish worse than third. So a goal for this team should be to shoot for the second seed in the East, an improvement over last season and a spot in the standings the Pacers are capable of attaining, if they play up to their potential.
5. Which players are on the hot seat?
The Pacers have a few key players that need to show improvement this season as the Pacers continue playing for the today but planning for the future. Paul George, in year three at 22 years old, isn't in jeopardy of losing playing time, but his development and improved production are be a big factor for the Pacers.
Tyler Hansbrough is in a make-or-break year as he'll play in the last year of his rookie contract. Hansbrough's game flattened out at the end of last season and he certainly didn't look like a player the team would automatically extend with a second contract. Improved rebounding and passing along with more efficient offensive usage would make Hansbrough much more valuable, assuming he maintains his non-stop motor.
Lance Stephenson just turned 22 but also begins his third season with the Pacers. There have been growing pains with Stephenson as he's tried to adjust his game to the NBA level while also trying to mature into a pro on and off the floor. He appears to have his game together and will get a real opportunity to contribute in a reserve role with the second unit. Stephenson has plenty of game to offer the Pacers if he can find a way to balance his zeal for making plays with a need to play under control and not force what isn't there. Stephenson doesn't have a guaranteed contract next season, so this may be his last shot at earning the trust of the organization on the floor.