The Indiana Pacers had such a promising season planned and suddenly, with Danny Granger stuck in street clothes until February, those plans have changed and it appears a golden opportunity for a great season is gone.
With Derrick Rose missing big time in Chicago, the Central Division was there for the Pacers to win. Taking a step forward by winning the division, regardless of the circumstances, would be a nice boost for a team with several players still ascending in their NBA development arc.
The decision to keep one of the top performing starting lineups in tact should have given the Pacers an advantage to pick up where they left off last spring and get off to a quick start. But the healthy, happy group from last season is no longer healthy nor smiling much since Granger's left knee cracked the continuity model.
Sad as it is to admit, the Bulls are back in charge of the division and the Pacers are left finding a way to beat out Milwaukee and Cleveland. Don't get me wrong, the Pacers have enough talent without Granger to beat out the Bucks and Cavs and make the playoffs. It just hasn't been apparent through the first five games of the season.
So how do the Pacers try to improve without Granger to lean on?
You can't ask for much more out of forward David West. He has been a beast at times and part of the golden opportunities lost with Granger out, is the fact that West entered the season primed and ready to play a bigger role next to Granger. Now he's playing his role and trying to make up for Granger's absence. While admirable, the physical burden will always take its toll.
West needs help and that means improved play from his teammates. Not anything out of the ordinary that the players aren't capable of delivering, but expecting more from several key players isn't too much to ask.
Surely, Roy Hibbert will find his jump hook stroke at some point. In the Pacers two wins, Hibbert averaged 12.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocks. Averaging 15, 9 and 3 (again, AVERAGING) is a slight step up from the big fellas numbers last season, but certainly not too much to ask.
Paul George has to improve his play throughout the game. He remains inconsistent from possession to possession and still needs to figure out how to pick his spots to attack. Nothing from PG indicates he is ready for a monster breakout season, but continuing to grow and take on more of the burden on offense isn't too much to ask. Nor is taking better care of the basketball.
The bench remains a wild card with new faces in key roles, but so far the regular season results have been disappointing. D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green haven't played on a winning basketball team in the NBA and haven't been able to help the Pacers win either. Augustin in particular seems disengaged at times on the floor as opposed to desperate to help his team win.
Lance Stephenson plays like he's desperate to win and has brought great energy to the floor off the bench, to the point where he should be in the starting lineup in Minnesota. With Stephenson, less is more, though. He needs to keep things simple and play his part of a five-man unit without trying to force plays that aren't there. That certainly isn't too much to ask.
Frank Vogel needs to find some solutions and playing rotations that work while trying not to run David West into the ground. It would also be nice if the Pacers could find a way to handle a zone defense. They know teams are going to throw a zone at them so game-planning to pick it apart isn't too much to ask.
Finally, the collective will to compete and battle and spill guts has to improve. There has been more frustration evident from the blue and gold than a sense of urgency to make things right. The smash-mouth, don't-back-down, outwork-your-opponent style of play that Vogel preached and his players delivered has been nowhere to be found save for about 10 minutes of action in Atlanta on Wednesday. Making that the norm again, isn't too much to ask.
If the Pacers can tend to all of these areas that have been lacking early in the season, they may just be able to salvage the season and leave themselves in positions to take advantage of an opportunity to make a run to the playoffs if Granger can return to the court for the end of the season. The opportunities may no longer be golden, but they are there for several individuals and the team to seize while trying to salvage a special season.
What other reasonable improvements do you want to see from the Pacers?