With an assortment of moves, the Indiana Pacers have received much praise in bettering themselves for the upcoming 2013-2014 NBA season. On paper, they're a legitimate NBA power. So what do these moves really mean? And what then must go right for the Pacers this season if they hope to dethrone the Miami Heat? Barring any injuries or lengthy suspensions, these are the things Pacer fans should hope to see next season:
Paul George's continued ascension.
Last year's Most Improved Player must continue to develop his game. For all he showed last year (17.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.8 SPG) Paul George still has much to gain from spending a little more time working on his skills. There is talk about George playing a little more two-guard this coming season, but that will only be a positive for Indiana if he takes care of the ball better and further improves his dribbling. Turnovers were a problem for George last year as he average nearly three a game in the regular season and nearly four a game in the playoffs. It was a result of being asked to take on more of a burden offensively, but also from poor decision-making and ball-handling. Danny Granger's presence will take away some shot attempts and scoring opportunities, but will also give him new ones as defenses will now have to face two perimeter threats. He can shoot over defenders and guard any position on the perimeter, but George must be able to attack the rim with confidence, something Lance Stephenson did in abundance (some might say a little too abundantly). He must also look to become stronger to be able to guard the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the low-post more effectively.
Lance Stephenson's maturity
Every Pacer fan knows that Lance Stephenson is one of those players that make you go "No no no--YES!!!" He is a real game-changer. When he's on, the Pacers have a real weapon on the court, a player who (as mentioned above) can attack the rim with ferocity. That same drive can sometimes make him take some questionable shots, but there is no denying any team with designs on winning it all must have one guy who can keep opponents off-balance. What Lance needs to do is build on a stellar post-season that saw him grab double-digit rebounds six times (and average 7.6 through 19 playoff games), play heady defense and make great basketball plays. And a lot of this will depend on how he adjusts to the return of Danny Granger.
Less David West
The steady rock that grounds the Pacers, David West is the Pacers' veteran presence on and off the court. Without Danny Granger, Mr. West increased his averages across the board to the tune of 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. He did this playing on average four more minutes each game (33 MPG) from the year before and shooting nearly 50% from the field. Why would Pacers fans want to see less of David West then? To save him for the playoffs of course. West will be 33 once the season starts and while he's a tough guy, at that age saving his best for May and June would be the ideal scenario. Plus, sacrificing some of his shot attempts will help make it easier to find shots for Roy Hibbert, George Hill, George and Granger (and Stephenson). I'm sure West won't mind for as long as the Ws keep on piling up.
A more consistent Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert inked a large deal to resign with the team before the start of the 2012-2013 season (after flirting with the Portland Trailblazers a bit) and infamously began the year with a horrible shooting slump that lasted almost the entire year until a late surge (16.7 PPG, 8.8 PG, 50% shooting, his five best scoring games of the season) to end the year. His strong play continued through to the postseason where it culminated with averages of 22 PPG, 10.6 PPG, 54.6 FG% over the last 8 games of the playoffs. Of course, this was a result of Hibbert dominating Miami's "big men." Hibbert needs to bring this kind of effort to the court every game and just the thought of him maintaining those numbers over a prolonged stretch of the season should be enough to make Pacer faithful salivate.
Coach Frank Vogel's handling of the new guys, including Danny Granger.
While Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel did a heckuva job leading the Pacers to a conference final game seven, he'll have a bigger task ahead of him this upcoming season. Reintegrating his old leading scorer (Granger) with his new leading scorer (George) AND the guy who earned all of those minutes that were suddenly up for grabs (Stephenson, taking them away from Gerald Green and Sam Young, thankfully) is number one on his to-do list, but you can bet a close number two is finding a way to make this year's bench much more effective than last year's. It will help that they now have C.J. Watson and Luis Scola to anchor the second unit but the defense must remain consistent. The biggest concern last year was the drop-off between the first and second fives offensively. The off-season moves have addressed that, but Vogel now has to ensure that the defense does not suffer and that the whole team plays well amid all these lofty expectations.
Unfamiliar territory awaits the Indiana Pacers and their fans entering the 2013-2014 season. The Pacers are no longer a dark horse nor are they mediocre. The world knows they almost beat LeBron James and the Miami Heat and on paper, this year's team is poised to make a giant step up.