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Indiana Pacers 2008-09 Season Preview

Team Name: Indiana Pacers
Last Years Record: 36-46
Key Losses: Jermaine O'Neal, Shawne Williams, Ike Diogu, Kareem Rush
Key Additions: T.J. Ford, Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert, Rasho Nesterovic, Jarrett Jack

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

Wow, where to begin? For starters, the Pacers broke free of Jermaine O'Neal's cap-strangling contract by trading him to Toronto for guard T.J. Ford, center Rasho Nesterovic and forward Maceo Baston (and a draft pick). The addition of Ford signaled that the Pacers were ready to go in a different direction at point guard. Another signal was when Larry Bird told Jamaal Tinsley to stay at home in Atlanta until he was traded.

Tinsley has obliged and will not suit up for the Pacers whether he's traded prior to the season tipping off or not. From his nameplate in the locker room to the jersey in the team store to the player himself, the Pacers have removed all evidence of Tinsley's existence in Indy. Well, almost all. There's still that $21 million salary for the next three years on the books. Bird continues to dangle Tins in front of point guard-desperate teams in hopes a shrewd team will realize Tinsley can still play (which he can, give him a chance...please).

OK, settle back, I'm just getting started with the roster changes since last April. Gone are Kareem Rush (Philly), Flip Murray (Atlanta), Ike Diogu (traded to Portland), Andre Owens (Europe), Jermaine O'Neal (aforementioned trade to Toronto), David Harrison (Minnesota...maybe) and Shawne Williams (traded to Dallas). Whew!

Joining Ford, Nesterovic, and Baston among the new faces for the Pacers are Brandon Rush (13th pick, part of draft night trade with Portland), Jarrett Jack (also from Portland), Roy Hibbert (17th pick, part of trade with Toronto), and local high school hero, Josh McRoberts (trade with Portland). Eddie Jones was traded to the Pacers from Dallas but has yet to report to the team and appears headed for some negotiated retirement or release. Even without Jones, program sales should be brisk at the Fieldhouse once the season starts.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

The Pacers biggest strengths are their ability to push the pace and score points with the solid, flexible depth at guard and small forward. At this point, T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack will absorb all of the available point guard minutes. Travis Diener is still recovering from a foot injury and will begin the season way behind in the battle for playing time.  Diener is a reliable option to have available if injuries or a favorable matchup dictates he should play.

The minutes at shooting guard and small forward are interchangeable and it appears that four players will be vying for those minutes. Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger will play starter's minutes while Marquis Daniels and Brandon Rush will fill in the rest off the bench. Daniels has proven to be a solid utility wing off the bench with his solid defense and unorthodox offensive repertoire.

The addition of Ford and Jack improves the team speed and quickness of the back court immensely, giving Jim O'Brien's fast-paced offensive system a much-needed boost. It also gives JOB the option of playing small ball by moving Granger to power forward using Jack or Daniels at shooting guard. With the available depth, the Pacers should push the pace for 48 minutes in an effort to wear down opponents with their running game.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Defense and post scoring are the Pacers most glaring weaknesses. Roy Hibbert has shown in camp that he may single-handedly resolve both of these weaknesses in the future, but any production the Hibbert offers this year will be gravy and certainly shouldn't be expected. Rasho Nesterovic will likely start at center for the Pacers giving them a veteran presence in the post and a guy who has the ability to pass and knock down shots. Scoring tough buckets around the rim and more importantly stopping easy buckets at the rim on defense remain big question marks in Rasho's game.

Jeff Foster may be more reliable around the hoop but he's a bit undersized at center and his offensive game is limited. Troy Murphy should eat up most of the minutes at power forward with help from Foster and Maceo Baston. Murphy will need to improve his rebounding this year to go along with his ability to step out and knock down the 3-ball.

The Pacers rely on a team defensive approach that often broke down last year at the point of attack. JOB hopes the improved back court quickness will help with on-the-ball defense making it tougher for the opposition to push the ball into the lane and find easy buckets at the rim.  Defensive improvement is critical to the Pacers hopes of improving their record this year.

4. What are the goals for this team?

The Pacers just missed the playoffs last year thanks to a late surge that involved several key players that remain on the roster. Considering the talent around those key players has improved and includes players that fit the way Jim O'Brien prefers to play, earning a playoff spot has to be goal number one. Reality mucks up the initial logic though since several other Eastern Conference teams have made improvements that should make a playoff berth much tougher to earn.

Aside from making the playoffs, the Pacers goals should revolve around taking care of the basketball, defending the paint, fighting for 48 minutes and bringing that effort every night. Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger had big years last season and as Jim O'Brien put it, it is time for them to step up and show that type production on a playoff team. Also, don't tell JOB, but the future is not now. Larry Bird could give JOB five guys from the local YMCA and he'd grind all year with them, trying to make the playoffs. Hopefully, JOB looks ahead a little bit and is able to find minutes for Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert to begin developing both into the players the organizations hopes they will be.

5. Will this Pacers team be able to re-ignite the passion of the fan base and lure more people to the Fieldhouse?

The empty green seats at the Fieldhouse spread like poison ivy last year as fed up fans refused to invest any emotion or ticket money into a short-handed team with top players who didn't appear to care. The massive roster changes by Larry Bird over the summer as well as an active PR campaign pushing a positive view of the players combined to entice the local public into giving the Pacers a fresh look.

The team's slogan this year is, "Ignite the Passion. Restore the pride." There can't be full ignition until Jamaal Tinsley is traded simply because, even though he's not with the team, he remains a story. The Pacers hope the fan base will rally around their assembled group of good guys playing basketball the right way and find a reason to keep following the team throughout the season.

Unless playing the right way produces more wins than expected, the Pacers will still struggle in attendance this year. Plus, the season begins with a brutal schedule. The first 20 games include three games with Boston, two with Cleveland, two with Orlanado, one with Detroit, LA Lakers, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. If the Pacers win more than six of those first 20 they may be off to a good start, but the casual fan won't see much to get excited about.

Or will they? Last year, the Pacers were tons of fun to watch over the last three months of the season. Yes, they were short-handed, but they gave great effort and often outplayed their opponents. So while gathering Ws in the first 20 games will be a struggle, it doesn't mean the Pacers can't give a great effort and should they lose, go down swinging with everything they have. That type of effort will eventually capture the attention of casual fans and re-ignite that passion which is desperately seeking a spark.

Predicted Record: 40-42