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Indiana Pacers season preview: Can Roy Hibbert and David West lead Pacers past lowered expectations?

The Pacers begin the season with several unanswered questions which have leveled any positive expectations as they try to figure out how to play without Paul George and Lance Stephenson.

Andy Lyons

Last Year's Record: 56-26
Key Losses: Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner, Rasual Butler
Key Additions: Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Damjon Rudez

What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The most significant move for the Pacers wasn't from the front office but instead when Paul George tried to chase down and block a layup by James Harden during a Team USA scrimmage on Aug.1 in Las Vegas. The extra effort ended with a broken right leg for George which will keep the Pacers' best two-way talent from seeing the floor this season.

Up to that point, the front office had been in the midst of trying to build the 2014-15 roster around George, bringing in a little more offensive support for the bench with Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles while eventually letting Lance Stephenson go to Charlotte in free agency. The Pacers didn't negotiate to Lance's liking after offering a five-year $44 million deal (he settled for 3 years, $27 millions from the Hornets).

The Pacers talked about being disappointed that Stephenson left town for a comparable deal but their lack of negotiating with the dynamic guard makes it hard to believe they were too upset. Consider that Stephenson and George were eventually going to clash over top dog duties as they both continued trending in that direction. Essentially, the Pacers already bet on PG for that role. But that plan busted when George was carted off the court in Vegas.

The Pacers also signed Croation forward Damjan Rudez who has made his bones in Europe by shooting the rock. He has the size to be a stretch four, although has a small-forward game. A positive note on Rudez is that the Pacers beat out Cleveland, and legendary Euroleague coach David Blatt, for Rudez. Not so positive was his showing in the FIBA World Cup for Croatia, which made one wonder if Rudez translates to six points off the bench.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

Believe it or not, the Pacers' biggest strength is continuity. While two critical components from last year's playing rotation won't be at the Fieldhouse this season, the next six players in the rotation will be available. This includes the full front-court complement of Roy Hibbert backed up by Ian Mahinmi and David West at power forward with Luis Scola in relief off the bench.

The Pacers will have to lean on their size and veteran know how to remain a team that still expects to be stout defensively. Hibbert protecting the rim has always been the anchor for the elite defense the Pacers played, giving perimeter players the freedom to attack and take chances on the ball. Paul George is the best in the league at doing just that, so his absence will be felt and likely put more pressure on West and Hibbert to defend the paint. But any success the Pacers have this year will still rely on the Big Dawg in the middle turning away intruders.

Hibbert and West will also need to take advantage of scoring opportunities on offense. The ball should be going through the post much more without Stephenson and George to stop it. The two Pacers bigs are crafty passers and score in different ways around the rim but neither has been able to produce consistently. That will need to change if the Pacers hope to exceed expectations.

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

The bench has been a fatal flaw the past two seasons and now that two potential reserves will be thrust into the starting lineup it doesn't figure to improve any this season. But the overall ability to score is not just a bench problem but also the area the Pacers will continue to struggle.

The team preaches ball movement and passing up open shots for better shots, but putting that philosophy into action has been a struggle. Paul George and Stephenson emerged as the two biggest offensive threats last season, but in hindsight, both had a tendency to slow the ball down to create for themselves. George Hill is still a combo guard playing the point so he is best suited for the emphasis on ball-movement instead of trying to create off the dribble.

With Stephenson out of the lineup, the team may very well be able to execute better offensive flow, but someone will still need to put the ball in the basket which Lance found ways to do. Rodney Stuckey may be a guy who can salvage a bad possession on his own, but everyone else needs a little space to get a shot. That means a lot of wins without a lot of points, a formula that has worked in the past.

But just how low can they go? We may find out this season.

What are the goals for this team?

As David West said on Media Day, the Pacers have to embrace reality which means no longer thinking about competing for a championship.

The playoffs? Why not.

The Pacers do play in the Eastern Conference, so while Chicago and Cleveland begin as elite teams with Washington, Toronto and Atlanta all improving to join Brooklyn and Miami as solid playoff contenders, there remains room in the ugly middle of the East for a team to surprise and jump in the playoff fray.

No doubt the Pacers will begin this season with a goal to make the playoffs. Paul George is hoping if his rehab continues going well, he may be back by the playoffs. Hard to say which is a bigger stretch -- the Pacers making the playoffs or PG returning to the court this year.

Either way, the future is not now and player development this season is far more important to the future of the team. Second-year player Solomon Hill, Rudez even rookie Shayne Whittington finding a way to impact the game as supporting pieces for when Paul George returns is as important as the team's win total.

Which wing players will join the starting lineup?

The George/Stephenson-less crater in the starting lineup will be filled on opening night, but as camp begins questions remain about the two players who will fill the wings. Rodney Stuckey, Solomon Hill, C.J. Miles, Chris Copeland and Damjan Rudez are among the group of players in the mix for rotation minutes and a starting nod.

The most likely scenario has Rodney Stuckey starting at shooting guard as a combo guard who can mix and match with George Hill allowing both players to play off the ball at times. If Frank Vogel wants more size, he can go with Miles at the shooting guard, but that seems unlikely.

The small forward slot will be where the main competition in camp takes place. Hill is a strong defender who would supplement the starting unit's defensive disposition quite well, but his offensive game isn't nearly as stout. Hill will have to show he can knock down shots to earn his shot with the starters.

For Chris Copeland, knocking down shots isn't a problem. The veteran scorer didn't play much off the bench last year as a power forward, but Vogel plans to use Copeland on the wing this year and his ability score is desperately needed. His camp time will be spent trying to prove he's not a liability on the defensive end of  the floor.

Miles is nursing a strained calf and if the best two-way option, although more of an offensive threat who would be more valuable off the bench providing an offensive punch for the reserve unit.

So, yeah, the options aren't thrilling and the situation highlights the deficiencies on the Pacers roster as they try use two or three players to replace what Paul George gave them last year. Figuring out a new way to play while leaning on David West and Roy Hibbert at both ends of the floor is the challenge laid out for Vogel and the Pacers.

It may not always be fun to watch, but it should be interesting.