I hope Larry Bird has the Orlando Magic on speed dial, preferably someone with an advanced degree in 2007-2008 Upstarts.
Stan Van Gundy's currently calling the shots in Detroit. Rival country. But that's okay. Frank Vogel ought to call him anyway. They'd have a lot to talk about; reforming stagnant offenses and such.
How about Paul George? Does he know Rashard Lewis? No?
Well, text him. Tweet him. Facebook him. Whatever. Hit him up, Paul. You guys need to have a conversation. Success or failure this upcoming season may depend upon it.
It can't be this easy, can it? Here I thought the 2015-2016 Pacers were on a crash-course toward mediocrity: a 41-41 season, and late-season melee for 7/8 seed supremacy (inferiority?). Upon further investigation, there might be more hope than originally thought.
The inspiration behind my thought-evolution is rooted in the southeast; in a city where pin-striped unis are still en vogue and cartoon characters roam the streets like subway traffickers.
You haven't given any thought to the Orlando Magic of 2006-2008 yesteryear, have you? Neither had I. No reason to, right?
I stumbled upon them mostly by accident and took notice. What I discovered wasn't groundbreaking or of Zach Lowe-reverence, but it could be something. A trail of bread crumbs, or a tattered roadmap of what could be in Indiana if everything breaks left, not right (that was for you PG-13).
You already know this, but it turns out the Pacers aren't the only team in history to revamp their roster and seek a do-over all in one salty offseason. Given enough time, we could probably name dozens--if not hundreds--of other teams that have followed a similar track.
But there's something about those Magic teams and this current group of Pacers that struck me. So much so, I spent more than 2,000 words poring it over.
Maybe it means something, maybe it means nothing. That's something I'll let you decipher for yourself.
Three Reasons the Comparison Works
1. For Sale: Aging Plodders
To the history books we go:
Led by head coach, Brian Hill, the 2006-2007 version of the Magic finished the season 40-42, landing them a front-row seat to a first-round sweep at the hands of the Detroit Pistons. They sputtered to a 104.9 offensive rating, good enough for 22nd in the league. Their pace of play was positively snailing at 89.9 (26th/30); and spacing issues abounded, producing a middling team 3PT% of 35.6.
Herein lies the rotation that got them there:
Starters (most commonly):
PG: Jameer Nelson
SG: Grant Hill
SF: Hedo Turkoglu
PF: Dwight Howard
C: Tony Battie
Key Bench Players: Darko Milicic, Keyon Dooling, J.J. Redick, Carlos Arroyo, Trevor Ariza, Keith Bogans.
It wasn't all bad. For all of their offensive woes, the Magic were a sterling defensive club (Defensive Rating: 104.1, 6th/30). Using defense as their calling card, they proved just good enough to be a low-seed playoff threat.
I present to you the 2014-2015 Indiana Pacers:
W/L Record: 38-44
Offensive Rating: 103.5 (23rd/30)
Defensive Rating: 103.2 (7th/30)
Pace: 93.2 (19th/30)
Starters (most commonly):
PG: George Hill
SG: C.J. Miles
SF: Solomon Hill
PF: David West
C: Roy Hibbert
Key Bench Players: Rodney Stuckey, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi, Damjan Rudez, Lavoy Allen.
Not identical, I know, but the parallels are there: two offensively challenged clubs, two plodding rosters, two defensive stalwarts. Two teams that needed change to take the next step ... or any step for that matter. And both teams got exactly that the following offseason.
For the Magic, change resulted in a significant competitive boost:
2007-2008 Orlando Magic
Coach: Stan Van Gundy
W/L Record: 52-30
Offensive Rating: 111.3 (7th/30)
Defensive Rating: 105.5 (6th/30)
Pace: 93.4 (9th/30)
Team 3PT%: 38.6% (4th/30)
Starters (most commonly):
PG: Jameer Nelson
SG: Maurice Evans/Keith Bogans
SF: Hedo Turkoglu
PF: Rashard Lewis
C: Dwight Howard
Key Bench Players: Mo Evans/Ketih Bogans, Keyon Dooling, Carlos Arroyo, J.J. Redick, Brian Cook.
For the Pacers ... TBD.
2. Paul George Meet Rashard Lewis
So, how did the Magic do it? Go from one-trick ponies to balanced savants, and a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference?
For one, they reeled in Van Gundy to coach, an imaginative offensive mind with a hankering for versatile lineups and the three-point shot.
But a coach can only do so much to bring his inventions to life. He needs the proper tools at his disposal, and he got a good one when then-GM, Otis Smith, overpaid Rashard Lewis in a sign-and-trade deal.
Lewis had spent the previous nine seasons with the Seattle Supersonics where he earned an All-Star nod in 2005, and labored on a couple of shrug-worthy playoff teams.
Most importantly, previous to joining the Magic, Lewis was a fixture on the wing. A smooth and slender athlete at 6'10" 215lb, he never played a single second at PF while employed in the Emerald City.
Upon signing with Orlando; however, Lewis was instantly re-positioned as a stretch PF to help facilitate Van Gundy's space-and-pace offense.
Again, sound familiar?
Lewis thrived in his new role, averaging 16.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 40% from three as a three-year starter. Perhaps most encouraging was the durability displayed while battling bigger, stronger foes. Lewis started 232 of a possible 246 regular-season games during that span.
The Larry Bird-fed idea is that it could go even better for Paul George. After all, George is similarly sized, and he, too, has been a wing-player only thus far in his brief career. But he's also a far better player both offensively and defensively than Lewis ever was. Add in his youth, and the fact that there are fewer and fewer NBA behemoths manning the middle, and you realize this could work. It really could.
3. Seasoned Greetings
While the Magic's roster transformation in 2007 wasn't quite as dramatic as Indiana's in 2015, they did experience a good deal of turnover, adding five new players overall.
Two starters out: Hill, Battie. Two new starters in: Evans, Lewis. Space-eaters jettisoned: Hill, Milicic and Battie. Space-enthusiasts unleashed: Evans, Lewis, Bogans, and Cook (kind of).
And the Magic didn't do it on the back of a youth revolution. Eight of their top-10 rotation players were card-carrying members of the 25-and-over club.
Compare that to the Pacers of 2015-2016: seven new players, potentially three-new starters on tap, and nine of their top-12 projected rotation players aged 25 and older.
To some, I get it, late 20s are a negative. The older a player is, the less room for future growth. This is an especially difficult concept to accept when one's mind is focused on rebuilding.
But if you're Larry Bird and Frank Vogel, and your objective is to keep the team afloat competitively, it can only benefit you to have a collection of vets who can quickly digest new offensive and defensive schemes.
The semi-veteran approach worked well for the '07-'08 Magic as they won 16 of their first 20 games, en route to improving their regular-season win total by 12.
Three Reasons The Comparison Doesn't Work
1. We Have Dwight Howard and You Don't
Let's not forget who Dwight Howard was in 2007-2008. Think pre- "Gonna get my coach fired," pre-trade-demand, pre-changes-mind-then-demands-trade-again, pre- "I hate playing with Kobe," pre-drawn-out-free-agency, pre-injury-plagued Dwight Howard: a third-year manchild and emerging Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
With such a dominant player in tow, it's a bit easier for a coach to implement a new offensive system, while aspiring to remain elite defensively; a feat the '07-'08 Magic executed quite swimmingly.
The 2015-2016 Pacers will have no such player. George, in theory, should be that guy, but he's coming off a serious injury and will likely be learning a new position. Expecting him to dominate—especially early—feels misguided.
Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, and Myles Turner will do their best Howard-impression in the middle ... and will likely fail. George Hill's durability will be challenged like never before as he attempts to maintain his new offensive persona and take on a more crucial role defensively on the wing. Monta Ellis will surely bring his high-scoring act to Indy ... along with his seesaw-effort on D.
For the Pacers to make a similar jump as the Magic, they'll have to spurn the idea of a one-man band piggybacking the troops. It'll have to be a collective effort, and in today's state-the-obvious news of the day: a collective effort only takes you as far as the talent-level permits. Just how talented is this version of the Blue and Gold?
2. Coaching, coaching, coaching
Frank Vogel is a fine coach, one of the best in the league. He sports a career regular-season record of 205-144, and is largely responsible for morphing a roster with middling talent into a defensive-dynamo, and elite Eastern Conference contender.
Where he lacks cred is on the offensive side of the ball. Only one Pacers' team under his watch has finished in the top half of offensive efficiency (2011-2012). This was mostly by design. The Pacers of the last four seasons were trained to be a battering ram on both sides of the ball. For the offense, this meant force-feeding the post and reining in the pace. To Indiana's credit, it produced a lot of wins, and a few deep playoff runs.
Still, one naturally wonders if Vogel has the coaching chops to transform from one deliberate style of play into one wholly different, all while the brainchild of the play-faster mantra (Larry Bird) watches on.
On the other side is Stan Van Gundy, who before leading the Magic, masterminded a trio of offensive makeovers in Miami. Lamar Odom starred in rendition No. 1, Shaquille O'Neal in No. 2, and then Dwyane Wade in year three, resulting in the league's first and only Free-Throw Line championship. In hindsight, Van Gundy was ready-made to head the offensive revival in Orlando because of his experiences in South Beach.
At the moment, it's hard to make the same argument for Vogel.
3. Out of Style
Perhaps the most damning aspect of this comparison exercise is the style-of-play discrepancy. The '07-'08 Magic pushed the pace all right, but they achieved it secondarily to their spacing principles. For reference, Van Gundy's bunch launched 2074 three-point attempts (nearly a third of their overall field-goal attempts), a whopping 107% increase from the '06-‘07 season. Remarkably, they did so without compromising their size. With the exception of Lewis, the Magic fielded a mostly traditional lineup, featuring a dominant big (Howard), a sturdy-wing rotation (Evans, Bogans, Turkoglu, Redick, Ariza), and a floor-general PG (Nelson).
The Pacers of 2015-2016 similarly hope to accelerate the pace, but they'll aim to do so with a differing approach. Lacking elite outside shooters, Bird's Downsize U will attack opposing defenses with speed, svelteness, and slash. Several players on the roster project to swing between multiple positions in hopes of causing mismatch chaos. Improved three-point shooting may occur as a result, but unlike their Orlando compadres, it'll likely be a byproduct of their increased pace, rather than the catalyst.
Much like next season's Pacers, the 2007-2008 Orlando Magic weren't expected to do much in the regular season. Most, including the Four-Letter Network, slapped them with a back-end playoff spot. They worried about depth, lineup construction, and the team's ability to adapt to a new coaching philosophy.
One last time: sound familiar?
The Magic forged ahead with their new playing style and blitzed pre-season predictions, winning 52 games, and establishing themselves as a present-and-future threat in the Eastern Conference.
Will the Pacers follow suit? How about ... maybe.
There are enough similarities between the two to be tempted to think so. On the other hand, there are enough differences to tempt you to dismiss all of this as fable-talk.
Regardless of how you feel about the comparison, if the Pacers want to exceed expectations, they'll need much of what that '07-'08 Orlando team possessed: buy-in from day one, coaching/roster cohesion, star-level play from perceived star, offensive-and-defensive balance, persistence of scheme ... you get the picture.
And you know what? They could use one other thing; something every elite team stumbles upon at some point in the season. Some might call it luck, others may say health or talent. I prefer to call it something else: a healthy dose of ... magic.