The top three teams in the Eastern Conference are most likely unimpeachable. The Cleveland Cavaliers will rule the conference for as long as they want to put forth regular-season effort. Coming in second and third in some order will be the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. Toronto held this mantle last season, but Boston looks like the much improved team building off of 48 wins from 2015-16.
The middle of the conference was terribly bunched together last year, and that may be the case again this year. There is a large swath of teams who could be battling for seeds four through 10 by season’s end. The Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks seem like they will take steps back; whether the step pushes them out of the playoffs entirely or not remains to be seen. Others, like Detroit, Milwaukee, Orlando and Chicago, seem like they should be on the rise. Caught in the middle are the Indiana Pacers (among others).
Indiana went 45-37 last season, good for the seven seed in the East. It actually had a better point differential than third-seeded Miami, which speaks to the bunched nature of the middle of the conference. This year, Indiana has gone through a bit of a revamp, much like the Chicago Cubs for you baseball fans. Unlike some of its East peers, no one is quite sure how that recalibration is going to go.
Head coach Frank Vogel was removed, replaced by Nate McMillan who will hopefully run a more up-tempo offensive attack to appease team president Larry Bird. Point guard George Hill is also out, replaced by jitterbug Jeff Teague. Around star Paul George, the Pacers have both young talent and expiring talent. They seem to be running on both sides of a rebuild line, not wanting to go completely young because of George’s ceiling as an All-NBA player but not wanting to jettison good young players with bright futures.
If the meld works, Indiana could finish in that coveted fourth spot in the East and grab home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series. If the pieces don’t fit well and seem wonky, the Pacers could see themselves drop out of the playoffs entirely. There isn’t a lot of room for error this year.
The main young piece is Myles Turner. He is a 20-year-old "center" who shoots threes; AKA the encapsulation of the 2016-17 NBA big man. At 6-11, he blocks shots on defense and spaces the floor on offense. Yet Turner isn’t all the way there yet. He is just 20 years old and plays on a frame under 250 pounds. His development timeframe is one of the most important on the Indiana roster.
Around Turner, George and Teague is a mishmash of veterans with very specific skills. Al Jefferson was brought in to score in the post and not do much else. Thad Young was brought in to "fool defenders with arrhythmic floaters that look all wrong, but end up cash." Monta Ellis is another score-only player who doesn’t mesh with the three-and-D nature of today’s NBA wings.
Interestingly, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe points out, Indiana actually played pretty fast last year even with Coach Vogel still in charge. The Pacers had the 10th-fastest pace in the league. They just were not good at it. It seems hard to imagine that will change this season with older and grounded veterans in the mix but a new coach.
More alarmingly is what happens if the defense takes a step back as well. Vogel was always a good defensive coach, but even if McMillan wants to be, he may not have the personnel to excel. In the preseason, there have been too many fouls and not enough moving of feet to be a successful defensive club. If the pieces don’t come together, more responsibility will befall George as he attempts to be the team’s best player on both ends day in and day out.