Sports Illustrated released their annual Top 100 NBA Players list today, giving fans a taste and refresher ahead of the start of the 2016-17 NBA season at the league's top talent. For the Indiana Pacers, they'll look to improve on a frustrating 2015-16 campaign by seeing an increase in talent; one that lends them three players SI believe are in the league's upper echelon.
Paul George, 9th overall
Unsurprisingly, the Pacers are led by their All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist Paul George. Paul George jumps 11 spots from last year to number nine, leaping into the top 10 for the first time in his career. In 2014, George ranked 25th and was moved up to 20th for his return season last year, though his placement was given an asterisk due to a lack of of uncertainty towards how he would look after missing 76 games in 2014-15.
Fortunately for George and the Pacers, however, there was no diminishing skills in his injury, allowing him to lead the Pacers to the playoffs as the team retooled themselves by eschewing starters David West and Roy Hibbert. George had a career best 23.7 points per game, which featured their own highs and lows, but he exploded in the postseason, upping his scoring to nearly 28 points while being the team's most important defender.
While Indiana fell in a frustrating seven games in the first round series, the play of George in that postseason was built upon for Team USA's run in the Rio Olympics. George was arguably the MVP of the United States national team off the bench, jump starting lazy defense from the starters to help them to a perfect gold medal run. The last two teams we've seen Paul George play, he's shown himself to be an elite talent; so it only makes sense George jumps into the top 10, ahead of Team USA running mates DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry, and Jimmy Butler.
Rob Mahoney credits George's placement to the fact he does play both ends at an elite level, noting Kawhi Leonard (No. 6) as the only other player that handles the team's primary load on offense and defense to be ranked above George, and Leonard still doesn't take on the same weight as George does on a far less talented Pacers team. For drawbacks, however, Mahoney notes George's lacking as a passer and primary ballhandler.
While he's improved in his ballhandling skills during his time in the league, it's still shown to be a weakness that has made things more difficult for the Pacers when the situation calls for him to be either. George averaged a career high 3.3 turnovers last season, committing at least three turnovers in 54 games. More than that, he had only one game all season where he did not commit a single turnover.
Overall, however, the 9th spot seems about right given George's play, especially in the spring and summer. George trails the expected names: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Leonard, and Anthony Davis, but for some reason was placed behind James Harden, who resides at 7th. Harden is unquestionably a gifted scorer, but the difference in offense doesn't seem to be wide enough to justify the ocean that resides between George and Harden defensively (SI notes that Harden slipped from 79th percentile to 18th in defense last season).
Jeff Teague, 57th overall
Even with George, Indiana's team's success can't come from him alone, which is where two of Indiana's newest acquisitions come in. Their big trade to acquire Jeff Teague lands the Pacers the 57th best overall player, according to SI. Teague slips in the rankings from 41st in 2015, when he was an All-Star for the 60-win Hawks. But a frustrating season from Teague led to him slipping 16 spots.
Teague is a tenacious driver, which should help the offense, but SI notes that last season Teague's defensive plus/minus plummeted; "from 7th among point guards in 2014-15 to outside the top 50." This may or may not be attributed to Teague claiming to have played last season with a torn tendon, but there's no question he'll give Indiana unique effort that comes from a player that wants to be where he currently is.
His play on defense is one of the hang-ups in whether Indiana's splashy offseason will result in them returning to an elite level within the Eastern Conference. Not only do they lose their defensive rim protector in Ian Mahinmi (76th overall), but also the player they traded for Teague; George Hill. Almost as if on purpose, SI wants make sure what they think of the two players by ranking Hill one spot above Teague at 56.
Hill was ranked 80th in last season's rankings, but skyrocketed on the list to 56 despite a season for the Pacers that was a step back in every way from his 14-15 campaign except with corner three pointers. This is noted by SI, at least his ability to ascend as a player in the absence of a star, but what last season was was a return to form for Hill, not any real improvement.
That's not to discredit Hill, who will be a fantastic piece for Utah, but if Hill is the better player, the Pacers are hoping for a "downgrade" in hopes that they can get better consistency from Teague. What's clear is that the two players are nothing if not linked for the upcoming season.
Thaddeus Young, 66th overall
Indiana's draft night move, netting them Brooklyn Nets veteran Thaddeus Young for the 20th overall pick was seen a clear win for the Pacers. Indiana, a team that was looking to become an immediate force saw little more than a project at the 20th pick, getting Young at something of a bargain; the Nets were originally asking higher for the forward.
Mahoney praises Young for his ability to score despite not being an offensive focus, something Indiana struggled with last season. Rookie Myles Turner averaged double figures in a similar type of role, but even Turner had plays run for him, whereas Mahoney notes the lack of plays run for Young. His ability as a scorer (15 points on 51% shooting, second on the Nets) should help improve Indiana's offense while Young hopefully continues his impressive play on the offensive glass (averaging 2.4 offensive boards last season).
While young Turner will be relied upon heavily to protect the rim, Young has a knack for creating turnovers on defense, averaging at least 1.5 steals a game in each of his last four seasons. For the Pacers, the Young acquisition seems to be what the Pacers are looking for; a capable scorer who's not going to lose games defensively. His placement could be weighed on those expectations as he moves up from 75th on last year's list.
Outside of the top 100, the Pacers also have two players that were present on last year's list; Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson. Ellis was ranked 57th heading into his first season with the Pacers, but saw his scoring drop five points to 13.8 per game and his shooting percentage drop nearly 20 points to .427. Mahoney attributes a slip in skillset as a high-mileage Ellis will turn 31 at the start of the season.
That decline in play is one of the reasons Indiana is looking to scale back the role of Ellis this season, and his redundancy with Rodney Stuckey (as well as Teague in the starting lineup) will make him one of the biggest question marks for Indiana early in the season.
Indiana's other "snub" their free agent signing Al Jefferson, who fell from 47th overall a year ago to out of the top 100. The reasoning for this fall had some of the same reasons Hibbert himself fell off the top 100 list as the NBA is currently not accommodating to traditional, post-heavy centers. Jefferson won't start for a Pacers team looking to increase their tempo, but will force a change of pace as the backup big.
The Pacers landed a bargain in talent in Jefferson, but will need to figure out how to best make him work as a traditional center who isn't much of a defender, which would explain where he'll look to fit among the Indiana second unit that can hopefully minimize his defensive liabilities.
There are no doubt a lot of questions for the Pacers heading into the season, whether that focus is on the defensive side of the ball, or in other areas, such as fit and coaching. What's not a question is that Indiana increased their level of talent in the offseason, but even that may not be enough to allow them to stack up to their Eastern Conference foes.
Among other Eastern teams, Atlanta, Toronto, and Washington boast four players in the top 100, while Boston has five. Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte, and Miami all have three of their own, but what works in Indiana's favor is having George, who is ranked second among Eastern Conference players behind James, a fair assessment even after Kyrie Irving's tremendous NBA Finals.
So the 2016-17 Pacers will have the weight of heightened expectations over last season, but that's to be expected after nearly forcing a rare 2-7 upset in April. There's plenty to be excited about if the pieces fit, but the frustrations of last season will be amplified if Indiana is still hovering around .500 throughout the season.