Well, here they are. After years of rebuilding and unloading bad contracts, the Pacers had their coming-out party in 2011-12 and look set to have a half-decade window of being a quasi-serious contender in the Eastern Conference. Meticulous cap management under Larry Bird and some shrewd drafting -- Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert were selected outside the lottery and Paul George 10th overall -- allowed the Pacers to rebuild. The final step came when they scored a rare free-agent coup with David West.
Bird stepped down over the summer, however. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: Indy handed the reins back to Donnie Walsh, with former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard as a heavily involved No. 2. Meanwhile, the Pacers parted ways with Bird's right-hand man, David Morway.
The new front office inherits an enviable situation, as most of the hard work has been done. The Pacers identified a solid coach in Frank Vogel and seem locked into this starting five, assuming West re-signs, for the foreseeable future. With West the only player on the wrong side of 30, the Pacers don't figure to go away any time soon.
The question, instead, is whether they can make the additional leap to be something more than a solid second-round playoff team. The Pacers have five good players, but they don't have a true star, Hibbert's max contract notwithstanding. The best shot at one is George, but he and Granger are both natural small forwards. It seems inevitable that the Pacers will have to move Granger to get the best out of George.
The other move that could lift the Pacers another level would be upgrading the bench. An effort was made on that front in the offseason, although to what end is unclear. Indiana will be able to keep the starting five together and stay under the luxury tax or reasonably close -- an imperative in this market -- but the Pacers have to keep finding inexpensive role players to piece together the rest of the roster.
Drafting well would go a long way toward accomplishing that, and the draft was Pritchard's specialty in Portland. Nonetheless, the Pacers represent a typical study in the challenges facing small-market teams trying to take the final steps to be a champion. Nobody is flocking to Indiana in free agency or demanding a trade to this team, they can't go deep into the tax, and they'll be drafting in the 20s for the next few years.
Getting to this point took some wise drafting and a lot of patience, which was impressive. Getting further will take a double dose of smarts, luck and timing.
Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger could be celebrating more success if the Pacers keep rolling.
How is this possible? The Pacers were 28th in 2-point shooting percentage, ahead of only Cleveland and Charlotte, and somehow had a good offense anyway. This answers one of the big questions of last season, which is how an offense could look so ugly and still produce decent results.
It turns out, it looked ugly because it was ugly. There were a lot of forced shots and bad bricks, and much of it came either in straight isos or pick-and-rolls that the ball handler turned into isos. The indiscriminate gunning was bad enough with the starters, but it really went over the top any time Tyler Hansbrough checked in. Not surprisingly, the Pacers had the third-lowest assisted-basket rate in the league.
HOLLINGER'S '11-12 STATS
W-L: 42-24 (Pythagorean W-L: 42-24)
Offensive efficiency: 103.5 (8th)
Defensive efficiency: 100.4 (10th)
Pace factor: 93.4 (19th)
Highest PER: Roy Hibbert (19.35)
So where's the good news in all this? And how the heck did they finish eighth in offensive efficiency?
For starters, they got to the line a ton and made their freebies. While they had trouble finding the open man, when they did, they made the shot, as Indy shot a strong 36.8 percent on 3s -- albeit on very few attempts; again, finding the open man wasn't a strength. As a result, its true shooting percentage was almost exactly at the league average of 52.7.
The second part, as you may have figured out by now, is that Indy was a classic quantity team. Maybe the guards didn't find the open man, but they didn't throw the ball away either. And all those ugly isos at least produced a shot. The Pacers were well below the league average in turnover rate and well above it in offensive rebound rate. As a result, only five teams averaged more shots per possession than the Pacers.
Basically, they were good at every part of offense except 2-point shooting. That's still an important factor, but the Pacers were the rare team whose excellence on the rest of the spectrum let them thrive despite an abysmal shooting percentage inside the arc.
Still, one wonders how good they might be with a dynamic point guard. Shooters like George, Granger and West dot the perimeter, and Hibbert has a solid face-up game too. A guard who could drive and dish would make their lives a lot easier.
Defensively, the Pacers were solid overall, but their weakest link pointed an arrow at the frontcourt. Indiana fouled like crazy, particularly with the second unit, posting the league's fifth-worst opponent free throw rate. The Pacers also had a subpar defensive rebound rate and gave up more 3s than normal.
Usually all three of those are signs of an ineffective frontcourt rotation, and it's not a huge surprise to see Indy rank so low. While Hibbert and West were effective offensive players, they both had defensive limitations. West is a bit undersized and couldn't jump after offseason Achilles surgery, while Hibbert protects the rim but moves slowly. The second unit didn't help either, as undersized Lou Amundson struggled as the backup center.
This takes us to the other big story of the season. A lot of people don't realize how bad Indiana's bench was and how much it held the Pacers back, especially in the playoffs. Consider that the four-man pairing of West, George, Granger and Hibbert outscored opponents by 259 points. The rest of the time Indy was -41. Every bench player had a negative plus-minus, every starter had a positive plus-minus, and George Hill and Darren Collison, who swapped roles halfway through the season, were neutral.
This carried over to the playoffs, where the Pacers' starters outplayed Miami's, but the bench was so bad they lost the series anyway. Indy was plus-58 with its starting five on the court, but with at least one sub playing, it was minus-97 against a club not exactly renowned for its bench.
Indiana kept its starting five intact and, based on the failures of the bench, went about rebuilding the second unit. In the end, I'm not sure the overall impact was a net positive, but it beat trying something that had been proven not to work. Check out these moves:
Let Amundson go, drafted Miles Plumlee and Orlando Johnson: Plumlee is a great athlete and leaper, but he might have been a reach in the first round. His anemic production at Duke suggests he'll be a one-dimensional rebounder. He does, however, add some genuine size to a frontcourt that needed it. Second-rounder Johnson was another need-based pick, as the Pacers look to fortify a wing rotation that disappointed last season.
Re-signed Roy Hibbert for four years, $56 million: The Pacers "matched" an offer sheet from Portland that was never actually signed by Hibbert, as Indy quickly offered him identical terms and he decided not to bother with the charade. The most important part, other than the money, is that it contains a player option for the fourth year, which means the Pacers and Hibbert could be doing this dance again three years from now. The Pacers probably overpaid, but they had no realistic alternative; Dwight Howard wasn't clamoring to come to Indiana.
Re-signed George Hill for five years, $40 million: This one was preordained when the Pacers traded their first-round pick to San Antonio for Hill a year ago, with the intent to re-sign him. While one can argue that the money was a bit rich for a restricted free agent who isn't a star, Hill had a productive first season in Indiana, and his ability to play both guard spots gives the team some roster flexibility. The biggest issue may be the fully guaranteed fifth year on the deal, which no other team could even offer Hill. That, combined with the dollars, seems like an overreach.
Traded Collison and Dahntay Jones to Dallas for a signed-and-traded Ian Mahinmi (four years, $16 million): This was the big question mark in Indy's summer, as the Pacers could have signed Mahinmi outright rather than trading two players for him. The contract also seemed a bit generous for a player of Mahinmi's modest talents. The one big positive is that the Pacers seem to have solved their backup center issue. Mahinmi will be a big upgrade on Amundson defensively, and unlike Amundson, he can make a shot from outside the charge circle.
The problem is more that the Pacers needlessly gave away two players to make it happen. Apparently they viewed Jones as a negative asset and wanted him gone badly enough that they were willing to throw in Collison. That seems a stretch given that Jones was fairly productive a year ago, but it was the logic. Meanwhile, the Pacers lost a productive point guard who was the lone positive for their struggling second unit -- all for a player they could have signed outright.
Signed Gerald Green for three years, $10.5 million: Indy filled its backup small forward spot by looking to cash in on Green's potential. He washed out earlier in his career, but last season, he destroyed the D-League like it was a video game and played quite well for New Jersey. Given the dollars, it was a reasonable risk on the Pacers' part that may pay big rewards. The nice part for Indy is that if Green thrives, it can play small lineups with Granger at the 4 much more frequently, something the team hardly ever did last season.
Let A.J. Price go, signed D.J. Augustin for one year, $3.5 million: The new backup point guard in Indy will be Augustin, which is the other puzzling part of the Collison deal. First, the positive: Augustin is a better passer than any guard on the Pacers, and he may be able to distribute the ball to Indy's shooters much more effectively. Unfortunately, Augustin hasn't made his own shots, either from outside or in the paint, and defensively he is a major liability. As a result, he is a downgrade from Collison in nearly every respect and costs $1.2 million more.
The Pacers signed him to only a one-year deal, which means even if Augustin plays well, they're hosed, because he can walk as a free agent and the Pacers won't have his Bird rights -- the most they can offer is a 20 percent raise to $4.2 million. Collison would have been a restricted free agent and much less of a flight risk.
Let Leandro Barbosa go, signed Sam Young and Sundiata Gaines to one-year, minimum deals: Barbosa was secretly awful last season, and the Pacers were wise to let him walk. I liked the moves they made to fill out their roster, as Young and Gaines were undervalued by their former teams. Neither can shoot, but the Pacers have enough shooting. It's likely one of these two will be the backup shooting guard, although Johnson and Lance Stephenson also figure in the picture. Gaines may get minutes at the point if Augustin struggles.
The biggest advantage the Pacers have is that they play in the Eastern Conference, where it looks like they may land the No. 2 seed by default. With the former powers crumbling around them and nobody else to take the mantle, Indiana may find itself in the conference finals this spring.
This would be another tangible sign of progress, but if you're looking past this to the Pacers' chances of winning a conference title or the whole shebang, look at two factors: Paul George and the bench. George is the team's one chance to have a genuine star emerge, so if he can take that next step in his third pro season, it will make Indy's already potent starting five a real force -- even against the Miamis of the world.
With the rebuilt bench, the hope is that supplementing the frontcourt with Mahinmi and Plumlee and adding a passer in Augustin will offset some of the weaknesses that plagued this team last season. Adding Green helps too. I'm dubious that the changes will amount to an improvement, but give Indy credit for aggressively addressing a problem area.
The final issue, as always, is fortune. The Pacers had good luck with health last season, as Hill was the only rotation player to miss more than six games, and they received another stroke of good luck with opponents shooting only 72.9 percent from the line, well below the 75.2 percent league average. (Indy benefited by about a full game in the standings from this.)
They probably won't have quite as much buena suerte this season, but they probably won't need it either. In this conference, Indy looks like the biggest threat left to Miami's dominance.
Prediction: 52-30, 1st in Central Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference