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Enemy: Indiana Pacers
3SOB Prediction: 39-43

Photo: USA Today Sports

Picking up the Pieces in Indiana

I wouldn’t dream of showing the clip here, but we all know why the Pacers have transitioned from Eastern Conference Finalist to potential lottery fodder. Even after the defection of Lance Stephenson to Charlotte (more on this in a moment), it still seemed as though Indiana could muster enough oomph to challenge some teams in the East once the playoffs rolled around. Of course, most of those notions were firmly seated in the belief that Paul George would make yet another leap forward, cementing himself as a Top 3 player in the league. Alas, that is not to be this season.

While George is lost for the season, his potential replacement in carrying a heavy load now wears a Hornets uniform. Many thought that Lance Stephenson should have signed a deal to stay with the Pacers. Given the way they fell apart last season and how Charlotte has improved, it’s hard to argue now that he joined a team clearly on the rise that is having better fortunes.

The collapse last year was mystifyingly perplexing. This was a team that had come *thisclose* to knocking off the Heat the year before, had steamrolled through the early portion of the season in a bid to get home court advantage, and then abruptly nose-dived into mediocrity (at best). Rumors pinned the blame on everything from the Danny Granger-for-Evan Turner swap to the signing of Andrew Bynum to teammates at odds over an alleged affair involving one player and another player’s girlfriend. Frank Vogel did his best to keep the ship on a steady course, but they eventually capsized under the strain.

The Pacers signed journeymen like Lavoy Allen, Rodney Stuckey, and C.J. Miles in the offseason, none of which should provide the least bit of excitement for fans of the team. The fact is, once it became clear that Stephenson was gone, this became an offseason of (hopefully) taking one step back in order to take two or three steps forward. Paul George’s injury shattered that plan into several tiny pieces.

If (big IF) Roy Hibbert can return to the level of play that made him a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and George Hill can play the part of a playmaker, then this team could certainly still make the playoffs in the East. However, there is a question about whether or not they should make that their goal. (I’ll ruminate on that and have a post this weekend for y’all.)

What are they cooking with?

So, Roy Hibbert and…

And honestly, even Hibbert’s status as The Big Donut on more than a few occasions last year bring his effectiveness into question, given that he’s never been a dominant scorer or rebounder. A quick look at the stats show that he was 4th on the team in rebounds per game behind George, Stephenson, and David West. 4th for the lone 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Rather than Hibbert, expect to see a resurgence from David West, a guy who has been a quality scorer/rebounder through much of his career. His ability to take over games on the offensive end should allow others to get more open looks, while his rebounding could see a slight up-tick as well.

George Hill and Rodney Stuckey are uninspiring backcourt mates, since one is too passive and the other is too aggressive. C.J. Miles is a decent enough role player, but he’s not starter-quality for a playoff team.

I’m expecting to see Chris Copeland get a lot more playing time out of necessity as much as anything else, but if that allows him to return to being the kind of player he was with the Knicks his rookie season, then that could go a long way towards keeping the Pacers relevant, rather than just another easy win on other teams’ schedule.

Indiana will welcome two rookies to the squad, both undrafted big men, although sweet-shooting Croatian forward Damjan Rudez will probably intrigue basketball fans a lot more than former Western Michigan standout Shayne Whittington.

Overall, this roster is in need of an overhaul and an injection of talent, which makes the quandary facing Larry Bird an unfortunate choice of whether to cobble together a decent team that would likely be first-round fodder for divisional rivals in the Bulls or Cavs, or to blow it up and start over with a healthy Paul George next season. If he opts for the first, I expect that Vogel will find a way to get this team into the postseason.

How do the good guys stack up?

Photo: Brian Spurlock / USA Today Sports

The Vibe Behind Enemy Lines

To take the temperature of how those more invested in the Pacers perceive forthcoming matchups between Indiana and Memphis, we linked up with both Ian Levy and Rafael Canton. Ian is the founder of Hickory High (which you may know now as the Nylon Calculus), as well as a contributor at Hardwood Paroxysm, VICESports, and Bleacher Report, while Rafael – a Pacers’ die hard – is the creator of NBA Trades (on Twitter @NBA_Trades), and recently dropped a guest spot on 8 Points, 9 Seconds.

Ian Levy: With the loss of Paul George and Lance Stephenson, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the entire NBA, just got a lot scarier for the Indiana Pacers. In a lot of ways the Grizzlies are a mirror image of the Pacers—stout defense, interior physicality a focus on controlling the paint at both ends of the floor.

That being said, the Grizzlies’ bigs, collectively, are much more versatile and capable at the offensive end. Heading into the season with George Hill, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles as the starting backcourt I think the Pacers’ can no longer claim to have an advantage anywhere. Every game the Pacers’ play next season is going to be a brutal, friction-filled affair as Indiana tries to grind, bump and pound their opponents into submission. They Grizzlies have more than enough size and physicality to take that intention and throw it right back in their faces.

I would expect the two Pacers-Grizzlies matchups to be simultaneously slow and exhausting and I would expect the Grizzlies to have the upper hand in both.

Rafael Canton: The Indiana Pacers are coming into this season with completely different expectations than last year. The Pacers got off to a ridiculously hot start and were the best team in the NBA for a stretch, but inconsistency and a bizarre meltdown led to them limping into the Eastern Conference Finals and falling apart in a six-game series loss against Miami. We can’t start talking about the Pacers-Grizzlies matchup without discussing the large gaping holes on the wing in Lance Stephenson and Paul George. The recently departed Stephenson and injured George will really affect how this Pacers offense functions since both players had the ball in their hands at a premium throughout the season. George led Indiana in Usage Rate (28.2 percent) and was an elite player defensively which should definitely hurt Indiana’s defensive philosophies.

George was always a player that never needed help defensively on the perimeter. The Pacers could have him guard an elite player like LeBron James or Kevin Durant without having to bend their defense with help. George still has a ways to go offensively, but he’s really shown some special offensive bursts like his performances in Game Seven in the first round against the Hawks, Game Four in the Semifinals against Washington, or Game Five in the Conference Finals against Miami.

The Pacers and Grizzlies will have similar philosophies this upcoming season. Both teams will work inside and play through their bigs on offense. The major difference between both teams will likely be the difference between the starting point guards. Mike Conley has improved every year and become a much better off the bounce player for Memphis with a much better finishing ability in the paint and a solid jumper. Pacers starting point guard George Hill had a down year with the emergence of Stephenson and has struggled with being assertive in the Pacers offense.

The matchups that standout are the center and power forward positions. Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert is always a fun matchup if first half of the 2013-14 season Hibbert shows up. David West and Zach Randolph are two bruisers who are able to succeed despite athletic limitations. That’s always a fun matchup. The perimeter is a little less dull with Tony Allen really not having to spend too much energy with Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles as the shooting guards on the roster. Small forward is still a big question for Indiana with Solomon Hill and Chris Copeland as the only true small forwards on the roster. Either way, it will be a fun matchup if you like games that are all defense and no scoring.

The Vibe at 3 Shades of Blue

Matthew Preston: Over the past several seasons, I’ve viewed the Indiana Pacers as the Memphis Grizzlies of the East. They’re not perfectly analogous by any means, but there are plenty of parallels. Rudy Gay and Danny Granger’s injuries opened the door for other talented players to assume larger roles and a more balanced offensive attack. Both teams grit and grind on defense. Both teams have gifted big men. And both teams are perennially underrated, underwatched, and under the radar.

The past season witnessed a divergence from this trend, as the Pacers embraced their superstar in Paul George, and their intensity waned under the pressure of team chemistry issues as the season wore on. To be honest, the decline of the Pacers was one of the more upsetting and unsettling developments in all of last season. They had all the talent and experience to overthrow the Heat, but inexplicably lost their groove. Their stalwart defense eased up and Roy Hibbert transformed into a weak, pudgy mass of sadness.
Things certainly didn’t improve in the offseason for the Pacers. Losing Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to a horrific Team USA injury will leave the Pacers in search of another identity, both offensively and defensively, when the season starts. They still have quality big men in David West, Luis Scola, and even Chris Copeland. I also haven’t totally given up on Roy Hibbert yet. (I had really high hopes for him last season.) However, the Pacers will miss the wanton ferocity of Lance Stephenson on defense, and the makeshift grouping of wings isn’t exactly going to fill Paul George’s shoes.

Matching up with the Grizzlies, I don’t see the Pacers posing as big a problem for the Grizzlies as they have in the past. Who knows what their offensive identity will look like, and who knows if their defense will rebound (especially with the departure of Lance). I think they’ll still make the playoffs in the East, but the Grizzlies consistent defense and ever-strengthening offensive identity will prevail against Indiana.

When Do They Square Off?

10/31/14 — Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN — 6:00 PM CST
4/15/15 — FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN — 7:00 PM CST

What Do Y’all Think?

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