Enemy: Indiana Pacers
Coach: Frank Vogel
Potential Starting 5: George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert
Other Key Players: DJ Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, Lance Stephenson, Gerald Green
Threats: Upside, Confidence, Track-meet athletes, Rebounding, Roundedness
Grizzlies 2011-12 Record vs.: 1-0
In the middle of the past decade, the Indiana Pacers stood tall atop the Eastern Conference as giants along with the Pistons. It’s only fitting then, that the Pacers’ preview comes up directly after yesterday’s peek at Detroit. The rivalry between the two was heated, culminating in the infamous “malice at the palace” brawl involving then-Pacers studs, Ron Artest, Jermaine O’neal, and Stephen Jackson. That Pacers group was never quite the same after the team-crippling suspensions that were delivered down from the league office in the aftermath of the incident. This offseason, long-time reliable back up big man, Jeff Foster, has just retired, and thus, the last remaining remnant of the old squad has departed, and the new chapter of the Pacers story is underway. If it wasn’t official yet, I’m declaring it now: the Pacers are back. Yesterday, I wrote about the need for a grimy tough team to challenge the star-studded elite, and with their showing against Miami in the playoffs this past season, the Pacers seem willing to go that route. Their overly physical approach provided them a psychological advantage early on, but all be told may have contributed to their downfall. The overkill of physicality might have in the long run served as fuel to the Heat’s fire, but the Pacers appear determined to forge an identity as one of those teams that you simply do not want to cross. With a core group finally set and locked in, the Pacers now know with certainty what they will be working with going forward, providing an excellent platform from which to launch their upcoming strife for NBA contention. This offseason, the Pacers looked to build upon what they had accomplished last season by aggressively paying both reserve-turned-starter, George Hill, and first time all-star, Roy Hibbert. In addition, they cemented Hill’s lock on the starting gig when they shipped out under-performing Darren Collison to Dallas in exchange for front court depth in the form of Ian Mahinmi. Depth was also re-distributed to the point with the signing of the undervalued DJ Augustin, and to the wings with redemption story, Gerald Green.
Where this leaves the Pacers is in a similarly deep, but greater defined state, as the starting unit moves forward with knowledge of exactly where they stand. As mentioned before, George Hill steps onto the court this year certain of his recently fortified role. Hill came into camp last year on the outside looking in, and proved himself capable of taking over at the helm of the offense. The Pacers didn’t pay him $40 mill over 5 years going forward to back up anybody. Now he’s got to back up the contract by continually taking advantage of his first real opportunity to show what he can do in an extended look at the starting role. Hill is a heady, hardworking player, and a fearless scorer, but he’s going to have to improve his facilitating abilities if the Pacers are going to go far. They have a wealth of talent all around, and Hill will need to do his best to spread the ball to it. If he cannot, regardless of what he’s being paid DJ Augustin will be knocking at his doorstep. Augustin has spent his career in a situation that has been as miserable as it gets in Charlotte, but has proven to be an effective lead guard, and I’m sure would love to show the basketball world that he’s not just a guy that can put up stats on a garbage team. He may even play better, as he’s actually surrounded by talented players to convert the attempts with which he provides them.
Speaking of those guys, and beginning with the potentially fantastic duo on the wings, Danny Granger is as solid as they come, while Paul George looks to be destined for big things. We all know what Granger brings to the table with his steady defensive ability, timely shooting, and unshakable swagger. Granger may not be a true number one, but he won’t let you know it. If it was possible to be reincarnated while one is still alive, George may be just that of Rudy Gay. George is a highlight reel dunker, with all-world athleticism and a respectably smooth jump shot. Granger and George are backed by Gerald Green (too many G’s here) and Lance Stephenson. A casual fan’s knock on the Pacers can be how unexciting they are, but with George and Green flying above the rim on a nightly basis, that perception is sure to change in due time. It’s also notable that our boy, Sam Young, is going to be hangin’ out on the Pacers’ bench, and he’s pretty adept at slamming the ball home as well.
Finally, the most important indicator of how well the Pacers perform will be their post play. Roy Hibbert may have been the sole reason that they were in the position that they found themselves in the Miami series. At 7’2, the Heat, as well as many other teams, have no answer for what he can bring against them when engaged. Given the deal that the Pacers just offered him, Hibbert better go out there and make his presence felt on every given night, because there is now great investment riding on it. He’s backed by new acquisition, Ian Mahinmi, who embodies what it means to be a backup center in the NBA. He’s big, blocks shots, fouls a lot, and plays sound on the boards. The centers will be complemented by David West and Tyler Hansbrough at the four. West is a veteran in the truest sense and has one of the nicest mid-range games in the league, while Hansbrough is not the game-changing “Psycho T” that he was at North Carolina, but has found numerous ways to be effective.
Two years ago I referred to the Pacers as the Grizzlies East. If we were in the Eastern Conference, I’d peg us as the second or third seed, so I see no reason why the Pacers won’t find themselves in such a spot, come the seasons’ end. They’ve got the talent to get by, but propel themselves even further with their grit. When pegged against us, I can’t help but note the similarities in personnel. I already mentioned the comparison between George and Gay, but the bus doesn’t stop there. Hansbrough’s hard-nosed post play is like that of a mini-Zbo, West’s dynamite mid-range shot and average rebounding draws likenesses to Mo Speights, Hibbert’s game would be a lot like Marc’s if he consistently displayed some passion, and Hill, like Mike Conley is an Indiana native with good scoring instincts and magnificent handles. How this bodes for us in a game context is really up in the air, but it should make for some great basketball, nonetheless. It’s always fun to watch two tough gritty teams grind it out for 48 minutes. Last year when we played them, we were led by a well-rounded effort from our crew and took them down by six. With Zbo returning to action, our prospects against them should only improve on paper. However, a single game’s results hardly provide an adequate metric for forecasting future performance. Given our similarities and the degree to which both teams are fueled by hustle play, all bets are truly off. Stay tuned.