Indiana Pacers 2015-16 Season Preview
2014-15 Record: 38-44, No. 4 Central Division, No. 9 Eastern Conference
Roster Additions: Chase Budinger, Rakeem Christmas (rookie, no. 36), Toney Douglas, Monta Ellis, C.J. Fair, Jordan Hill, Glenn Robinson III, Myles Turner (rookie, no. 11), Joseph Young
Roster Subtractions: Chris Copeland, Roy Hibbert, A.J. Price, Damjan Rudez, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, C.J. Watson, David West
SBN Affiliate: Indy Cornrows
When Pacers superstar Paul George broke his leg during a Team USA scrimmage on August 1, 2014, it was assumed that the Pacers' season was finished before it had even started. Lance Stephenson had gone to Charlotte, and no one was sure where Roy Hibbert had gone, even though he was still wearing an Indiana uniform. Though the stated goal was to make the playoffs, few experts thought the team capable.
George Hill had other ideas, however, and put together a solid campaign that kept the Pacers on the bubble of playoff contention. Though he missed nearly half of the season with a nagging back injury, Hill averaged 16.1 points and 5.1 assists per game, and the Pacers had a 23-13 record with him in the starting lineup.
Missing time due to injury was the theme of the Pacers' season. Many nights, the Pacers only dressed eight players. Only one player played in all 82 games last year, small forward Solomon Hill. Hill, who also led the team in minutes played by a wide margin, unfortunately shot 39 percent and, according to basketball-reference.com, had a player efficiency rating of 10.2 (15 is average).
It's a testament to head coach Frank Vogel (as well as the weakness of the Eastern Conference) that the Pacers were in the mix for the eighth and final playoff spot until the last day of the season. Vogel is known as a defensive coach who has been able to rely on rebounding and the ability of Paul George to operate in the half-court offense.
The new NBA season will bring a new style of basketball to Indiana. With Roy Hibbert and David West off to the Western Conference, coach Vogel has said that he intends to play a more up-tempo style of basketball this season.
George Hill is capable of pushing the offense some, though he is not particularly known as a high-powered transition guard. To take some of the pressure off of Hill, Indiana decided it needed more firepower in the backcourt, signing Monta Ellis to a four year, $44 million dollar contract.
Ellis has a reputation as a high usage, "me first" combo guard, and often frustrated Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle last season. While Ellis does dominate the ball on offense, having a 27.9% usage percentage last year, according to basketball-reference.com, he also is underrated as a facilitator. Though he is not a creative passer, he is able to find the open man with ease. Transitioning to a high speed style of play will help the Pacers maximize Ellis' impact with the ball in his hands this season.
Ellis and Hill should form a fine guard tandem. While neither is a traditional point guard, their styles of play complement each other's well, with Hill an excellent spot up 3-point shooter, and Ellis preferring to take the ball to the rim.
Interestingly, returning combo guard Rodney Stuckey replicates much of Ellis' skill set, so it will be interesting to see how he will be used off of the bench this season. A historically very poor 3-point shooter, Stuckey shot a career-high 39 percent from distance last season, a possible sign that he will be able to be featured in different ways this coming year.
More impactful than the addition of Ellis, is the fact that Paul George is back. Though he played six games at the end of last season, it was clear to most fans that he was not himself. He was clearly favoring his injured leg any time he would land, and did not have his typical elevation on his jumper. Pacer fans are hopeful that this was just George learning to trust his body again and that he will be back to normal this season.
George, when healthy, is one of the most devastating two-way players in the league; able to take nearly anyone off the dribble, get out in transition, and use his extreme length to play hounding defense. The Pacers have announced that they will be using George at the power forward position this season, hoping to use him as a small ball mismatch, as is the trend in the modern NBA.
Indiana added several role players this season to help them transition into this new style of play. Small forward Chase Budinger, acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves, is an athletic leaper who can also knock down 3-pointers on a consistent basis, averaging 5.5 attempts per game over his career. Budinger has struggled with injuries of late, not playing in more than 70 games since the 2010-11 season.
To address the loss of center Roy Hibbert, Indiana signed Jordan Hill away from the Los Angeles Lakers. Hill was one of only a few bright spots for the Lakers last season, averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds in only 28 minutes per game. Additionally, the Pacers used the no. 11 overall pick on rookie center Myles Turner, from the University of Texas.
Turner was one of the stars of the 2015 Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 18.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks per game. While there are knocks on Turner in terms of mobility, he already features a solid jump shot, good hands, and above average shot blocking skills. Couple these with his length and it is likely that Turner is the Pacers' starting center of the future.
There is no bigger question mark, possibly in the league, than Paul George. Not only whether he will be able to regain his form as an MVP/DPOY candidate, but whether he can adapt to playing a new position. Both will likely take some time, as he continues to adjust to new physical limitations. George has always been able to defend multiple positions on the court, so he should be able to take advantage of mismatches quite easily at the power forward position, assuming he's fully healthy. Here's hoping, because Paul George is one of the most entertaining players in the NBA to watch on a nightly basis.
Well, it's a good thing divisions don't really matter anymore. With the Pacers competing in the Central Division with the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, and Milwaukee Bucks, it's conceivable (if Detroit overachieves) that Indiana could finish last in its division and still make the playoffs. While the Miami Heat have arguably shown the most improvement of last year's non-playoff teams, Indiana is going to have a healthy Paul George for a full season. If he is able to regain most of his previous athleticism and explosiveness, Indiana could surprise.
Ultimately, however, expect the Pacers to finish the season similarly to where they ended last year; near .500, battling for the No. 7 or No. 8 seed, with no chance of advancement should they make the playoffs.
The Pacers aren't going to miss Roy Hibbert. Myles Turner has the length and the instincts to be a great defensive big man in the league. While fellow center Jordan Hill is a definite step down on defense, he played for a Lakers team last year that essentially let opponents run layup drills all season long. With Frank Vogel running the defense, the Pacers will still be a high level defensive team and the Turner/Hill tandem will adequately replace Hibbert in the middle.
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