By CHRIS GOFF
and CLIFF BRUNT
All season long, IndySportsLegends.com writers Cliff Brunt and Chris Goff will be there to chronicle the Pacers. But let’s peer into our crystal ball. Will the Pacers win the Central Division? The NBA title? Who will surprise? Who’s going to disappoint? Who will prove the most important player on the team? And what is the toughest call Frank Vogel will have to make? Our predictions are presented below.
Most Important Pacer
Goff: Roy Hibbert is the man the Pacers can least afford to lose at any point. He is the centerpiece of the defense, with his ability to alter shots and control the boards. In the playoffs, Hibbert averaged 17 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. In the conference finals, Hibbert averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds. The pressure is on Hibbert to come close to that performance in the 2014 postseason.
Brunt: Paul George wins this one because he has the highest ceiling. As much as he grew last season, the 23-year-old phenom has the potential to grow that much more. If he stays humble — that means if he keeps working hard and allows his teammates to do their jobs without trying to do too much to prove he deserves his contract, he can be one of the league’s top 10 players, maybe even top five. He’s a legitimate defensive player-of-the-year candidate. It’ll bear watching if he is able to develop as a leader on a team that has older, established leaders.
Pacer Most Likely to Surprise
Goff: Paul George exceeded all expectations during his third NBA campaign, storming to the Most Improved Player award as injuries let George move to his natural small forward spot. This year, on a defense-oriented team, no one really is in line for a larger role. Solomon Hill was 5-of-25 in preseason, which makes him an odd choice, but also a fitting one. I wasn’t high on the first-round pick from Arizona on draft night, but reviews from coaches and teammates thus far have been glowing.
Brunt: George Hill. He’s one of the few Pacers who has been sharp for the majority of the preseason. He made 8 of 16 3-pointers in the preseason and had 22 assists to just eight turnovers. I also like his 15-for-16 free throw shooting. He’s attacking the basket, a dimension that makes the Pacers more difficult to defend. Hill isn’t necessarily considered a star, but he is playing like one, even if the numbers don’t pop off the page.
Pacer Most Likely to Disappoint
Goff: The most obvious names to mention would be Luis Scola and Chris Copeland. They are newcomers with flaws. Copeland was in a mysterious funk all preseason, shooting 27.3 percent. Scola, as the primary frontcourt sub off the bench, won’t win many fans if he begins declining rapidly at 33.
Lance Stephenson swung a couple playoff games with his mad dashes to the hoop and can be one of the best rebounding guards in basketball. Overall, Stephenson had a very strong campaign last season. But he remains erratic and his playing style may not mesh as well now that Indiana has more options offensively. Stephenson also might never become a consistent perimeter threat. I’m going with him, though I don’t think the Pacers have anyone who will flop drastically.
Brunt: Lance Stephenson. I don’t say this because I lack confidence in Stephenson. I say it because a lot of folks are obsessed with what Stephenson did at his best and expect that all the time. He could play relatively well this season and still disappoint Pacers fans who fell in love with him during the playoffs. The reality is he’s a talented but inconsistent player who hasn’t carried himself in a mature manner for long enough to convince me he’ll keep behaving that way if things get tough. Stephenson might have star potential, but his potential to fall off the wagon is much greater, especially if Granger gets close to his former self and puts the squeeze on his minutes.
Pacers’ Odd Man Out
Goff: The victim of a minutes crunch is Orlando Johnson. Say this for the Pacers – they can withstand plenty of injuries on the wing. Look for George and Danny Granger to start, with Copeland and Stephenson the primary reserves. That leaves Johnson, the rookie Hill and vet Rasual Butler on the pine. I think Johnson is a good shooter and has the right attitude. The Pacers don’t seem totally sold on him, from Frank Vogel not letting him play meaningful minutes in the playoffs to the regular season when Johnson was sent to the D-League for seasoning. Johnson will do his best to ward off Hill, but it seems iffy.
Brunt: Ian Mahinmi. He’s technically Hibbert’s backup, but Scola’s versatility could make Mahinmi little more than a 6-foot-11 cheerleader. Mahinmi’s a better defender, but Scola, a power forward who can play center, is much more skilled and experienced.
Frank Vogel’s hardest decision will be …
Goff: Whether to play small – and for how long. Vogel may be fixated on traditional size, but this is an organizational move set up by the front office. To best utilize Copeland and Scola, Vogel is going to need to play them at multiple positions. The lineup question is a tough one because the foundation of the team is controlling the paint.
Brunt: Whether to play Granger or Stephenson more. It will be tough because Granger is a better player when healthy, but he’s not fully back from his knee injury, and he likely doesn’t factor into the team’s long-range plans. Stephenson’s mental state plays a role here. It’s not clear how he’d handle going back to a reserve role. Everybody’s saying the right things, but history shows that both these guys are extremely confident and might not be as comfortable with a secondary role as they say. Vogel’s decision might be as much about chemistry as it is about putting the best player on the floor. He will have to be very careful here.
The Pacers will finish…
Goff: In first place in the Central Division, but not quite as a top seed. The talent on hand is ridiculous. Indiana is among the deepest teams in basketball, and Larry Bird has assembled pieces that fit together very well. The Pacers should be at or near the top once again in defensive efficiency. In the East, the Heat are going to score a ton of points and will have the best record. The Pacers will finish with 60 wins.
There is a definite possibility of Indiana breaking through for a first-ever NBA championship. In the end, though, I foresee Miami going back to the Finals for a fourth straight time.
Brunt: 61-21, first in the East, NBA Finals loss. I think Miami’s age will start to catch up this year, as will the uncertain futures of the team’s stars. Brooklyn’s too old, the Knicks will always fall short with Carmelo Anthony and I’m not sure Derrick Rose can hold up for Chicago. While stars such as LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Anthony have peaked or are going downhill, Indiana’s star, George, is on the rise and he’s got a team loaded with veterans to keep him on the right path.