Indiana is the Team to Beat in the East
Indiana is the Team to Beat in the East
By: Tyler Bowen of Two Cents Sports
The NBA is only a couple seasons removed from what seemed like a budding rivalry between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. In three postseasons between 2012-2014, these teams played each other all three years, with two meetings coming in the Conference Finals. Of course, Miami would edge Indiana each time, but Paul George was showing signs of future MVP battle with LeBron James. The rivalry would fall apart in just one offseason where James went back home to Cleveland, and George suffered his gruesome leg injury.
It seems like it’s been an eternity since those intense playoff battles, but they’ll be back. Miami won’t be involved, especially after the news on Chris Bosh, but LeBron vs. PG13 is a near guarantee for this postseason. James is now coming off his first hometown championship victory and Cleveland is primed for another run at the trophy, but Indiana is absolutely stacked heading in to the 2016-2017 season.
Paul George is coming off his first full season since his leg injury, and he averaged a career-high 23.1 points and missed just one game. He shot the three-ball more than ever last season and did it very effectively, draining 210 shots from beyond the arc. George also matched his career-highs in APG and SPG (4.1 and 1.9 respectively), and averaged 7+ RPG for the second time in his career. Now coming in to his second full season post-injury, George is set up for a really nice season. In fact, with Kevin Durant and Steph Curry on the same team, Paul George might be a legitimate MVP candidate. Normally, no man with two first names should be trusted, but George is the exception. At just 26-years-old, it’s likely that he still hasn’t reached his prime. If Paul George really takes over and puts up great numbers, like 27 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG, he could quickly find himself in the MVP discussion.
Indiana did a lot to help their superstar this offseason by bringing in Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young through two trades and then signing Al Jefferson. All of that basically translates to really quality depth. George Hill was a quality starting point guard, but honestly, his “Justin Timberlake in NSYNC” hairstyle was holding Indiana back. Having Teague as the new starter gives the Pacers some more athleticism and youth without taking a big hit in other categories. Teague’s recent improvements in his three-point shot make up for Hill’s departure, and Teague should score and assist at a better pace than Hill did last season (12 PPG, 3.5 APG). Last season Teague also posted a PER of roughly 18 compared to Hill’s 13, which is under league-average.
Having Al Jefferson off the bench could be key for this Indiana team, mostly because it allows Myles Turner to grow. Turner will likely be the starting center for the Pacers in his second professional season. In his rookie campaign he averaged over 10 points and 5.5 rebounds in just under 23 minutes each game. That, along with nearly a 1.5 BPG, makes up a really nice rookie season for 19-year-old. Jefferson is a big, veteran presence who’s been bullying the paint for about a decade now. He’s finished a season averaging a double-double four times in his career, and in his heyday with Minnesota he averaged nearly 2 BPG. He’s dealt with some injuries in recent years with Charlotte, but in a smaller role off the bench he should prove to be very effective. Worst-case scenario for the Pacers is Jefferson doesn’t perform well, but he gives Turner a mentor in the early stages of his career.
And then there’s the rest of the crew. Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Thaddeus Young. All five of these guys can make an impact, and that’s what separates Indiana from the rest of the East. Ellis may be coming off a down year, with his lowest shooting percentage since 2012 and his lowest PPG since his rookie season, but he’s still a viable scoring threat when given the opportunity. Aaron Brooks has been an decent backup point guard for several seasons now, and actually finished with a higher PER than Matthew Dellavedova last season. Thaddeus Young really branded himself as a small power forward in the past couple seasons. He’s shooting far less threes (which is a good thing) and set a career-high with 9.0 RPG last season. He shot over 50% and has the ability to defend/play multiple positions, giving Indiana some versatility that’s similar to what they had in Lance Stephenson in 2013-2014. Of course, Young won’t score 15 PPG like he did in Brooklyn, but he’s a floor-spacing threat that the Pacers need.
Oftentimes with NBA teams this deep and talented, the only thing holding them back is themselves. LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade had some growing pains in Miami and it’s likely that the Golden State Super Team is going to take a little while to mesh. But what Indiana has this season is much different: there’s only one star. This isn’t a team that will overpower opponents with four or five All-Stars or MVP candidates. When Cleveland brings in Mike Dunleavy or Channing Frye, that’s when the Pacers will attack. Players like Brooks, Miles, and Jefferson should easily take on opposing benches.
Because Indiana isn’t a “Super Team”, they’ll face stiff competition, even in the Eastern Conference. This isn’t the East from two seasons ago that saw three playoff teams at .500 or worse. This is an Eastern Conference that has the defending champions (Cleveland), several up-and-coming teams that are quickly climbing the standings (Boston, Detroit, and Milwaukee before Khris Middleton’s injury), and some teams with good playoff experience (Toronto and Indiana). Factor in fringe teams like Chicago, Orlando, Charlotte, and New York, and there’s quite a bit of competition in this Conference.
Although, a change at head coach at this time probably isn’t ideal. Frank Vogel was the longest tenured coach and had the most wins for the Pacers since Bobby Leonard from 1968-1980. Vogel is now running the show in Orlando and Indiana promoted assistant coach Nate McMillan to head coach. McMillan has said that he wants to improve the Pacers’ defense. Well, that would be great, but Indiana has had an elite NBA defense for several years. However, the team’s offseason transactions aren’t going to help the defense. Al Jefferson has been slowly declining and Jeff Teague has never been a terrific defender; Teague is definitely a downgrade from George Hill on that side of the ball. Not to mention Monta Ellis has never been a great defender either. Paul George is an above-average defender, but overall this team is really going to have to rely on their offense and pace of play.
The Pacers are seemingly the only team in the East that can knock off LeBron and the Cavaliers. Sure Detroit or Boston might have a chance at that daunting task, but they most likely don’t have the pieces to do it. Toronto came close last year, but unless Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan learn to perform with consistency in the postseason, they have no shot. Cleveland may still have the best team because of LeBron James, but if Paul George can play at a near-MVP level, this Indiana team has a strong chance at representing the East in the NBA Finals this season.