It’s time. The Pacers kick off their regular season and KU plays their first exhibition game tonight. Two teams with huge expectations begin their journeys to hopefully joyful spring endings.
More about the Jayhawks next week, when their real season begins.
For now, the focus is on the Pacers.
I heard one national radio blowhard1 say he expected the Pacers to, far and away, have the best regular season record in the league this year. He thought they would be closer to 60 wins than 50. Which seems a little nutty to me. Sure, they made some strong moves to strengthen their anemic bench, you have to figure all the young cats will improve at least a little, and the experience of pushing Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals will help make the Pacers stronger than their streaky 2012-13 regular season version. In theory.
I want to believe. But I’m not sure I can see them as a team that threatens the 60-win plateau.
For starters, Derrick Rose is healthy, making Chicago arguably a more complete team than Indiana. The Bulls are a sexy pick to get out of the East. Brooklyn is stronger than a year ago. Strong enough to pass the Pacers? That I don’t know, but still it’s another top four team that will challenge the Pacers for wins in the regular season.
While all the bench moves appear to be good, you never know how players will adjust to new systems and different roles. Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, and C.J. Watson should be big improvements over Tyler Hansbrough, Gerald Green, and D.J. Augustin. But how many more wins that translates to is uncertain.
Everyone expects Danny Granger to provide some kind of boost to the team after missing almost all of last season with a variety of leg injuries. Some do worry, though, that the former gunner and unquestioned #1 option will have a hard time fitting into a rotation where Paul George is clearly the top dog, Lance Stephenson has earned starting minutes, and David West and Roy Hibbert demand touches as well. Even if Granger comes off the bench, will that sit well with him?
Like clockwork, all those questions were put on pause last week when Granger tweaked his calf. He will now miss the first three weeks of the season. It seems more likely that the question about Granger this year will be how often, if at all, can he play and how many minutes will he be good for when he can get on the court.
And, as much as I love Paul George’s game, is he really ready to ascend to superstar status? He played wonderfully in parts of the Miami series last June. But he also cratered in some big moments. Has he rounded out his game where he can be good for 25 every night, and 30 or more each time the Pacers need it as the Thunder can count on from Kevin Durant or the Heat from LeBron?
There are also questions at the point. I love local guy George Hill, but is he really the guy best suited to run the point for a title contender? And will Roy Hibbert be able to repeat his awesome performance from the Heat series? Can West keep age at bay for another year? Can Stephenson keep his head on straight and continue to improve without stepping on the toes of his teammates?
The Pacers had to work hard to win 49 games last year, and harder still to get by a decent but not great Knicks team in the second round of the playoffs. I think the truth of this year’s squad is closer to that than how they played against Miami in the conference finals. They are certainly a contender, perhaps the best suited in the East to knock off Miami because of their size and experience. But I see them as a very good, but not great, team.
The more I think about them, the more I think they’re a team more built for the post-season than the regular season. There will be struggles between now and April. I think 50-52 wins is the most likely regular season outcome. But it won’t be until the playoffs begin that we see the best of the Pacers. That is when we’ll see if the money spent building the bench, the work George and Hill and Stephenson and West and Hibbert did in the off-season is enough to get four wins against New York or Brooklyn or Chicago, and then four more against Miami.
The only sure thing about the franchise is that it is back after the dark, post-brawl years. They are fun and interesting to watch again. They matter when ranking the top teams in the league. They have one of the brightest young players in the game. Which means that on the nights when I’m not out covering a high school game, or when KU isn’t playing, I will look forward to there being a Pacers game scheduled so I can watch them develop.
- Colin Cowherd ↩