All through Team USA training camp in Las Vegas, Paul George talked about the Pacers getting back to the way they played the first half of last season, about being hungry again. The collapse the second part of last season and into the playoffs (they still made the Eastern Conference Finals but never felt like a real threat to Miami) was something that could be put in the past. With LeBron James moving to Cleveland the East was wide open and George thought the Pacers were right in the middle of it.
When George does get back on the court, this could be a very different looking Pacers team.
Next season the Pacers should still be solid because they will defend. Last season Indiana had the best defense in the NBA last season allowing jut 96.7 points per 100 possessions over the course of the regular season and their system is not going to change.
That starts with Roy Hibbert protecting the rim — Indiana did a great job of contesting defenders on the perimeter and guiding them into Hibbert and his 7’9” standing reach. He intimidated and owned the paint. He also struggled last season but with George and Lance Stephenson gone (Stephenson signed in Charlotte as a free agent) Hibbert is going to get more touches and be asked to carry more load on the offensive end and when that happens Hibbert is more engaged and active on both ends. The two-time All-Star could put up the best offensive numbers of his career.
But he could be the real long-term problem for the Pacers.
Hibbert can opt-out after next season and become a free agent. If he’s unhappy with the situation in Indiana, or if he just wants longer-term security, he might.
Which leaves the Pacers with the “should we trade him now and get something in return?” question. They quietly have been shopping him this summer with little real interest — he’s coming off a down season and if a team really wants him they know they might be able to get him as a free agent in a year. Nobody is going to give up much. Still, the Pacers have to consider the option, although this is not a franchise that believes in tear-it-down rebuilds.
With that dangling over their heads, the Pacers need to find some offense this season.
Last season Indiana’s 101.5 points per 100 possessions was 22nd in the NBA and that was with George and Stephenson doing most of the shot creation. Now the offense initiation is going to fall to George Hill — look for him to have an improved season, he was asked to be a caretaker/spot-up shooter with George and Stephenson around but now he can go back to being the aggressive player Gregg Popovich didn’t want to part with. But Hill and Hibbert, with David West and a few shooters does not a great offense make.
It will fall to coach Frank Vogel to wring points out of this stone. And his system struggled to do that when he had Stephenson and George.
Indiana could in theory add a piece. Because of the George injury the Pacers can get a “disabled player exception” and add a player worth up to the mid-level exception of $5.3 million. Except the Pacers are just a little over $2 million under the luxury tax line now and they didn’t want to go over that line in the best of times, let alone for this team that likely is not going deep in the playoffs.
Guys like Shawn Marion are still out there and could help, but can they land him.
Expect the Pacers to remain a top 10 certainly (likely top five) defense, but one that is going to fall closer to .500 (or below) because they cannot score enough. Also expect to hear them in a lot of trade rumors as they have a lot of hard questions about the long-term future to answer.