2012-2013 W-L: 49-32
New Places: DJ Augustin (Toronto), Gerald Green (Phoenix), Jeff Pendergraph (San Antonio), Miles Plumlee (Phoenix),
New Faces: Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, CJ Watson
Draft: Solomon Hill (23)
The Pacers were one win away from the NBA Finals last season. That’s a fact. How close – extremely, awfully or very – Indiana actually came to beating the Heat is open to interpretation.
Yes, LeBron James made a game-winning layup as time expired in the first of a series that went the maximum seven games. But that line of thinking doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the how the Eastern Conference Finals played out in reality. The Pacers pushed an injured Miami team farther than most anyone anticipated, but the champs responded with aplomb whenever their collective back was truly against the wall: they won games 3, 5 and 7 by 20, 11 and 23 points respectively.
So Indiana came close to dethroning the Heat, but “seven games” doesn’t convey the true state of that series. Miami controlled the action not at will, but certainly something close to it. Contrast that to the true ebb and flow of the NBA Finals: though each series went the distance, in which set of games did the Heat face real and consistent doubt?
It’s important going forward to put Indiana’s loss to the Heat in the proper perspective. Why? The Pacers might be a much better team this season than they were in 2012-2013.
No coach has ridden his starters like Frank Vogel over the last two seasons. Indiana’s opening quintet played the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league last year, and led the NBA in 2011-2012. It’s no secret the Pacers have lacked a corps of reserves befitting the team’s status as almost title-contenders, and Vogel made up for it in the most straight forward way possible.
A quick glance at lineup data from last year’s playoffs shows that Vogel’s hand was basically forced. Of eight non-starter groups that played at least 20 postseason minutes, only two had positive net ratings. The remaining six were – only a crass adjective applies – slaughtered; the ‘best’ of those lineups managed a -12.7 rating, and four of them registered red numbers in the mid-20s.
Help was on the way next year even if Indiana mostly stood pat this offseason, but Kevin Pritchard wasn’t satisfied. The Pacers used cap exceptions to sign Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, each of whom is a major boost off the bench compared to recent Indy reserves. Copeland is a limited defender and a bit one-dimensional on offense, but gives Vogel an opportunity to experiment with small-ball, floor-stretching lineups. History’s shown he’s reluctant to abandon the Pacers more traditional power forward/center post identity, but that another option exists is at least a nice ace in the hole. Still, the on-court impact of Watson’s signing is likely bigger. He’s no super-sub, but an upgrade on Augustin in most every way imaginable. Indiana absolutely fell apart without George Hill on the floor last season, and that won’t be the case in 2013-2014.
But the biggest fish here is Scola. The price Pritchard paid to get him – Gerald Green, 2012 first round pick Miles Plumlee and a future lottery-protected first-rounder – seems high on the surface, but needs proper context. Green’s reclamation project flamed out by mid-January, optimistic projections for Plumlee suggest a player like Mahinmi, and a Pacers first-rounder – barring a major injury to one of their stars – will be in the 20s the next half-decade. Scola’s clearly on the downside of his career, but still offers Indy’s second-unit a versatile offensive cog. He can post-up, pick-and-pop and play effectively from the elbow. Fulcrums like this can keep the bench afloat.
Pritchard’s summer activity is just icing on the cake, though; the Pacers were going to get better reserve play next season nonetheless. The rise of Paul George and fun of Lance Stevenson made it easy to forget Indiana played last season without former All-Star Danny Granger, but the potential influence gleaned from his return can’t be understated. He’s not Indy’s best player anymore and won’t be utilized that way, but that’s a good thing for the Pacers. Granger was stretched thin as a primary offensive option in his peak years, and should thrive playing a more ancillary role with Hill and George doing the lion’s share of ballhandling. In fact, there’s no reason he can’t be an ideal ’3-and-D’ type should he commit to that identity; the Pacers need all the space they can get on offense, and allowing George time away from guarding the opposition’s best wing threat is prudent. The biggest question now is whether or not Granger assumes his role as a starter. While a reserve part seems the right one, Vogel’s bench will receive a major boon one way or another. Stephenson, after all, is poised for bigger things this season.
The Pacers are another year older. They made offseason moves that improved on their biggest weakness. And they have an All-Star returning from injury. So they’ll be better this season, and considering the way last year ended – on the road at Game 7 – all that could mean Indiana should be favorites in the Eastern Conference. But that wasn’t a typical seven game series, the Heat aren’t a typical team and LeBron James isn’t a typical MVP. Context always, always matters, and it renders a prediction for 2013-2014 we’re all accustomed to by now: until proven otherwise, it’s Miami with a bullet in the East.
But there’s room for a real title contender just below the Heat in the conference pecking order, a team considered the favorite should things go awry in South Beach. Boston, Chicago and the Pacers have been noted challengers the past three seasons, and New York’s teams long to hop in the ring. If that separation comes this season, Indiana’s the one most likely to have emerged from the fray – this summer’s ensured it. And until they meet Miami again, that should be enough for the Pacers.
Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.