The Indiana Pacers were supposed to be the team to dethrone the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, but they sputtered into the playoffs and again failed to make the Finals. Can they retool with minimal cap space and return as title contenders?
This season, the Pacers endured one of the strangest roller coaster rides in recent memory.
Indiana shot out of the starting blocks as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning a franchise-record nine consecutive games to start their campaign.
They then went on to put together four more streaks of at least five straight wins and were the second team in the league to clinch a playoff berth after building an unassailable 22-game led on the then ninth-placed Detroit Pistons by Mar. 5.
However, with a month left in the season, holding a 50-17 record and with the first seed in the Eastern Conference all but won, the Pacers went an uncharacteristic 6-9 to close the season and only just pipped the Miami Heat atop the standings in the East with a 56-26 record – their best finish in a decade.
Indiana’s sudden transformation from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde continued into their postseason run. They barely escaped elimination at the hands of the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in round one, squeaking out a 4-3 series win at the death.
Round two went slightly smoother, as Indiana slipped past a plucky Washington Wizards outfit 4-2, but they again fell short of the mark against the Heat, falling 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite their ultimate shortcomings, Indiana was again one of the best teams in the league this season, continuing to build the foundation for their success on their suffocating defence.
The Pacers finished the season ranked second in points allowed per game (92.3) and first overall for defensive rating (99.3), proving that despite their late-season struggles they were still one of the league’s premier defensive units.
However, their well documented struggles on the offensive end continued, ending the season 24th for points per game (96.7) and 23rd for offensive rating (104.1).
Indiana’s rising star Paul George might have risen into MVP consideration early in the year, but pulling the chain on offence alone occasionally proved too much for the 24-year-old Fresno State product.
David West (14.0 points and 6.8 rebounds) tried his best to spread the floor and be a dynamic scorer for the Pacers, but at age 33, his All-Star seasons are behind him.
Likewise, George Hill (10.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists) fought admirably to influence the offence throughout the season, but he is better suited as a complimentary piece.
Thankfully, the emergence of Lance Stephenson helped keep the Pacers offence afloat, providing an energetic presence that no other member of the roster could provide.
In his fourth season, Stephenson averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds (first amongst shooting guards) and 4.6 assists (fifth) per game – the later both being team-highs.
The former New York high school sensation also led two guards in double-doubles and finished first in the entire league for triple-doubles, with five for the season.
Stephenson’s contributions on the offensive end were supremely important given the minimal impact provided by offseason additions Luis Scola (7.6 points and 4.8 rebounds – career-lows), CJ Watson (6.6 points and 1.7 assists – the lowest since his rookie year) and Chris Copeland (3.7 points in just 6.5 minutes a night).
Meanwhile, midseason additions Even Turner and Andrew Bynum were equally ineffectual after joining the team.
After enjoying a decent amount of individual success with the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, Turner could only manage 7.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists a game for Indy.
Meanwhile, Bynum only hit the court twice for the Pacers and was by all reports a toxic disruption in the locker room before being dismissed mid-postseason.
Most Valuable Player
The aforementioned George continued to go from strength to strength and enjoyed his best season as a pro in year four, earning his second All-Star selection, All-Defensive First Team honours and was voted to the All-NBA Third Team.
At the conclusion of the season, PG was averaging 21.7 points per game (12th in the league), 1.9 steals (fifth), 3.5 assists (seventh amongst small forwards) and 6.8 rebounds (sixth).
Not only was George a fantastic offensive player for Indiana – finishing 13th in triples made and ninth in free throws made in the league – he also continued to develop into an elite defender – ending the year fourth in total steals, third in defensive rating and second in defensive win shares.
With the Pacers enduring such an up-and-down end to the season, they needed George to be a leader for the team more than ever and he certainly stepped up to the plate.
After suffering through a rough patch of form late in the season (18.8 points, 37.5% FG and 32.5% 3FG through his last 20 games of the regular season), George enjoyed a sensational individual playoff run, averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.2 steals per game, while shooting 43.8% from the floor and 40.3% from deep – all better than his regular season averages.
It was a disappointing end to a season full of so much promise for Indiana, but you cant fault the play of George, who singlehandedly kept them from elimination at times.
On the flip side, while George was able to shrug off his late-season slump, find another gear and take his game to the next level in the postseason, the collapse of Hibbert towards to the end of the year was brutal.
Before earning his second All-Star nod, Hibbert was averaging a respectable, 11.8 points (46.4% FG), 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game – by no means elite numbers (aside from the blocks), but perfectly reasonable for someone in his role and his play style.
However, after the break, Hibbert’s numbers plummeted to 8.9 points (39.0% FG), 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks – on par with the likes of Boston Celtics pair Kelly Olynyk and Kris Humphries.
To make matters worse, the two-time All-Star’s play seemed to get worse in the playoffs, where he scored less than double digits in 10 of his 19 games – including four zero-point outings – and he only snared 10 or more rebounds twice.
His play did improve later during Indiana’s postseason run, but Hibbert was far from the influential factor he was against Miami in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, where he averaged22.1 points (on 55.7% FG and 80.4% FT), 10.4 rebounds and a block per game against the eventual champs.
Hibbert was supposed to be the foundation of the Pacers success, but he turned out to be more of a hindrance when it mattered the most.
After dealing their first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns to acquire Scola, the Pacers wont be on the board until the 57th selection.
Whether or not they even retain this pick remains to be seen and it is hard to imagine Indiana being able to obtain a difference maker so late in the draft.
The most pressing issue the Pacers will face in the offseason surrounds the future of Stephenson.
The man they call Born Ready is entering unrestricted free agency and the Pacers could have a fight on their hands to keep him in gold and blue.
As their roster sits without Stephenson’s signature (and assuming they let Turner walk) the Pacers are right around the projected salary cap for next season, but will have around $9 million to play with before they hit the dreaded luxury tax.
With their core players (George, Hibbert, West and Hill) under contract for the foreseeable future and the luxury tax predicted to rise to around $81 million by 2015-16, the Pacers could afford to offer Stephenson around $10 million per year, flirt with the luxury tax and still have room to make minor changes heading forward.
Ultimately, it comes down to two things – are there any other teams willing to make a big-money play for Stephenson in the offseason and how loyal does the player feel to the franchise that gave him a chance in the big league that many thought he didn’t deserve?
Stephenson’s antics in the conference finals drew the ire of many, but he is still a supremely talented 23-year-old with room to grow.
The likes of Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony could be on the move this offseason, but it is the future of a smaller name that could send one of the Eastern Conference elites tumbling down the standings.
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