NBA PM: Are Indiana Pacers Finals Bound?
If the Indiana Pacers’ gradual, year-by-year improvement continues, they will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals in the 2013-14 season. That’s the next step for a Pacers team that has advanced deeper and deeper in the postseason in each of the last three years.
In 2010, they were eliminated in the first round by the Chicago Bulls. In 2011, they were knocked out in the Conference Semifinals by the Miami HEAT. In 2012, they were sent home in the Eastern Conference Finals, again, by Miami. They gave the eventual champion HEAT a hard-fought series in consecutive seasons, but they ultimately lost to LeBron James and company each time.
Paul George made huge strides last year and, as he enters his fourth NBA season at 23 years old, there’s no reason to believe he can’t take another significant step forward. He’ll enter this season with his confidence at an all-time high than since he’s coming off an All-Star campaign and earned a number of individual accolades including Most Improved Player and All-NBA Third Team. He’ll also enter the season as the clear-cut number one option, which he says wasn’t the case last year due to the uncertainty surrounding Danny Granger’s injury.
“This whole summer, I really trained being the go-to guy and the lead guy for our team,” George told Michael Pointer of USA TODAY Sports. “Last year, we still had Danny and did not know the results [of Granger’s injury] coming into the year. I had a role that I had kind of prepared for and trained for. This year, it was more about training to be the No. 1 guy and lead this team.”
If George can continue to develop, that would clearly make the Pacers an even better team. However, they should also see improvement from the 26-year-old Roy Hibbert, 27-year-old George Hill and 22-year-old Lance Stephenson. While the HEAT seem to be declining due to Dwyane Wade’s injuries and an aging supporting cast, the Pacers’ best basketball seems to be ahead of them given their young core.
Hibbert, specifically, could be poised for a big season after he had his coming out party during the 2012 playoffs, when he averaged 17 points on 51.1 percent shooting from the field as well as 9.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. In the seven-game Eastern Conference Finals against Miami, Hibbert averaged 22.1 points on 55.7 percent shooting from the field along with 10.4 rebounds and a block.
The return of Granger will also significantly improve the Pacers. In five games last season, the 30-year-old small forward wasn’t himself, averaging just 5.4 points on 28.6 shooting from the field. He struggled on the court and experienced a number of setbacks that kept him sidelined far longer than expected throughout the year.
If he’s healthy in 2013-14, the Pacers could certainly use his offensive contributions. He’s just one year removed from leading Indiana in scoring with 18.7 points per game and while last year’s team was excellent defensively, they ranked 23rd in points per game (94.7), 26th in field goal percentage (.436) and 22nd in three-point percentage (.347). Inserting Granger back into the starting lineup or, if Frank Vogel prefers, into a sixth man role should help the Pacers’ offense. If Indiana decides that Granger no longer fits with their team, they may be able to move him and his $14,021,788 expiring contract before the trade deadline and add a player or two who could be effective alongside their other pieces.
However, the biggest reason to believe 2013-14 could be the Pacers’ season is the fact that the team will have a much stronger second unit than in years past. Entering the summer, it seemed like Indiana would just be re-signing David West and then standing pat. But Indiana was one of the most active teams and, when all was said and done, had a tremendous offseason.
The team acquired Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland – three players who will really strengthen the Pacers’ bench and help improve those previously mentioned poor offensive statistics. Scola, Watson and Copeland are significant upgrades over Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green (all of whom were key contributors for the 2012-13 team). George, for one, loves the acquisitions.
“It tells me we’ve got something special,” George said. “We still have to work hard, but it would be a huge letdown for the front office to make the moves that they made and for us not to take that next step.”
That next step is playing in the NBA Finals and, of course, hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Ellis Excited for Fresh Start in Dallas
Monta Ellis isn’t one to hide how he feels. That’s why it isn’t very surprising to hear that the veteran shooting guard expressed his displeasure with the Milwaukee Bucks organization at the introductory press conference for his new team, the Dallas Mavericks. Ellis, who signed a three-year deal reportedly worth $25.08 million with the Mavericks, admitted that he wasn’t happy during his stint with the Bucks.
“When you’re in a place where you’re unhappy, it’s very hard to perform to your best ability,” Ellis told reporters, according to ESPNDallas.com. “So this is a new beginning, a new fresh start, better organization, better teammates. It’s going to make everybody, everything a lot more better.”
When asked to elaborate on why he was unhappy with his former team, Ellis chose not to go into details saying that he “left it in Milwaukee.”
However, he did say that prior to joining Dallas he had to do “60 percent of everything,” referencing his heavy workload with the Bucks and Golden State Warriors.
The 27-year-old is excited to join the Mavericks and serve as Dirk Nowitzki’s “sidekick.” He also told reporters that he believes he can increase his scoring average in Dallas and put up numbers similar to the ones he recorded in his Golden State days.
During the 2009-10 season with the Warriors, Ellis averaged a career-high 25.5 points, but his points per game decreased in each of next three seasons. Last year, he averaged 19.2 points on 41.6 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three-point range. It was this drop in production – as well as his inefficiency – that kept Ellis from getting a more lucrative deal.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban missed out on superstar free agents Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, but he’s excited to add Ellis as well as fellow offseason additions Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Devin Harris, DeJuan Blair and Wayne Ellington. Dallas missed the playoffs for the first time since 2000 in the 2012-13 season, but Cuban believes the team will be much better going forward.
“Forget last year,” Cuban said. “I think we’ve got a good basketball IQ at the point guard with Jose and when Devin comes back. I think Monta is a smart basketball player whether he’s playing the one or the two. So I think we’re going to be able to do a lot more, a lot of different things than we were able to do last year.”
Bryant May Not Return for Opening Night
Kobe Bryant has made headlines throughout the offseason by saying that he’s drastically ahead of schedule as he recovers from surgery to repair his torn Achilles tendon. He talked about how he “shattered” the usual recovery time by being able to walk and lift weights with his Achilles at three and a half months. He made it clear that he “feels really good” and is targeting an opening night return.
While it certainly sounds like Bryant is making progress, he pumped the brakes for the first time on Thursday evening during “Kobe Up Close,” which was an hour-long conversation with Jimmy Kimmel at the Nokia Theater with the event’s proceeds going to the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Foundation to help fight homelessness.
Early in his conversation with Kimmel, Bryant was asked if he’ll be ready for the Los Angeles Lakers’ season opener on October 29. The veteran shooting guard admitted that he wasn’t sure if he’d be ready to go.
“I don’t know if I’ll be ready for opening night. I really don’t know,” Bryant said, according to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times. “I know I’m really, really ahead of schedule.”
Bryant did say that when he does return, he’s hoping that he can carry less of the workload for the Lakers, especially since the team added young perimeter players in Nick Young and Wesley Johnson over the offseason.
“That’s the goal,” Bryant said. “We got a little younger and picked up a couple of wing players who I really think will help us tremendously next year — Nick Young and Wesley Johnson. I really look forward to them easing the load.”
“Yeah, we’ll see when you get on the court,” Kimmel jokingly responded.