The Indiana Pacers have made some serious moves this off-season and are expected to make a deeper playoff push this upcoming season. After acquiring former all-star point guard Jeff Teague and signing reliable veteran big man Al Jefferson, President Larry Bird has once again put together a squad capable of challenging the best in the Eastern Conference.
Five years ago, the Pacers were one of the best teams in the East. A healthy Danny Granger was able to take over games, Paul George was emerging as one of the best two-play players in the game, Roy Hibbert was an intimidating force down low, and David West’s veteran leadership helped keep the team calm under pressure. In fact, the Pacers were one of the only teams capable of putting up a fight against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Unfortunately, they lost three playoff series to the Heat and everything started to go downhill. Danny Granger battled injuries and virtually became irrelevant for the rest of his basketball career. Roy Hibbert’s game fell dramatically and the Pacers decided to trade him to the Lakers for a future draft pick. To make everything worse, Paul George fractured two bones in his right leg during a Team USA scrimmage and missed all but 6 games in the 2014-2015 season. The Pacers ended up missing the playoffs and David West opted out of the final year of his deal to sign with the San Antonio Spurs.
Indiana fans were eagerly anticipating last season with a healthy Paul George back in the mix. He surely did not disappoint, averaging 23.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 4.1 assists to lead the Pacers to a 45-37 record and 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. PG13 finished the season on the All-NBA Third and All-Defensive Second Teams, proving the leg injury has not stopped him from being one of the game’s best two-way players. In the first round of the playoffs, the Pacers took the #2 seeded Toronto Raptors to 7 games and were very close to pulling off the upset. Paul George was brilliant in the series, averaging 27.3 points on 45.5% shooting, including a 39 point performance. After being promised a spot on the 2016 US National Team, George headed to Rio for the Summer Olympics and helped Team USA capture the Gold Medal in men’s basketball. President Larry Bird has now made it a top priority to offer George a max deal to lock him up for the long run.
The goal isn’t just for the Pacers to win a playoff series but to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time since the early 2000s. It remains obvious that getting to the Finals out of the East must go through LeBron James and the Cavaliers, a match-up that all NBA fans are always eager to witness between two of the game’s best small forwards. In an interview this past summer, Paul George stated “I think with the moves that they made, it’s on me now, to get us back to being contenders. I think, with what I’m going to bring, the talent I have around me now, I’ve got a chance to challenge Cleveland.”
It will be interesting to see if the new-look supporting cast can work well together. A top priority was addressing the front court, as the Pacers were absolutely bullied by Raptors’ Jonas Valancuinas in the playoffs. They signed Al Jefferson to a 3 year, $30 million contract, a bargain for a former All-NBA Third Team player. Although there are rumours of Jefferson being traded to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez, the Pacers will surely have a center to crash the boards and score in double figures night in and night out. Second year Myles Turner (who was brilliant in his rookie season) and newly acquired Thaddeus Young will likely split minutes at Power Forward.
The question remains if Jeff Teague can effectively run the offence under the system of new Head Coach Nate McMillan. Last year with the Atlanta Hawks, Teague averaged 15.7 points and 5.9 assists for the franchise where he spent the first 7 seasons of his career. This should be a step up from George Hill who although was a scoring threat, does not have the same play-making abilities as Teague.. There is also little doubt that Teague is happy to start a new path with his hometown team: “A lot of people can play with the ball and create opportunities for others. In Atlanta, we had a lot of really good players, but a lot of those guys were system players,” Teague said. “Here, we’ve got a lot of people who can create for others and that makes my job a lot easier.” Teague also has the ability to push the ball in transition and control the tempo of the game. Having a small starting backcourt with Monta Ellis starting at shooting guard, the Pacers will look to get out and run. Aaron Brooks and Rodney Stuckey will likely continue to come off the bench.
With almost every team in the Eastern Conference getting stronger this past off-season, it was mandatory for the Indiana Pacers to improve and give Paul George an effective supporting cast. Everyone knows what he is capable of but the rest of the Pacers will determine how far the team will go next season. They will open the season on October 26th when they host the Dallas Mavericks.