After taking the Toronto Raptors to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, and after an exciting flurry of offseason moves, the Indiana Pacers created a buzz around the organization louder than since they were in the 2013–14 Eastern Conference Finals. Superstar Paul George will lead a new supporting cast next season, under the coaching leadership of new head coach Nate McMillan.
Can the Pacers get back to the top of the Eastern Conference and challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers? Let’s find out by discussing the Pacers new roster acquisitions, my beef with Larry Bird, and some way to early predictions on how Indiana will fare during 2016–17.
2015–16 Depth Chart
Players In: Jeremy Evans (trade), Al Jefferson (trade), Jeff Teague (trade), Thaddeus Young (trade)
Players Out: George Hill (trade), Solomon Hill, Ian Mahinmi
Draft picks: Georges Niang (50th Pick)
I want to first give them praise for what they DID NOT do. One of their better decisions was the choice to refuse to over pay for Ian Mahinmi (signed 4 years, $64 million with the Wizards) and Solomon Hill (signed 4 years, $48 million with the Pelicans). Both of them are role players, and not worth the money the signed for – even under an inflated salary cap.
Even more kudos to Mr. Larry Bird and his Indiana front office. The Pacers signed former Hornets’ big man Al Jefferson, with his old school post-up game, to a contract which is $34 million cheaper than Mahinmi’s. Jefferson is the perfect mentor for 2016 NBA All-Rookie Second Team Center Myles Turner, who made significant strides leading in to the Playoffs last season. Bird also flipped the 22nd overall pick in the draft to Brooklyn, which has no assurances to translate into a starting caliber player in the NBA, for Thaddeus Young. Young instantly slots in next to Paul George as the other starting forward for the Pacers, and if he can get back to his 2014–15 numbers in Brooklyn (13 PPG, 6 rebounds on 45% shooting, and 38% from the perimeter), he will bring another scoring option to Indiana that stretches the floor and keep opposing teams from doubling Paul George.
In another brilliant move, Bird traded for former Atlanta Hawks point guard, Jeff Teague, who happens to be in a contract year. Teague averaged more points, more steals, and more assists over his career than their previous pg, George Hill, who was sent to Utah via trade. Teague also posts higher shooting percentages than Hill: look for Teague in his contract season to look more like the All-Star he was in 2014 than he did last season, during which he competed with Hawks’ guard Dennis Schroeder for playing time and the starting role. Throw in veteran backup point guard Aaron Brooks, and you have a two-deep guard rotation as good as any team in the Eastern Conference.
Larry Bird has been a league MVP (1984–1986), Coach of the Year (1998), and Executive of the Year (2012): Who am I to have beef with any of his basketball related decisions?
Still, I have beef anyway.
Letting go of Frank Vogel and promoting assistant coach Nate McMillan to Head Coach was a questionable decision at best. Vogel far exceeded expectations with the rosters Bird constructed for him. Vogel’s Pacers consistently ranked in the top 10 in team defense, and the only year that one of his teams missed the Playoffs, was after Paul George broke his leg prior to the 2014–15 season in a Team USA scrimmage. If Vogel’s Pacers hadn’t kept running into LeBron James’ unstoppable Miami Heat team, Indiana might’ve been a championship team. Lebron’s Heat team showed face in 4 straight finals (2010–2014).
Instead of building from the momentum of last season, Bird decided not to renew Vogel’s contract, citing his lack of success on offense. Bird let him walk to the Orlando Magic, claiming the Pacers need a faster “pace of play”, a baffling comment because, other than Luke Walton, who still hasn’t been a Head Coach or hasn’t had coaching success beyond his attachment to the greatest shooting team of all time, there was no available replacement of Vogel’s caliber.
If you’re the Indiana Pacers, wouldn’t you replace Vogel with a more respected, up-tempo coach with a proven playoff track record to help get over the hump? Instead, the Pacers got Nate McMillan!
Here are numbers, courtesy of Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, that, if you’re a Pacers fan, you will find upsetting:
- Vogel’s career winning percentage in the regular season: .580. McMillan’s is .514.
- Vogel’s career winning percentage in the playoffs is .508 (31–30). McMillan’s is .412 (14–20).
- Vogel’s teams won seven of 12 playoff series. McMillan’s teams won one of five playoff series.
Are you kidding me? Vogel has coached in almost twice as many playoff games (61–34), doubled McMillan’s playoff wins (30–14), and has won six more playoff series (7–1) – ALL IN HALF AS MANY SEASONS!
Only three current NBA head coaches have coached more than McMillan’s 930 games: Gregg Popovich (1,574), Doc Rivers (1,306) and Rick Carlisle (1,132). I don’t want to predict failure for McMillan: he does have a full and relatively successful resume. In Portland, he caught some bad break with injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, but in Seattle he had Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen and Gary Payton, all of whom were in their primes, and all of whom are future Hall of Famers. Can he get more out of this team than Vogel? I don’t think: but that is why we play the game.
Just one season after only playing six games in 2014–15 due to a horrendous knee injury, Paul George bounced back in 2016 to start in 81 of 82 games. The three-time All Star averaged 23 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists on 41% shooting and 35 minutes per game, continuing his previous development into a 40% three-point assassin. The Fresno State product competed for the Eastern Conference in the 2016 NBA All-Star Game in Toronto, in which he started and was the game’s leading scorer with 41 points, a single point shy of the All-Star game record set by Wilt Chamberlain (42) in 1962.
When the lights get brighter, George gets better: In the 1st round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the three-time All Star raised his play to another level against the Raptors, averaging 39 minutes per game, 27 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals on 45% shooting and 41% from three.
George was by far the best player on the floor in the series, though his performance was not enough to overcome the Toronto Raptors. Indiana simply didn’t have enough offense last season – I believe that will change in 2016–17 with their new additions.
This off-season, Indiana addressed the glaring holes in their roster, which will help them next season, and down the line. Expect even more development from sophomore Myles Turner, contract year performances from Jeff Teague, low-post scoring from Al Jefferson the likes of which the Pacers haven’t seen since David West, and Paul George, whose presence alone gives the Pacers’ a chance to win any basketball game he plays in. The Pacers will have to grow accustomed to McMillan, especially when the Playoffs roll around. McMillan may lack post-season experience, but with the second best player in the East, and a newly reloaded and talented roster, I expect the Pacers to be a top 4 team in the Eastern Conference.