The Pacers have done their methodical thing, slowly re-stocking the roster, rebuilding the team to contending status and restoring the credibility of the franchise.
They have taken important and upward steps under Frank Vogel, reaching the playoffs two years ago, winning at a 52-game pace over a full season and reaching the second round of the postseason last year.
Which brings us to the 2012-13 season, official preparations for which begin this week with training camp in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Though the bench has been reshaped, the starting lineup and coaching staff remain intact.
The biggest turnover took place in the front office, where Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard replaced Larry Bird and David Morway, respectively.
Make no mistake, this is a very good team, a nice combination of veteran leadership and youthful energy. It should be deeper than last season but, as has been hammered home in recent years, depth doesn’t win championships, elite talent does.
Which brings us to the first of the five key questions facing the Pacers as they prepare for launch into a season of great promise but also daunting challenges.
DID THEY IMPROVE ENOUGH?
The bench certainly appears to be more potent than last season, but we thought that last season and it didn’t exactly work out that way. D.J. Augustin is more of a pure point guard and a better shooter than Darren Collison, but lacks the ability to be a disruptive defensive force. Gerald Green is a substantial offensive upgrade over Dahntay Jones. We all loved Lou Amundson’s hustle and ponytail but Ian Mahinmi is a legitimate backup center. Just what Lance Stephenson can deliver remains to be seen and Tyler Hansbrough faces a make-or-break season for his career. The second unit looks much better offensively but has much to prove defensively.
Even if you believe the bench is better, that’s not where the key to this season lies. It must reside with internal improvement from the first unit. George Hill and Roy Hibbert both had big paydays and must understand the money was an incentive, not a reward. With a full, healthy offseason behind him, David West should emerge as a full-time beast. But this team’s fate rests in the hands of Paul George. He took a baby step forward last year. He needs to take a giant leap this time around. Because if the first unit isn’t substantially better, the absolute best this team can hope for is second place in the East.
IS PAUL GEORGE READY TO TAKE OVER?
The only player on the roster with the talent to make opponents quiver, George needs to unleash his inner carnivore. The gap between great talent and great player is bridged by an obsessive commitment to dominate. George has yet to show any sign of that latter trait but after a summer of exposure to and competition against some of the best in the game during the Olympic trials and overseas tours, he certainly had opportunities to see how the great ones get it done.
IS GEORGE HILL READY TO LEAD?
This is the role we all new was waiting for Hill the moment he was acquired from the Spurs. It is an opportunity to rise above role-playing and into legitimate leadership. A quiet man by nature, Hill has to show he can command a team on the floor, and that means more than running the right plays and making the right passes. Like George, he must bare his fangs when necessary, because greatness cannot be achieved with a passive point guard.
WAS ROY HIBBERT WORTH IT?
Knowing the Pacers would have to pony up a max contract to keep Hibbert, we all wrestled with this one over the summer. Without question, he was one of the best centers in the East, an increasingly rare commodity in the league in general, but was he worth that kind of investment? Soon we shall see. Vogel had it right when he said over the summer that the franchise didn’t pay Hibbert because they expect him to become a superstar overnight, they paid him for what he is, and what they believe he will continue to become – one of the best centers in the league, a consistent defensive force and a reliable low-post threat.
WHAT ARE THE REAL EXPECTATIONS?
I get the championship talk. They’re trying to show their confidence while stirring the interest of a fan base that has been surprisingly apathetic to their growth. Truth be told, they are at least a couple of rungs from being considered a legitimate title contender.
Miami found its groove, won the championship and then added Ray Allen to the Big Three. No one in the East can expect to compete with the Heat. The Pacers should focus on winning the Central Division – with Derrick Rose out most of the season, an attainable goal – and outdueling Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and New York for the No. 2 seed in the East. If they can avoid facing Miami until the conference finals, the Pacers should be able to take their next step.
It won’t be to a title, but it will be toward one. For all involved, that should be enough.