Four players – first-round pick Solomon Hill and free agents Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson and Donald Sloan – are coming.
Five players – Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young, Jeff Pendergraph and Ben Hansbrough – are going.
The only remnants of last year’s second unit are Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and Orlando Johnson.
As a result, the Pacers reportedly will have 14 players under contract for 2013-14, one salary slot of about $2 million remaining for free agency, and a payroll in excess of $66 million.
But has the activity actually produced a better bench?
Let’s examine the second unit, position by position.
>> POINT GUARD
Last year: D.J. Augustin, Ben Hansbrough
This year: C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan
Where Augustin simply could not adapt to coming off the bench after being a starter most of his career, Watson is thoroughly comfortable and capable in the backup role. He also brings a .382 career mark from the 3-point line, not to mention a little more toughness and aggression to the position. He will be a much better defender than Augustin, who brought little in that regard. Sloan was a hot prospect in the D-League but it remains to be seen how much impact he can have as a third point guard.
>> SHOOTING GUARD
Last year: Gerald Green, Orlando Johnson
This year: Lance Stephenson (or Green), Orlando Johnson
The caveat at both wing positions is Danny Granger’s return. Assuming he comes all the way back, he likely would return to his place in the starting lineup but that’s not certain because Stephenson was such a good fit in the shooting guard slot last season. Should Granger come back and start, Stephenson would get pushed to the bench. Assuming he handled that transition well and made the most of the opportunity, Stephenson would bring much-needed energy, aggression and scoring punch. Green’s physical skills aren’t supported by basketball savvy, hence he was a near-total bust last season. Johnson has a chance to play a supporting role if he can find consistency with his shooting stroke.
>> SMALL FORWARD
Last year: Sam Young, Green
This year: Solomon Hill (or Granger), Green
It’s reasonable to think Granger would at least start the season on the bench, given the amount of time he missed and the success of the first unit as it was comprised last season. If so, he could be just what the doctor ordered for this group, given the long-range shooting threat he poses. If Granger starts, Hill could slip right into a prominent role as a rookie. Early indications are he has the maturity and all-around game to make it work but the only alternative would be Green and, well, been there, done that.>> POWER FORWARD
Last year: Tyler Hansbrough, Jeff Pendergraph
This year: Chris Copeland
Let’s not misunderstand: Copeland is not a power forward. This is merely the position he currently must fill with the second unit because there are no other alternatives. A prolific and efficient 3-point shooter as a journeyman rookie in New York last season, Copeland will have to adapt to a much different offensive system as well as a coaching staff that prioritizes defense and rebounding – the two weakest areas of his game. It was surprising the Pacers let Pendergraph go (he reportedly will sign a two-year deal with the Spurs), given his athleticism, youth and relative low cost. It wasn’t surprising they gave up on Hansbrough, who was productive as a starter but never found a way to be consistently productive off the bench.
Last year: Ian Mahinmi, Miles Plumlee
This year: Mahinmi, Plumlee
The one unchanged position, although the loss of Pendergraph removes one option from this group. Mahinmi is solid defensively and brings athleticism and activity to the position. The Pacers hold out hope Plumlee ultimately will develop into a serviceable alternative. He might factor into the power forward rotation out of necessity.
>> BOTTOM LINE
So much here depends on Granger’s comeback. Whether he or Stephenson winds up in the sixth man role, the second unit will get a boost. As it stands, the Pacers clearly have upgraded at point guard and should be better at both wing spots. They’re perilously thin at power forward, while the status quo remains at center.
Overall, the second unit should be better. But will it represent enough of an improvement for the Pacers to not only beat the Heat but withstand challenges from the Nets and Bulls? Only if they can find another power player for the front court. Otherwise, they will simply have compromised one of their greatest strengths last season – depth and strength up front – in exchange for better perimeter scoring.