The strongest, most experienced, most consistent position on the Indiana roster is also the oldest.
When training camp begins in October, David West and Luis Scola will be 34 and Chris Copeland 30, assuming all remain with the team.
The Pacers’ rise to prominence coincided with West’s arrival via free agency in 2011 and he has been everything Larry Bird had hoped: a dependable scoring threat, a physical presence inside and a grown man in the locker room. Though others sulked about reduced opportunities as Frank Vogel shifted from an inside-out approach to a wing-centric offense, West quietly took his opportunities and worked to make the most of them.
Though his statistics (14.0 rebounds, 6.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, .488 shooting) were relatively modest, West remained one of the most important members of the team, a player able to rise to the occasion when the Pacers needed him most.
That was never more apparent than in the postseason.
With the Pacers on the brink of a stunning first-round elimination, trailing 3-2 heading to Game 6 in Atlanta, West scored 24 points to carry them to a 95-88 win that made the Game 7 victory possible.
After the Pacers were obliterated 102-79 in Game 5 against the Wizards in the second round, he rose up for 29 in Washington in Game 6 as Indiana closed out the series on the road.
In the final two games against Miami, he made 15 of 22 shots (.681), raising the very real question: why wasn’t he relied upon more?
Off the court, this may well have been West’s most draining season. As the primary – some would say singular – leadership presence in the locker room, West was constantly trying to put out fires as relationships between teammates flared, moods swung and the team threatened to unravel completely down the stretch.
When it was all over, West’s mixed feelings were clear.
“I thought with all the stuff that we dealt with we still finished on top of the East, which we talked about since training camp,” he said. “And we talked about getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals, being in the top four, competing for a chance to get to the championship and we fell short to a great team.
“We’re in the midst of an unbelievable run by the Heat. They’re being led by the best guy on the planet and we can’t beat him so obviously, as good as we felt about ourselves this year, it just wasn’t good enough again.”
The biggest mystery involving this position was the lack of usage for West’s backups. When Luis Scola was acquired from Phoenix, both he and West talked openly of wanting to be paired together, but that rarely happened. They shared just 84 minutes during the regular season and 59 in the playoffs; in those 143 minutes, the Pacers outscored opponents by 45 points.
Scola thus went wildly under-utilized, producing career-lows of 17.1 minutes, 7.6 points and 4.8 rebounds. Vogel didn’t seem quite sure how to best employ Scola’s diverse offensive skills, using him primarily as a mid-range jump-shooter, rather than exploiting his craftiness in the low block.
Because roughly $3 million of Scola’s $4.9 million salary for 2014-15 is not guaranteed, the Pacers could opt to release him in order to shift that money into a contract offer for free agent guard Lance Stephenson, so his return is anything but certain.
Like West and Scola, Copeland was a good soldier, a team player who never complained, even though he probably had the strongest case on the roster for more playing time. The Pacers pitched him as the missing piece to their championship puzzle when they made him their primary target in the free agent market last July, but he became moot when Scola was acquired.
Copeland wound up playing only in garbage time but even in those limited minutes showed flashes of the explosive 3-point shooting ability the Pacers could’ve used with much more frequency. Late in the season, when Vogel rested the starters in games against Milwaukee and Orlando, Copeland produced 37 points on 43 minutes, hitting 9 of 16 from the 3-point line.
And then he totaled just 82 minutes in the postseason despite the Pacers’ obvious struggles against Atlanta and Miami teams that employed smaller, spread lineups that screamed for Copeland’s presence as a counterpunch.
FINAL GRADE: A-
Between West and Scola, the Pacers got 21.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists from this position, productivity that speaks volumes given the reduced reliance on the big men to score.
Copeland did everything that was asked, he just wasn’t asked to do enough.
Clearly, the depth and diversity of talent at this position wasn’t maximized but that was through no fault of the players. If all three return next season, it will be imperative that Vogel figure out a way to better exploit the advantages offered by his power forwards.