During the 2016-17 NBA season, headlines will be dominated by Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors on a daily basis. However, having a super-team doesn’t guarantee a championship; just look at the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. Everything can change and anything can happen in the NBA. A team can implode, the injury bug could strike, or a team simply might not play to its potential. In this Last Word On Pro Basketball series, we’ll break down which two key factors will determine the fate of each team in the upcoming season.
Here we take a look at the Indiana Pacers and the two key factors that will define their season.
Two Key Factors to a Successful Indiana Pacers Season
Paul George is a star. There is no denying that. Even after coming off a horrific leg injury, which would have been both emotionally and physically draining, George had arguably his best season yet during 2015-16. Almost single-handedly, George was able to lead his team to 45 wins, securing his team the seventh seed position in the Eastern Conference before losing out to the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite this improvement over their 2014-15 season, where they just missed out on the playoffs, Larry Bird has made significant changes to both the roster and coaching staff. Replacing head coach Frank Vogel with Nate McMillan, four years removed from his last head-coaching role; Bird wants his Pacers side to play a more open-court style of offense. With that being said, let us take a look at how the roster and staff changes will achieve this increased tempo as Indiana’s first major key.
First Key: Increasing the Offensive Tempo
Larry Bird has made an unusual choice to shake up his coaching staff by electing not to renew Frank Vogel’s contract, instead promoting Nate McMillan to head coach. His last head-coaching role was with the Portland Trailblazers (2005-12) where he led them to three straight postseasons. Bird is quoted as saying that he likes McMillan’s “demeanor”, but his desire to change Indiana’s half-court style of play seems far removed from his coaching decision. While McMillan’s coaching win-loss record is modest (478-452), he has tended to favor a slow, half-court style of offensive, which is effective but results in relatively fewer points. In light of this, some of the roster changes make more sense in ramping up the Pacers tempo.
Jeff Teague replaces George Hill
This trade makes sense on so many levels. The Pacers have traded for youth, aggression and most importantly, speed. In a three-team trade, the Utah Jazz ended up with George Hill, while the Pacers managed to acquire Jeff Teague from the Atlanta Hawks. While Hill came off the best three-point shooting season of his career during 2015-16, Pacers fans have criticized him for not being a true point-guard. Teague, on the other hand, is an excellent passer, and while he may be relatively less apt on the defensive end than his predecessor, he also scores more. Comparing both of their stats last season, Hill averaged 12.1 points and 3.5 assists per game, while Teague averaged 15.7 points and 5.9 assists per game.
At only 28 years old, Jeff Teague is also two years younger than Hill. Compared to the aging Hill, Teague is a jet and should fulfill Bird’s desire to up his side’s tempo. More than this, Teague struggled with a knee injury last season which in fact stifled his full potential. Over the past three seasons, Teague has averaged 16 points and 6.5 assists per game. The Pacers have not had this kind of offensive production from a point-guard since the early 1990s with Vern Fleming at the helm. Bird may have missed out on Teague during the 2008 draft when he chose big-man Tyler Hansbrough instead, but it looks like he has finally acquired a point-guard with the kind of aggression that will complement Paul George on the perimeter.
Teague is an exceptionally aggressive point-guard. According to NBA.com statistics, only four other players drove more times to them rim per game (11.1) than Teague. Nobody drove to the rim more times per minute than Teague, who averaged one drive every 2.6 minutes. Compared to George Hill, who would prefer to wait in the corner for a three-point shot, Teague plays a much more aggressive game. Most importantly, Paul George will finally have a point-guard who can create space for him on the floor.
Second Key: Paul George Needs Some Support
Along with George Hill, Bird also cut ties with two other Hills in Solomon Hill and Jordan Hill, as well as big-man Ian Mahinmi. These three other players were replaced by Al Jefferson, Kevin Seraphin and Thaddeus Young. While none of these players add much in terms speed to the line up, Young will add point scoring in the paint, much more than Mahinmi who was more of a stopper in the big-man role. However, George cannot do it all on his own this season – he needs another star to really turn the Pacers into a deep-playoff run team. Can Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis or Big Al Jefferson provide that kind of star-power?
Three Former All-Stars
Okay, so only Jeff Teague has been an All-Star out of himself, Ellis, and Jefferson. But both Ellis and Jefferson are deeply unfortunate to have not achieved this accolade. Jefferson has proven himself in previous seasons that he can be one of the NBA’s best low-post scorers; providing a consistency which has led unconvincing rosters to some rather respectable records. Monta Ellis has also had some outstanding seasons, proving that he can be one of the league’s most effective two-way guards. Teague was only recently an All-star in 2015 but injuries prevented him from achieving that level of play in the previous season.
In his best season alongside Steph Curry, Monta Ellis was one of the most formidable two-guards in the league. At only 24 years old, Ellis was scoring an average of 25.5 points a game. He was also the leagues most durable player, averaging 41.4 minutes per game. Ellis has enjoyed three separate seasons in the top five players for steals, coming second with 2.2 per game in the same season of his highest scoring average. In terms of active NBA players, Ellis is ranked 10th for most steals. Pairing a consistent defensive effort alongside his explosiveness, Ellis could be a major factor for the Pacers moving forward.
Jeff Teague was an All-star in 2015 after helping the Hawks secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference. During that season, Teague was averaging 15.9 points and 7 assists per game. What was impressive about his season was his effective field goal percentage, which was exactly 50%. Over his career, Teague has enjoyed 3 seasons in the top ten players for assists, which should be a welcomed upgrade for the Pacers in their ball distribution. If Teague can stay healthy, George could enjoy another star playing beside him.
Big Al Jefferson has enjoyed an impressive career, and is unfortunate to have never made an All-star roster. Despite this, Jefferson was a third All-NBA player during the 2013-14 season, when he averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. This was not even his best season – in 2008-09, Jefferson averaged 23.1 points and 11 rebounds per game, but missed out on the All-star game with injury. Jefferson has had a few injury problems over the last few seasons and was limited to only 47 games last season. Jefferson can barely dunk the ball because of calf and knee injuries, but his quick footwork still allowed him to average 12 points and 6.4 rebounds with only a sparing 23.3 minutes per game last season. For Jefferson, health and motivation are the only question marks because there is no questioning his ability – especially in the low post.
If any one of these three players can find their form, the Indiana Pacers might have an especially successful season.