Season preview: Indiana Pacers
Pacers personnel boss Larry Bird made good on his goal of cleaning house
The Pacers are explosive under Jim O'Brien, but low-post scoring is an issue
Point guard T.J. Ford's health is critical to Indiana's postseason chances
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Pacers at a glance
Last season: 36-46
Notable additions: Roy Hibbert (R), T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and Maceo Baston (trade with Raptors), Brandon Rush (R), Jarrett Jack and Josh McRoberts (trade with Trail Blazers)
Notable losses: Jermaine O'Neal (trade with Raptors), Jamaal Tinsley (not with team), Ike Diogu (trade with Blazers), Kareem Rush (signed with 76ers), Shawne Williams (trade with Mavericks), Flip Murray (signed with Hawks)
Coach: Jim O'Brien (36-46 in one season with Pacers; 218-204 overall in six NBA seasons)
Reasons for hope
1. There's a new culture. Pacers boss Larry Bird made no secret that one of his top priorities in the offseason was to clean up the image of his team. Mission accomplished. Bird's big move was to trade O'Neal, who was not involved in any off-court incidents but was chronically injured and one of the last remaining links to the infamous 2004 brawl. He also has made it clear that Tinsley, who was often injured and involved in several incidents, will either be traded or waived. Bird then finished the housecleaning by dealing Williams, another player who found himself in headlines for the wrong reasons. With seven new players in all, Indiana should benefit from a new beginning and a fresher atmosphere in the locker room.
2. They can score. The Pacers averaged 104 points per game last season, second in the East to the Magic. O'Brien had them playing like his old Celtics and Sixers squads, attempting three-pointers early in the shot clock and getting up and down the floor. The style fit the talents of Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger, who combined to average nearly 38 points while shooting better than 40 percent from downtown. The Pacers basically play like a Western Conference team, making them a tricky matchup for many Eastern foes on any given night. With Ford to run the point and a big man in Troy Murphy who can spread the floor, the Pacers are well-equipped to continue to score in bunches.
3. They weren't that bad last year. The Pacers had so many negative headlines off the court last year that it's easy to overlook the fact that they overcame injuries to O'Neal and Tinsley to win 36 games (including 11 of 16 down the stretch) and come within a whisker of making the playoffs. Three of the top four scorers are back (Granger, Dunleavy and Murphy), and to that group the Pacers have added two solid point guards (Ford and Jack) who could play together at times, more size in the middle (Nesterovic and Hibbert) and depth on the wing (Rush).
Reasons for worry
1. Shaky defense. The flip side to O'Brien's fast-paced, three-point-shooting offensive philosophy is that the Pacers give up points by the bushel. Indiana ranked 26th in the NBA in points allowed (105.4) last year. Basically, the Pacers dared teams to beat them from the perimeter. When opponents did take it inside, Indiana fouled them. As a result, the Pacers ranked 29th in defending the three-pointer and 29th in personal fouls; they also led the league by a wide margin in defensive three-second violations, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It is difficult to imagine Indiana being much better defensively this season, especially with the wispy Ford at the point and O'Neal no longer there to help protect the rim.
2. No low-post scorer. O'Neal's absence also could hurt the Pacers on the offensive end. Though no longer a dominant force on the blocks, the 6-foot-11 forward/center at least provided that dimension for Indiana. Diogu had potential there, but he was traded to the Blazers. The Pacers don't appear to have anybody else right now who can score consistently in the low post and draw double teams to create shots for others. Nesterovic is more of a mid-range shooter. Hibbert is a rookie. Jeff Foster is a rebounder and defender. Without a big man to settle the offense when the game slows down, Indiana could have a difficult time in close contests.
3. Ford is brittle. Ford has shown he can be a top-flight point guard over his four NBA seasons, averaging 14.0 points and 7.9 assists with the Raptors just two years ago. His blazing quickness should make him a good fit for O'Brien's up-tempo attack. But the 6-foot, 165-pound Ford has a congenital spinal condition that makes his every hard fall on the court a potential career-ender. He missed the entire 2004-05 season with a neck injury, then sat out 31 games a year ago after landing hard on his head and back from a flagrant foul by Atlanta's Al Horford. The Pacers have a capable reserve point guard in Jack, but they probably need Ford to stay healthy if they want to make the playoffs.
Keep an eye on ...
The Pacers' attendance. One of the reasons Bird cleaned house was to win back Indiana fans who had become disgruntled with the team's off-court issues. The Pacers drew an average of 12,222 last season to Conseco Fieldhouse, last in the NBA and lowest in the league since the 2002-03 Cavaliers. It will be interesting to see how many of those basketball-loving fans in Hoosier country come back to the team this season.
The Pacers ranked 27th in the league last season in net free throw attempts at the point guard and shooting guard positions. In other words, Indiana's guards didn't get to the line at nearly the rate that their counterparts did.
The Pacers might not have an All-Star on the roster, but they have several players who can score and others who fit roles. They also have a coach in O'Brien who has a system and a track record of getting his guys to play like a team. If Indiana avoids big injuries, it could be a surprise playoff team in the East.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.