With the NBA season fast approaching, I figured I'd throw my two cents in on how I see things playing out. These projections were created using Wins Produced (WP) from the Wages of Wins Journal and The NBA Geek. To gauge how rookies and incoming international players perform, I used the amazing projections of Arturo Galletti. If you haven't read any of that stuff, you should. I march on with the maxed-out Indiana Pacers. Enjoy.
Indiana Pacers 48-34 (1st Central)
TOP NINE PRODUCTION (numbers listed are 2011-12 WP)
|PG George Hill||4.5|
|SG Paul George||7.9|
|SF Danny Granger||4.9|
|PF David West||5|
|C Roy Hibbert||6.5|
|F Tyler Hansbrough||1.4|
|F/C Ian Mahinmi||2.4|
|G D.J. Augustin||1.1|
|F/G Gerald Green||0.9|
The Pacers are in the odd position of being young (average age of 25.4, tied with Charlotte for and Sacramento for 9th youngest in the league) yet also of being exactly what they will likely be for the foreseeable future. Following the wild Stephen Jackson-Jamal Tinsley days, Larry Bird set out to remake the Pacers as a team that kept its nose clean and maximized every ounce of talent it had. To his credit, Bird accomplished that goal, and his vision nearly exceeded all expectations last spring when it briefly looked like Indiana would discard the Heat from the playoffs. However, precisely because this team plays as hard as it can at all times, the almost-upset of Miami may be as good as it gets in Indianapolis. Even at their best, none of the current Pacers are good enough to rise above the upper-2nd tier of the Eastern Conference, where the Pacers may reside for the next few seasons following the off-season extensions doled out to George Hill and Roy Hibbert.
Not that there's anything wrong with consistently making the playoffs with home court advantage in the 1st round. Nor is it the worst thing in the world to have a collection of likable players who will never dog it. What is frustrating, however, is when you punt on two seasons putting the pieces in place for a post-Reggie Miller contender and come away instead with the next...the next...um, well the next what I'm not exactly sure.
When searching for a team comparable to this current Pacers squad, I come up empty. The Hawks of the past few seasons had the same not-quite-far-enough postseason runs as these Pacers, but the ceiling was always higher in Atlanta due to the presence of Al Horford and Josh Smith, who are the deluxe versions of Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger, respectively. The Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming Rockets similarly could never quite make the leap into true "contender" status, but, again, Houston's upward trajectory was stunted by injuries, not by a talent-cap on their best players. The late-90's/early-2000's Jazz consistently made the playoffs without scaring a soul, but those teams were age-ed remnants of a powerhouse dragging themselves into the postseason year-after-year on the still-potent fumes of Stockton-and-Malone's Hall-of-Fame careers. As mentioned above, these Pacers are young, and most of them should have at least a decade of a career ahead of them.
To find the most apt comparison, I must leave the sport of basketball, and turn instead to the 2007 Cleveland Indians. Like these Pacers, those Indians were built from the rubble of a 90's powerhouse that could never quite get over the hump. The Tribe was young, and they advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they nearly upset the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox before blowing a 3-1 series lead. Despite their youth, the Indians would never reach such heights again, as they haven't even really sniffed postseason contention since then. While the Pacers should be playoff-mainstays the next few seasons, the similarities are striking. Several players on the Tribe became "what they are" that season, and the same could be said for several Pacers in 2011-12.
(A closer look, of course, reveals those Indians aren't a great comparison, either, since they had legitimate superstars in C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee in the minors, and a healthy Grady Sizemore at the height of his powers, but we can just ignore that for the sake of this analogy.)
In his fourth NBA season, Roy Hibbert exploded his way onto the All-Star team, improving from 1.0 WP in 2010-11 to 6.5 WP in 2011-12. While I don't see him regressing too much (he is still only going to be 26 this year), I also don't see him getting much better. While Hibbert does not seem the type to get paid and then mail it in, it also seems completely unrealistic to expect another 5-Win jump in production into the MVP-level. Furthermore, if the league truly is gravitating toward more small ball lineups similar to what the Heat whipped out following Chris Bosh's injury (which I am skeptical of, since 29 teams do not have LeBron James to plug into any position), Hibbert will find himself pinned to the bench, either in foul trouble or because Frank Vogel justifiably cannot match Hibbert up with anyone on the opposition. A 5-7 Win center is a fine commodity to have in today's NBA, but to expect Hibbert to suddenly become a franchise center is asking too much.
Danny Granger, meanwhile, has failed to earn the max contract he was handed in 2008, but due to the economics of the league, it was a deal the Pacers had to offer. Granger--like many of his teammates--has consistently hovered around the 5.0 WP range for his entire career, which, again, is solid, but is also never going to win a player an MVP (unless his name is Allen Iverson) nor his team a championship. The former Lobo is essentially an average NBA SF, with his below-average rebounding and assist rates offset by his above-average scoring (which is the product of a high volume of shots, not an efficient shooting percentage). There was once a time when Granger was in the discussion as a fringe-top 10 guy, but those days are long gone. Instead, he's another fantastic role player on a team full of role players.
The one Pacer with the capacity to rise above the role player distinction is Paul George, the 6-10 shooting guard. Aged 22 and still very much a work-in-progress, George is the x-factor that gives Indiana fans a glimmer of hope that a series of 2nd round exits aren't in their future. In his sophomore NBA season, George off-set a slight decrease in his 2pt FG% with a marked improvement from downtown, increasing his scoring average with only a negligible increase in his shot attempts. He is a well-above-average rebounder, a decent passer, and a burgeoning nightmare for the opposition on the defensive end. If he can improve his ball-handling and decrease his turnover rate, while also cutting down on his fouls a bit (which should happen anyway if his elevated play starts garnering respect from refs), George could find himself making the entirety of this post moot. An improvement from Year 2 to 3 similar to what happened from Year 1 to 2 would elevate Granger into the upper echelon of not just shooting guards but of the entire league, and would make the Pacers an even more dangerous foe than the Heat ran into last year.