Commentary

Hollinger's Team Forecast: Indiana Pacers

Originally Published: September 30, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Indiana PacersRon Hoskins/Getty ImagesIt was a busy summer for the Pacers, who have the talent to make the playoffs.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

Considering what the expectations were and how much time two of their best players missed, the Pacers had themselves a pretty good year.

Of course, that's a bit of a tough sell when you go 36-46 and head back to the lottery, especially when the arena is half empty most nights. But this felt like the first cautious step in a turnaround. Indiana looked to be a franchise headed nowhere when the season started, as they had finished the previous season in a tailspin and sporting a capped-out roster largely devoid of young talent. Instead, they finished just a game out of the playoffs.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 36-46 (Pythagorean W-L: 36-46)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.7 (18th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.6 (15th)
Pace Factor: 100.1 (3rd)
Highest PER: Mike Dunleavy (17.37)

New coach Jim O'Brien played a big role by immediately invigorating the team's moribund offense. O'Brien ran a "passing game" system that had very little post play but a lot of cutting, passing and 3-point shooting; it might more effectively be described as suburban streetball. It was effective, though -- an offense that had been a 30th-ranked horror show a year earlier finished 18th in offensive efficiency with most of the same players, helping Indiana stay in playoff contention.

Indy stayed in the hunt despite lengthy absences from both Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley. The two holdover starters from the 2004 conference finals team played just 81 games between them; O'Neal was traded after the season and Tinsley and O'Brien had a falling out that seems headed toward his imminent departure.

Instead, the Pacers got career years from Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy, who averaged 38.2 points between them, while O'Brien took advantage of their depth by playing the league's third-fastest pace and substituting heavily. Dunleavy's year was a particular surprise, as he seemed horribly miscast as a staring shooting guard; O'Brien's solution often was simply to not play him there, as a majority of his minutes came as a small forward in smallball lineups.

Offensively, Indiana shot only 44.4 percent, but had a decent offense overall because so many of it shots were 3-pointers. The Pacers ranked third in the league in 3-point frequency, with 28.9 percent of their attempts coming from downtown; Granger and Dunleavy alone launched 10 a game.

This is a staple of Jim O'Brien offenses -- he showed the same tendency in Boston and Philadelphia -- but that takes us to what I call the O'Brien paradox. You would think a coach that relished the 3-pointer so much at the offensive end would move heaven and earth trying to defend it, but actually his teams have always willingly conceded the 3-pointer in order to contest shots in the paint.

O'Brien followed that trend again in Indiana, as his team ranked 29th in 3-point defense, barely beating out Washington for last. The one difference between this and his past stops is that they didn't allow 3s in quite the same quantity -- Indiana was barely above the league average in opponent 3-point attempts per field-goal attempt.

What they did instead was foul like crazy. Indiana led the non-Utah portion of the NBA in opponent free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt (the Jazz lead the league by a mile every year), corresponding to 1.5 extra free-throw attempts per game for the Pacers' opponents.

Between the fouls and 3-pointers, it meant the Pacers' 54.8 opponent TS% was just 21st in the league, even though they were in the upper half of the league in opponent shooting percentage. The only reason Indiana had a decent defense overall was because it rebounded well and forced an above-average number of turnovers -- in fact, they were fourth in fewest shot attempts allowed per possession (counting free-throw attempts as 0.44 field-goal attempts).

The one datum that stood out was Indiana's ability to force dead-ball turnovers. Several Pacers excelled at taking charges, most notably O'Neal, Dunleavy and Jeff Foster, and as a result, Pacers' opponents committed dead-ball turnovers on 8.16 percent of their possessions, which was easily the highest total in the league (see chart).

Opponent Dead-Ball Turnovers*, 2007-08 Leaders

TEAM % OF OPP. POSSESSIONS
WITH DEAD-BALL TURNOVER
Indiana 8.16
Boston 7.95
Chicago 7.84
Golden State 7.64
Portland 7.62
League average 6.56
*Turnovers where a steal was not credited

But while the Pacers were a better team, there weren't as many people around to see them. Despite its historically rabid fan base Indiana hovered near the bottom of the league in attendance all year, as several recent player arrests and one Peyton Manning have combined to dim the allure of Pacer tickets. It's a shame because they played an exciting, up-tempo brand of basketball and have unloaded most of the sketchy characters, but it might take a little while for the arena to fill up again.


Biggest Strength: Long-range shooting

Some of O'Brien's teams have shot the 3 a lot merely because their players liked shooting them (cough, Antoine Walker, cough). On this team, however, they shoot them because they can really hit them.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Pacers make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

Dunleavy and Granger each shot over 40 percent last year, while Troy Murphy just missed joining them at 39.8 percent. Diener is another long-range ace if you go by his career numbers, although he had an off year shooting last year, and third-year forward Shawne Williams should be a very good 3-point shooter as he adjusts to the NBA line. The same goes for Rush, who hit over 40 percent on 3-pointers at Kansas, and players like Jack aren't bad either -- that covers the entire perimeter rotation except Ford.

And there's some addition by subtraction, too. Take away Tinsley's 28.4 percent on 3.6 attempts per game and the Pacers' average should only improve from last year's 37.4 percent, especially since Ford hardly ever shoots threes.

Biggest Weakness: Post offense

One reason the Pacers rely so much on their passing game offense is because they don't have anybody who can score on the blocks. Last year, O'Neal was theoretically the main post threat, but he missed half the year and besides, he's diminished dramatically as a low-post scorer -- mostly he settles for short-range jumpers these days. The only other good post player was little-used Diogu, and he's a Blazer now.

Looking at Indiana's frontcourt, the only player who might be a solid post presence is Hibbert, and the rookie is unlikely to become a go-to option for Indiana anytime soon. The other frontcourt players include a defensive specialist who almost never shoots (Foster), an outside specialist who rarely scores inside (Murphy), and a mid-range shooter who is so soft he has one of the lowest free-throw rates for his size in league history (Nesterovic). In fact, the Pacers' best post player might turn out to be 6-3 Jarrett Jack, at least when he's playing the point and has a smaller man on his back.

Another potential weapon is Granger, who is 6-9 and often has a shorter man guarding him but to this point has preferred facing opponents up from the perimeter. He could use more bulk and has a bad habit of doing Heisman Trophy stiff arms on the way to the basket, but he still should be a more productive post weapon than he's shown the past two seasons. With O'Neal's departure opening the block, he might see the rock there far more often.


Outlook

Nobody is talking about this team at all, but if Ford can stay upright for 65 games or so, the Pacers are going to surprise a lot of people. Indiana was a decent team a year ago, even with the injuries, and should be better this year thanks to the offseason facelift. Ford is potentially a 20-10 point guard who should provide plenty of opportunities for Granger, Dunleavy and Murphy to fire away from long range, while the frontcourt will survive the loss of O'Neal with a mix of Foster, Hibbert, Murphy and Nesterovic.

Plus, the Pacers are deep. Rush, Jack, Murphy and Hibbert make for a strong second unit, while the end of the bench has useful talents like Baston, Diener, Williams and Marquis Daniels. The fact that one of these players won't even dress if everyone is healthy shows just how deep they go. And as fast as the Pacers play, they might all see action. Finally, remember that this analysis doesn't include whatever they might get in return for Tinsley, who presumably will bring back some kind of warm body if and when the Pacers eventually trade him.

Obviously Ford's health is the key; I projected him to play three-quarters of a season; Foster, the other injury-prone Pacer, is also important given his defensive value and the fact that O'Neal is gone. But Indiana is deep enough to survive their likely absences as long as they aren't gone for too long, and the combination of Ford's pace and the torrid outside shooting is going to knock a lot of opponents on their heels.

Between the trade for Ford and the cap space they have coming after the season, the Pacers seem ready for a bit of a rebirth. Emphasis on "a bit." No, they won't be reliving their glory days from earlier this decade, but it seems more likely than not that they'll return to the playoffs. And with any luck, that will be enough to get a few more fans back in Indy's seats.

Prediction: 41-41, 3rd in Central Division, 7th in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.