WHEN THE Pacers dealt Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for point guard T.J. Ford in July, they became a franchise without a face—or a single All-Star. "It certainly is a new world," says second-year coach Jim O'Brien. "But we have a terrific group of players, and people, who can lead at any given time. I'm not one to believe in the Great Man theory of leadership."
Not that O'Brien has much choice. All the big names that fans grew accustomed to seeing at Conseco Fieldhouse are now gone; only three players survive from the team involved in the infamous 2004 brawl in Detroit. (Troubled point guard Jamaal Tinsley is actively being shopped and is expected to be traded shortly.) Says O'Brien, "The ownership and [team president] Larry Bird just felt that they could no longer tolerate anything but the highest character."
Those left are young (nine are under 28) and promising, if not too imposing. Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger have the skills to match any swingman's in the league. The No. 3 pick in the 2002 draft, Dunleavy, 28, was considered a bust before arriving from Golden State in a January '07 trade. "I really like the freedom here on the offensive end," he says. "I'm still on a high." Granger, 25, may be the team's best offensive and best defensive player. "He has a chance to be special," says O'Brien.
With Ford pushing the ball and another talented wing in rookie Brandon Rush from Kansas, the Pacers will play a fast-paced style that will win back fans. But they still need a low-post presence—like, say, Jermaine O'Neal—to make headway in the improving East.
A rival scout on the PACERS: T.J. Ford has his issues—he doesn't finish well in traffic, for one—but he's in the top half of starting point guards, and I believe you can challenge for the playoffs if you have an upper-echelon point and marginal talent at the other positions. Ford is just an O.K. shooter, but in this system I wouldn't be surprised to see him average 15 points.... The Pacers helped themselves defensively by fortifying Jeff Foster with a pair of true centers in Rasho Nesterovic and rookie Roy Hibbert.... I used to say Mike Dunleavy wasn't great at anything, but he was decent at a lot of things. Jim O'Brien's encouragement and up-tempo style helped him become a better shooter, which in turn helped him improve in all areas.... This will be a defining year for Danny Granger. He could become an All-Star, but that isn't a shoo-in—and I don't see him being good enough to build a team around. Granger's biggest strength is his shooting, but he needs to improve his scoring off the dribble, his post-up game and his defense.
Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy each scored more than 1,500 points last year, becoming the first Pacers duo since Reggie Miller and Detlef Schrempf (in '92--93) to reach that mark in the same season.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Jarrett Jack*, G Brandon Rush (R), C Rasho Nesterovic*, C Roy Hibbert (R), F Marquis Daniels
Record: 36--46 (9th in East)
Points scored: 104.0 (7th in NBA)
Points allowed: 105.4 (26th)
Coach: Jim O'Brien (second season with Pacers)
GLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
ON THE VERGE A fourth-year pro, Granger is the Pacer with the best chance to develop into Indiana's franchise player.
RON HOSKINS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES