Last year Indiana's postseason success came in spite of a roster divided. The five starters, for their part, made up one of the very best lineups in the NBA, built on an elite defense and a functional offense. The bench, on the other hand, compromised the Pacers' quest to an untenable degree. It was too unreliable (D.J. Augustin), too limited (Tyler Hansbrough, Sam Young, Jeff Ayres) or too useless (Gerald Green), and using them put the Pacers at a huge disadvantage for critical stretches, especially in the playoffs, when the shift to reserves—even for a few minutes at a time—can be cataclysmic. It's no exaggeration to say that a slightly better second unit could well have earned Indiana a ticket to the Finals.
The Pacers are hoping that logic still applies. While this season's Eastern Conference field promises to be even tougher than last year's, Indiana's bench is unquestionably better prepared. The return of Danny Granger, who was limited to five games because of knee surgery, should help balance the rotation, whether he ultimately comes off the bench or bumps down the capable Lance Stephenson. And Indiana upgraded most every other reserve position, replacing Hansbrough and Ayres with the skilled, 6'9" Luis Scola; giving Augustin's minutes at the point to C.J. Watson; and signing Chris Copeland to provide the spark that Young and Green could not. Now the bench will be an asset, not an impediment.
COACH FRANK VOGEL (4TH SEASON WITH PACERS)
2012--13 RECORD 49--32 (1ST IN CENTRAL)
WHAT'S NEW: Indy added depth and will welcome back Danny Granger, who was limited to five games by a knee injury.
PROJECTED LINEUP (2012--13 STATS)
PG GEORGE HILL
14.2 PPG; 4.7 APG; 44.3 FG%; 36.8 3FG%
SG PAUL GEORGE
17.4 PPG; 7.6 RPG; 1.8 SPG; 41.9 FG%
SF DANNY GRANGER
5.4 PPG; 1.8 RPG; 28.6 FG%; 20.0 3FG%
PF DAVID WEST
17.1 PPG; 7.7 RPG; 2.9 APG; 49.8 FG%
C ROY HIBBERT
11.9 PPG; 8.3 RPG; 2.6 BPG; 44.8 FG%
PF LUIS SCOLA
12.8 PPG; 6.6 RPG; 0.8 SPG; 47.2 FG%
DEFENSIVE WIN SHARES for Paul George (the estimate of the number of wins his D contributed to, per basketball-reference.com). George was the first player under 6'9" to lead the NBA since 1991--92.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE PACERS
While he is close to being a superstar, I don't think Paul George is a great decision-maker. What he is right now is a great transition player who can score and slash, and he can also post up. When the pressure's on, can he deliver? I don't think we've seen that enough yet.... The return of Danny Granger changes the dynamic. When he was last playing a lot, it was his team: He had the green light. After he got hurt, they became more of a team at both ends of the floor, and now they're bringing back Granger, who I think most people would say is a me-first guy. Most leopards don't change their spots—especially in a contract year.... I still don't know how far they can go with George Hill, who is in that second tier of point guards. As a defender, Hill is good but he could be better. He has a tendency to foul when he applies pressure. In some situations they'll ask Lance Stephenson to defend the point.... Roy Hibbert had his best games against teams like Miami, where he has a big matchup advantage and [the Pacers] really milk him. When he's not getting touches, he's not very effective because he isn't active enough to get on the boards and create for himself.... David West and Hibbert are a good complement because West has enough range on his jumper to space the floor. Together they give Indiana a traditional look that a lot of teams don't have anymore.... What they need is for a superstar and a point guard to emerge. Until that happens, they remind me of those old Hawks teams that were very good but never quite good enough.
RON HOSKINS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (SCOLA)
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GEORGE)