Spirit Running High for Pacers, But Can They Catch on to Winning?

New practice facility, new uniforms, new court and lighting in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 10 new players on a 16-man roster…if the Pacers were any newer heading into their 51st NBA season, they would be wrapped in cellophane.

What lies ahead is a mystery. In fact, this might be the most mysterious Pacers team I’ve encountered in many seasons, and that includes most of them. It’s not only new, it’s young, and it’s always difficult to predict how much a young player improves from one season to the next. Sometimes it’s by a leap and a bound, sometimes it’s merely incremental and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

The only thing certain about this group is the improved vibe. It’s been obvious to the players from the beginning of their offseason workouts together early in August, noticeable to media members from the first day of training camp and was apparent to the public at FanJam, which drew the largest audience in recent memory.

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Every preseason is tinged with optimism, but some things can’t be faked. This group interacts freely and joyfully, and truly seems to enjoy one another’s company. Thaddeus Young, one of just two returning starters, is entering his 10th NBA season and has never experienced anything quite like it.

“We’re all high-spirited, we’re all here for one another and we’re all ready to play,” he said. “The energy is different than last year. Last year we kind of knew we had a decent team and we had a lot of key guys who could really, really play and score the ball. This year we don’t have the luxury of having some of those guys, so we know we have to have that edge and that fight each and every night.”

Last season’s group, which failed to reach preseason expectations by winning just 42 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs, didn’t give the appearance of not liking one another, but it was much quieter. The veterans — Paul George, Lavoy Allen, Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, Rodney Stuckey, and Aaron Brooks — were laid-back by nature and ultimately failed to lead. In the right direction, that is. That was revealed in games by inconsistent effort, especially on defense, and a stagnant offense with too much individual action.

It was a team that was at its best only after embarrassing losses, or until Lance Stephenson showed up to inject a shot of adrenaline with six games left in the season. Speaking of which, Stephenson sees a difference, too.

“It wasn’t bad before, it’s just that everybody has positive energy now,” Stephenson said. “Nobody’s complaining. We’re getting here early. I don’t think anybody’s been late to anything since training camp started. We have a lot of good guys who want to work. It’s all about positive stuff.”

Cute and cuddly only goes so far in the NBA, however. The harsh realities of the 82-game season can wear down a team, especially if losses are mounting. As assistant coach Dan Burke pointed out, this Pacers team has yet to lose a game, and nobody is upset about lack of playing time. Every team faces challenges to its chemistry and maturity, and someone — among the players — has to step up during those moments.

“There are going to be rough times, and we know that,” Young said. “You have to be able to play through those times.”

Regardless of attitude and effort, you still have to do the things that win games. And that’s what remains to be seen from this youthful team that is still getting acquainted with one another.

It faces three primary challenges:

Defense and Rebounding

They go together, because no team can stop an opponent from scoring if it gives up too many offensive rebounds.

The Pacers were a respectable defensive team for the most part last season, but were one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams, grabbing 186 fewer than opponents. That negated the fact that, over the course of the season, they shot better, committed fewer turnovers and had more assists and steals than opponents.

This team is shorter than last season, so it will be on each player to grab his share. Guards included. Guards especially, according to coach Nate McMillan, who needs his backcourt players to chase down the long rebounds.

“If we can do that, we can show the speed we have,” said McMillan, who has made rebounding a primary emphasis in training camp. “We are faster; this is probably one of the fastest teams we’ve had in a number of years. But it starts with defending and rebounding.”

It’s difficult to draw a conclusion from the preseason, given the number of starters who sat out games, or played limited minutes. Last season’s stats, however, don’t paint a promising picture. Paul George has been replaced at small forward in the starting lineup by Bojan Bogdanovic. Jeff Teague has been replaced at point by Darren Collison. C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis have been replaced at shooting guard by Victor Oladipo. The sum total of those changes is a loss of about four rebounds per game.

Stephenson and Domantas Sabonis, both of whom should get starter-caliber minutes off the bench, will be called upon to help in this regard. Stephenson averaged 7.2 rebounds in his last complete season with the Pacers (2013-14) and has the size and aggression to excel in that area. Sabonis appears to be the team’s most physical rebounder, and has the size and strength to mix it up at both ends.

Defensively, McMillan feels confident his team’s quickness and mindset will make up for loss of inches.

“I think we are quicker at the guard position,” he said. “Our guys are more defensive-minded than in the past. We want to challenge every catch, be physical, we want them to feel us on the defensive end of the floor.

“But it’s wait and see for me, too.”

3-Point Shooting

The need for 3-point shooting — both quality and quantity — has become blatantly obvious in the NBA. Consider that last season’s Pacers team shot the fourth-most 3-point shots in franchise history, just 136 fewer than in the peak season, but still ranked 27th in the NBA in attempts. It was outscored by 420 points from behind the 3-point line over the course of the season, an impossible gulf to traverse with other means.

It ranked fifth in the NBA in 3-point accuracy, suggesting more attempts should have been taken. To do that, however, it would have had to rebound better and get open shots in transition, and move the ball better on offense.

McMillan isn’t specifically seeking more 3-point attempts this season – he just wants good shots, and a lot of them – but he has plenty of 3-point shooters based on last season’s stats: Collison (.417), Oladipo (.361), Bogdanovic (.367), Thad Young (.381), Turner (.348), Glenn Robinson III (.392), and Cory Joseph (.356).

Others have shown promise. Damien Wilkins hit .417 from the 3-point line in preseason games and has shot equally well in practice. Sabonis hit just .321 last season, but made .444 of his attempts in the first 30 games before hitting the rookie wall. Joe Young hit just .217 last season, but was 4-of-5 in preseason games and won the 3-point shooting contest in the Fan Jam competition. Rookie TJ Leaf hit .466 in his only season at UCLA, and hit 5-of-8 in his four preseason games.

The quality is there. They’ll have to find ways to take advantage of it with better quantity. Which, again, means better defense, rebounding and ball movement.

“We just want to win basketball games,” Thad Young said. “We want to put up a lot of shots, shoot a lot of threes, but we have to defend.

“That’s the biggest key. Defend, defend, defend. If we can’t do that we won’t be able to win games even if we hit threes.”

Clutch Scoring

One thing for sure, regardless of their final record, the Pacers are going to be in several games that are up for grabs in the final couple of minutes this season. That means they’ll need clutch shooting.

Nobody stands as an obvious choice for taking the most crucial shots. That could wind up being a detriment or a good thing. If they just run an offense and move the ball, they can take whatever shots present themselves and therefore be more difficult to defend than last season, when everyone knew the ball was going to George.

George often delivered with one-on-one scoring, such as when he hit a game-breaking 20-foot jumper over Brownsburg native and Indianapolis fan favorite Gordon Hayward with 18.9 seconds left in a victory over Utah at the fieldhouse in March. George then shouted, “This is my city!” amid the bedlam.

It’s no longer George’s city, and there’s a vacancy for someone else to step into that role. For now, it would be in the Pacers’ best interests if it becomes a group effort.


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