last season was one of perseverance and triumph. The veteran gunner was an integral part of an undermanned team that clawed its way into the playoffs and muscled past Boston before succumbing to its nemesis--the Detroit Pistons--in the second round. The infamous brawl that cost Indiana Jermaine O'Neal
for 25 games, Stephen Jackson
for 30 games, and Ron Artest
for 72 regular games and the playoffs overshadowed all of the Pacers' injury problems. O'Neal missed an additional 18 games due to a bad shoulder. Starting point guard, Jamaal Tinsley
, was limited to 44 games because of foot and ankle problems. All three centers sat were forced out of the lineup--occasionally at the same time. The Pacers were so injury-plagued that Fred Jones
led the team in games played (77), followed by James Jones
(75), Austin Croshere
(73), and Eddie Gill
(73). Miller led the team in starts with 66; nobody else had 50.
Barring another catastrophic bout of crap luck, the Pacers will be vastly improved this year. Superstars, great role players, scorers, stoppers, a great coach, brilliant front-office management--they have the total package. Kind of like a Spurs' east.
The team's only loss is Miller, who rebuilt his reputation by refusing to exit gracefully, running through screen after screen on his 39 year-old knees and hitting the handful of game winning shots he had left in him. Still, Reggie was only a shade of his former self. He scored fewer than 15 points a game and, though he could still stroke it from the free throw line, he made only 32% of his three point attempts, the lowest completion rate of his career. Taking over the starting spot he held for almost 20 years will be hotheaded Stephen Jackson. Jackson is younger (27), taller (6'8"), more athletic, and a better three-point marksmen (36%) at this point in his career. Per minute, he averaged more points, rebounds, steals, and blocks than Miller did last season. Unfortunately he also comes with a greater propensity for fouls, turnovers, and mental lapses.
Artest, the current king of crackheads, will reclaim his starting small forward role. Before his reckoning with the commish last season, the former Defensive Player of the Year was on fire offensively, scoring 24 points a game, and shooting 93% from the free throw line and 49% from the field. His rebounds were up, as were his blocks, and his KF Average* was humming at .883. Can he pick up where he left off? He stayed in shape and dominated summer league competition in Minnesota. While five games against fringe competition is not to be confused with NBA basketball, his performance is a better sign than if he had looked fat and lazy. But remember, he amassed last year's numbers in only nine games. Given his prior production, it's doubtful he would have maintained that kind of pace for the whole season. Still, Artest is only 25, and he's become a better basketball--and Kentucky Fried--player every year. But with his tendency to go nuts, he's a high reward/high risk proposition for both the Pacers and KF owners.
Anchoring the Pacers will be one of the most dominant post men in the game today, Jermaine O'Neal. A legitimate 20-10-and-2 big, O'Neal was dominant last season (when he played) despite injuries. At 26, he has already established himself as the team leader and most important part of one of the league's strongest nucleus.
Surrounding O'Neal, Artest, Jackson, and Tinsley will be the players who stepped up last year--Fred Jones, Anthony Johnson, Austin Croshere--and more seven footers than you can shake a Shaq at--David Harrison, Scott Pollard, Jeff Foster. Throw in Danny Granger, who inexplicably fell out of this summer's draft lottery, and Sarunas Jasikevicius, the top guard in Europe, and you have the team with the best chance to rip the Eastern Conference title from Detroit--and perhaps the championship trophy from San Antonio.
Granger didn't play in the summer league because of a sore knee, but Indiana couldn't be happier to have him. The 6'8" small forward led the University of New Mexico in points (18.9 per game), rebounds (8.9), steals (2.1), and blocks (2.0) in his senior season. He also shot 54% from the field and 42% from long distance. Barring injury, he should take over as Indiana's first forward off the bench from day one.
Though some pundits doubt whether Jasikevicius is quick enough to cover NBA guards, he should have no problem fitting into the Pacers' offense. In 24 Euroleague games last year, he averaged 15.6 points, 5.3 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 0.9 steals over 31.2 minutes, for a healthy .782 KFAvg. While his 48% shooting from the field and 40% from long distance might drop a few points in the NBA, his free throw shooting (94%) shouldn't be affected at all. It would be pretty interesting if Jasikevicius leads the league in free throw shooting one year after Reggie retired with that honor. He'll start the season as a combo guard off the bench but could work his way into a starting role, should Tinsley falter or break down.
Keep an Eye on...
Tinsley has improved his shooting drastically over the last two years. A 24% shooter as a rookie, he hit 37% of the four three-pointers he took a game. This newfound touch has allowed him to drive to the basket more often, as opponents can no longer sit back and let him clunk it. Unfortunately these last two years have also come with multiple injuries; he's played only 93 regular-season games. Even if Tinsley can stay healthy, he's unlikely to score as prolifically, now that Indiana has a full set of starters. Last year's 15.4 points a game was quite the spike from his previous career high (9.4), and he took almost double as many shots to get there. Buyer beware: that .865 he put up last season could be a mirage.
Stay Away from...
Scott Pollard has been a bust since arriving in Indiana. Back in Sacramento, he was a fan favorite and a reliable backup, good for 15 points and 15 rebounds per 48 minutes. That's the magic of the Kings' offense. As a Pacer, Pollard is closer to 10 and 10, and he can't seem to earn consistent playing time.