Gotta love the Thunder and Lightning nicknames!!
The season is just around the corner, so I'm naturally pumped. This will be my 24th consecutive season covering the NBA but you never really lose that sense of excitement, anticipation and mystery that comes with the season's dawn.
So maybe I'm getting a little carried away, but it feels like just the right time for a bold prediction: T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack will be the most productive point guard tandem in Pacers history.
OK, maybe not that bold.
Granted, there isn't a lot of competition for that particular honor. Mark Jackson and Travis Best? Micheal Williams and Vern Fleming? Johnny Davis and Don Buse? Nice combos all, but not exactly Tracy and Hepburn. I'd throw in a reference for the Facebook generation but, as it turns out, nobody stays together long enough to become legendary these days.
Ford and Jack combined for 25.1 points, 9.0 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals in the preseason and there's little reason to doubt those numbers will decline much, if at all, during the regular season. This is not just wild speculation in reaction to unreliable preseason stats. Their combined NBA career averages are, after all, 21.1 points, 10.9 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.03 steals.
Let's be honest here: if you ranked the five starting positions in terms of overall talent in franchise history, point guard might hold a slight edge on center for fifth. But that could start to change this season because of Ford and Jack.
"They're both going to play an enormous amount of minutes," said Jim O'Brien. "We have to have them both on the court. They bring us good leadership, good toughness from the defensive standpoint. T.J. certainly has the capabilities of up-tempo-ing an offense at a level that's one of the best in the league, which is attractive to us. Jarrett Jack is one of the hardest-nosed guys you ever want to be around. They bring different dimensions to what we're doing. It's just good to have those options."
One of the fastest guards in the league with the ball in his hands – he ranked third in that category in the NBA's survey of GMs, behind only Chris Paul and Tony Parker – Ford could well enjoy the best season of his career in O'Brien's offense. He flirted with a triple-double in the final preseason game (19 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) as the Pacers routed the Mavs in Dallas.
"I'm feeling good," Ford said. "I trained real hard this summer to try to train my body for what's expected out of me. I'll have the opportunity to play a lot more minutes than I have throughout my career, so I'm looking forward to it.
"I think this is the first time in the NBA where it's going to be an up-paced tempo. It's something I haven't been a part of since I've been in the league. It just opens the floor up to give me a lot of opportunities to create for myself and also for others. It just gives me the opportunity to come out, be a floor general, know when to attack and when not to attack."
The particularly nice thing about these two is they are fully complementary. Ford is lightning. Jack is thunder.
They're also used to managing their egos in a tandem situation. Ford paired with Mo Williams in Milwaukee and Jose Calderon in Toronto. Jack started 79 games in 2006-07 but played a support role to Steve Blake last year in Portland.
"Whether I'm coming in for him or we're in there together, we just do a great job of feeding off each other," Jack said. "If I have it, he runs the lane. If he has it, I do the same. We go in there trying to make great decisions for the team and just run the ballclub."
I've barely touched on defense, which just might be the most significant upgrade. The Pacers have been tortured by bad matchups at point for years. In Ford and Jack, that should no longer be the case.
"We had a difficult time containing the basketball last year at our point guard spot and we suffered as a result of it," said O'Brien. "It's not the only place we were weak defensively. But T.J. Ford is a tough-minded guy that does a good job of containing the basketball. It all starts with the ability to keep your man in front of you. We couldn't do that last year. T.J. is pretty good at doing that. Jarrett Jack is just a tough-minded guy who keeps the ball in front (of him), will hit people, take charges, get on the ground for loose balls, is the type of individual that will help our team own our defense. …
"We're just significantly better just if you start at the point of attack."
Or, as Ford put it: "They put up a lot of points last year but they also gave up a lot. It's important that we get stops."
There are adjustments still to be made. Both Ford and Jack are used to having the ball in their hands and O'Brien's system calls for the point guard to use an early pass to initiate the movement in the offense. They must fight the tendency to over-dribble. They'll also need to do a better job protecting the ball. They combined for 46 turnovers in the preseason, nearly six per game and fully 31 percent of the team's miscues.
Those are tendencies that should fade with time and experience with their new teammates and the system. Both are veterans, yet still relatively young (Ford is 25, while Jack turns 25 Tuesday).
All of which means this could be the start of something very special at the point, and the franchise's years of wanting at that position should finally be over.
PRESEASON NUMBERS ENCOURAGING
As previously mentioned, I've been around awhile so I know better than to get too excited about preseason statistics. But they just happen to be the only numbers we have to go on at the moment. For what they're worth, the stats do offer some encouraging signs.
From a team perspective, the Pacers needed to improve their free-throw disparity (they were outscored by 3.5 per game from the line last season) and their rebounding (minus 2.5 last year). In the preseason, they outscored opponents by 23 from the line and outrebounded them by nearly five per game.
Despite the loss of their primary post presence, they actually increased their points in the paint, outscoring opponents by 60 – perhaps because they have more freedom to attack the basket from the perimeter. They also racked up a 99-49 advantage in fast-break points in the final four games, averaging an impressive 24.8.
One thing hasn't really changed. The magic number is still 100. The Pacers were 4-0 when they did and 0-4 when they did not. Last season, they were 32-21 when scoring 100-plus, 4-25 when they did not.
Inidividually, there were mostly solid numbers but one troubling stat: Danny Granger's shooting. He hit just .281 from the field and .235 from the 3-point line. But he did show improvement in two important areas, getting to the line 52 times (7.4 per game) while averaging 3.1 assists (4.3 in the last four).
The rookies also were solid while cementing their spots in the rotation. Brandon Rush showed an excellent 3-point stroke (.429) and averaged 28.6 minutes, 10.1 points and 3.6 rebounds. Roy Hibbert appears to be coming along a little more quickly than expected and averaged 18.9 minutes, 9.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.88 blocked shots.