It was one year ago, almost to the day, that somebody hijacked my column. Held at gunpoint, threatened to within a half-inch of my life, I was forced to relinquish my MacBook, at which time my captor, cleverly using a writing style much like my own, typed in these words:
"I think the Pacers are going to make the postseason.
"At the very least, they're going to be a .500 basketball team. They will finish 41-41 and -- assuming that's good enough for the seventh or eighth spot in the East -- they're going to be in . . . The Pacers will be one of this year's pleasant surprises.''
Chalk it up to another heinous case of identity theft.
With the Pacers' season beginning anew tonight in San Antonio, I can promise my readers that these are my true thoughts and words:
The Pacers will not make the playoffs.
Let me quickly add this corollary: They will, however, battle for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference, where there are several teams (the Bobcats, Knicks, Sixers and Wizards) who all should fight to reach the .500 mark. The Pacers won 32 games last year; decent health and Darren Collison's presence alone should mean another handful of victories.
Last year at this time, I asked Pacers coach Jim O'Brien to give me three areas where the Pacers had to improve to make the playoffs.
He told me they had to be among the top 10 in field goal percentage defense.
He told me they needed to cut down the free throw disparity; that is, the number of free throws taken by the opponent versus the free throws attempted by the Pacers.
He told me they needed to stay healthy.
They did improve slightly in field goal percentage defense, from 14th in 2008-09 to 13th in the league, and from 14th in adjusted field goal percentage to 10th. But it still wasn't close to good enough, not with the Pacers ranking next-to-last in the league in most free throws allowed (28.6).
They closed the disparity from 6.6 free throws attempted two years ago to 4.0, but it must be lowered to one or two, at most, if this team is going to have a chance. "Too many unnecessary fouls,'' O'Brien said.
And, of course, there were injuries, lots of them.
So I asked him the same question again Tuesday.
"Probably all the same things I said last year,'' he said.
He again mentioned field goal percentage defense, getting into the top 10 in what O'Brien calls "effective defense,'' a number that includes free throws and 3-point shooting percentage allowed.
He again mentioned cutting the free throw disparity even more.
This was new: He mentioned cutting down the turnovers; the Pacers averaged 20 turnovers per preseason game and O'Brien wants that cut to 14 or fewer.
Before I tell you why they won't make it, let me tell you some of the things I like about this team:
It's one year from salary-cap heaven. More than $30 million will come off the books next summer, giving the Pacers the freedom to do the things they've needed to do for years.
Roy Hibbert is going to have a breakout year. He has undergone a remarkable offseason transformation with his body and, more and more, he's becoming the true face of the franchise. If the Pacers remain serious about running their offense through Hibbert, he can be a top-10 center in this league.
Collison has struggled a little learning O'Brien's system, which leads me to wonder if it isn't time for O'Brien to gear his system around his talent. (For example, they bring in free agent Dahntay Jones, and it turns out he doesn't fit into the system because of his lack of perimeter shooting. What? They didn't know Jones had limited range when they signed him?)
Mike Dunleavy is healthy for the first time in years, "the healthiest I've seen him,'' O'Brien said Tuesday.
So why won't they make it?
Defense. They've been talking defense for years, but they haven't been playing any. They have the athletes, but they don't have the disposition or the will.
There's no compelling reason to think the light will suddenly go on this season.
Lack of frontcourt depth. The hope is Josh McRoberts can give the Pacers energy and rebounds, and Jeff Foster can stay in one piece long enough to contribute, but I have my doubts. Lots of them.
Rebounding. When Troy Murphy left, he took his nightly double-doubles with him. Even with him, Indiana was a poor rebounding team. And now?
O'Brien, though, is confident rebounding "won't be the liability everybody thinks it will be.'' He's convinced Hibbert and McRoberts will do the job on the boards, and the wing players, notably Dunleavy and Danny Granger, will improve as rebounders.
Color me dubious.
I think we'll see improvement, we'll see growth and we'll see them spend some time in the hunt for that last playoff spot. But they won't make it to the postseason.
And if I'm wrong, my evil twin brother wrote this column.