Despite finishing with a recrod under.500 for the fifth straight season, the Indiana Pacers showed some potential for the future at the end of 2010-11, riding a late-season upswing to a strong showing against the No. 1-seed Chicago Bulls in Round 1.
What's to come in Indy this season? Some not-too-familiar expectations and a few new faces, for starters. ESPN.com's John Hollinger gave his take on the Indiana Pacers' current crew. Now our 5-on-5 team takes a few swings at the most-pressing roster questions:
1. For which Pacers player is the 2011-12 season most important?
Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds:Roy Hibbert. Entering his fourth season, Hibbert is on the verge of either becoming a foundation piece for Indiana -- or its next bad contract. Last season had two months (November and February) that argue the former, and two (December and January) that argue the latter. There's no Jim O'Brien for him to hide behind this season. It's all up to him.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, in the final season of his rookie deal, has a lot to prove before free agency. Sometimes he looks like he could command eight figures per year on the open market. Other times, he looks like he could accept the qualifying offer. He has tools, but will he ever use them consistently for long stretches?
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Paul George. The Pacers will struggle to lure an elite player to Indiana via free agency; the Dwight Howards and Chris Pauls of the world all want to play in New York or L.A. So if they're ever going to get a superstar, they have to draft him. George has that potential. He's a long ways from reaching it, but if he can get there, the Pacers have a shot at being a contender.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: Roy Hibbert. He's made incremental growth in each of his three seasons with the Pacers, but still hasn't settled the argument of his potential. This season isn't about proving he's an impact player, it's about being an impact player. 2011-2012 is the fulcrum that could decide which way the rest of his career tips.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Roy Hibbert. By the end of this season we will finally know exactly how good he is. He has improved, but his inconsistency is probably a character trait at this point. If it's not and he can put together a full season, however, he could cement a distinction many have long expected for him: one of the NBA's best centers.
2. Who is the most intriguing player on the Pacers' roster?
Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: The player to be named later. After years in salary-cap prison, Indiana finally has meaningful cap room, and this free-agent class has several players that would be nice adds -- at the right price. Unfortunately, it's a weak class, so the "right price" is pretty unlikely. President of basketball operations Larry Bird and the Pacers need to add talent to keep moving forward, but they need to tread carefully here.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Paul George. He has a nice shooting stroke, but struggled to make 3-pointers (29.7 percent from 3-point range last season). He stole a lot of balls as a rookie in 2010-11, but his defensive positioning underwhelmed. He turned the ball over a lot, but that's often a sign of a bright future. His career could go any direction from here.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: A player to be named later. The Pacers have a ton of cap room and a number of trade assets to help improve after barely landing last season's No. 8 seed in the East. It might be Nene, Marc Gasol, Andrei Kirilenko, David West or someone like Eric Gordon in 2011-12. Either way, the next player they add will have a huge impact on their future.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: Paul George. He established himself as a player to watch with the tough defense he played against Derrick Rose in the playoffs. However, very little of the confidence and aggressiveness he showed on defense could be found on offense last season. If he finds the offensive ying to his defensive yang, he could be a franchise cornerstone for the next decade.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Paul George, without question. In four years, he could be a two-way player every team covets or another run-of-the-mill wing. It could go either way. His rookie season reminded me of Joe Johnson in Boston: the numbers suggested nothing to get excited about, but a few moments each game did.
3. What's the most surprising take in Hollinger's Pacers profiles?
Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Not a lot of surprises here, though I was not aware opposing power forwards put up the kind of numbers (18.7 PER) shown here against Josh McRoberts. Lance Stephenson being referred to as "Quentin Richardson with a better handle, a worse attitude and without the jumper" is likely to disappoint Larry Bird, who has called "Born Ready" the most talented guy on the roster.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Darren Collison's terrible adjusted plus-minus. Collison could shoot more 3-pointers, something he does well but not enough, but otherwise his offense is fine. His sizes limits him defensively, but he looks adequate on that end. Is that stat just a fluke?
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Not sure there were too many surprises here, but reading Hollinger's profile on George Hill has to warm the hearts of Indy fans. They almost traded that pick at the deadline for O.J. Mayo and then almost used it themselves on Kawhi Leonard. Given Hill's career trajectory and his efficiency as a scorer, I think Hill couldn't be a better fit in Indy. Hill was Gregg Popovich's favorite player in San Antonio. Now he'll get more freedom and more shots in Indy. He could be a potential breakout player this season.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: George Hill is a better fit at shooting guard. Adding Hill meant a talent upgrade, but also the opportunity to keep A.J. Price and his 35.6 field-goal percentage off the floor. My thought was that Hill would back up both guard spots, possibly even pushing Darren Collison for the starting job. If that's not the best fit for him, then the Pacers have more work to do with their backcourt.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: That George Hill "probably needs to become a full-time shooting guard." If that happens, it means Indiana (1) values Darren Collison as its point guard, (2) trusts A.J. Price to play all the backup minutes at the point, and (3) won't really have the wing minutes to rationalize signing a guy such as Jamal Crawford in addition to Hill, George and Danny Granger.
4. Based on Hollinger's profiles, what do the Pacers need most?
Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Patience, and perhaps just the right amount of prescience. Indiana has one good-to-very good player (Granger), one intriguing player (George), a collection of promising but limited question marks, and a whole lot of cap space. With another $10 million expiring this season and an amnesty in their back pocket, Bird, GM David Morway and director of player personnel Kevin Pritchard need to be careful not to make any decisions they can't unmake.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: A big man who can play with and without Roy Hibbert. Maybe Hibbert's asthma will keep him from ever playing well for long stretches, but that doesn't mean he can't help. Either way, the Pacers can't rely on Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts to start at power forward. Someone like Nene could play next to and behind Hibbert.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: A big man who can rebound and block shots. Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert are both good offensive players, but they are average rebounders who lack the elite athleticism other teams put in their frontcourts. Unfortunately for the Pacers, none of the big men on the free-agent market really fit the bill.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: An offensive star. By that I mean a player with enough gravity to hold the other disparate parts together, providing the impetus for them to move forward in some semblance of order. The Pacers' roster has skilled offensive players, but they need someone or something to anchor them in an effective system.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: A low-post anchor. Hibbert provides that some games. Occasionally, Hansbrough does. But only Jeff Foster, when healthy, has been a big man the team could be certain would show up each night. It doesn't even have to be a star. They just need someone with a few reliable skills who can replicate them on the court every night.
5. Will a shortened season help or hurt the Pacers?
Tim Donahue, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Hurt. A lot. The Pacers have an almost entirely new coaching staff, and they are adding George Hill and probably at least one key player to their rotation. Taking over midseason, head coach Frank Vogel only deconstructed O'Brien's system and ran the most rudimentary of offenses. Indiana is starting with almost a completely blank sheet of paper, and few teams will miss a full training camp and that extra month worth of games to get it together as much.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Help, I guess. The Pacers, who should have plenty of new players by Christmas, could use an extra 16 games to find their best combinations. But for a team that will likely struggle anyway, a high-variance season increases their chances of making the playoffs.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: Hurt. Training camp would've been nice for Indy. They've added Hill over the summer and will add at least a couple more major pieces to the team via free agency. Vogel isn't going to have time to get them all on the same page, let alone work in a more sophisticated offense. I still think the Pacers (depending on what they do this summer) are a playoff team. But a shortened season makes that a bigger question in my mind.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: Hurt. After 290 games coached by O'Brien, the Pacers were badly in need of a system rebuild at both ends of the floor. Vogel had just 43 games to get that process started last season. This roster and coaching staff needs every second of collaborative experience they can get to keep making forward progress.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Hurt. Collectively, it's a young roster that needs time to gel. Individually, these guys still need to figure out what they can do on the court. And from a front-office perspective, management soon needs to make decisions about who to tie the franchise's wagon to for the next half decade. Less time to evaluate likely means less effective decision-making.