Through 41 games, the Indiana Pacers are 25-16—good for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. They have been without their leading scorer in each of the past five seasons, Danny Granger, who has already missed more games this season than his previous seven seasons combined due to a sore left knee. Granger is expected to return in a couple of weeks. After starting the season 4-7, the Pacers have since gone 21-9. At Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they are 16-3 and have won 11 games in a row.
With the 2012-13 regular season exactly halfway complete, I sat down with Pacers President of Basketball Operations Donnie Walsh to get his take on a number of issues. My Q & A is below (questions in bold):
With the Pacers exactly halfway through the season, Mark Montieth and Scott Agness discuss what they've seen from Indiana thus far. They talk about the meteoric rise of Paul George, the surprise contributions of Lance Stephenson, the role of bench players, and Roy Hibbert's start as well as what to expect over the next 41 games. ...
It's been almost seven months since you re-joined the Pacers. What's your comfort level like now with General Manager Kevin Pritchard and the coaching staff?
I like working with Kevin (Pritchard) very much. I think he's a really good young general manager. He's experienced from the time he's been in Portland so he knows the job and I think from my standpoint, we work very well together along with Peter Dinwiddie. I've been pleased with the front office people.
I've been very pleased with Frank Vogel and his staff. I think they do a really good job. I think Frank is, number one, very technically sound as far as leading the team and being in the locker room. I love his positiveness in that the way that he approaches that. I think the players listen to him and basically have confidence in him. Those are the key things with the head coach.
The assistant coaches are all very well qualified guys that have their different takes on what they do and I think it works very well. The coaching staff is very integrated and gets along very well. So, from all those standpoints I've been very pleased.
I think the season has gone better than I thought it would once we lost Danny (Granger). I think they've done an unbelievable job considering that they've lost Danny up ‘til now and the schedule has been the most difficult schedule I've had. I think that's been underplayed by people here. And, also, trying to deal with expectations that may be unreasonable. I'm very pleased with where they are.
How do you think the team has fared so far?
This team played really well together last year. That seemed to have carried over to this year and so they had that unity as a team, where they go in there and make the most of what we have out on the floor, no matter who it is. And that's worked for us.
Our defense has been terrific and I think you got to give a large measure of credit to Roy (Hibbert) on that because he protects the rim. If you think about it, if you can't get layups, which is hard for teams to get against us, then you're taking jump shots. Well, the percentage of jump shots is far lower than the percentage of layups so that's why we have the ranking we have (1st, 41.3 percent) in field goal percentage for opponents, which has been excellent.
There's been a lot of really good things happening here but I think there's more parity in the league now. I don't know what was expected but if you think the team is going to win 70 games, that's probably not going to happen for many teams. Looking at that, I think they've done very well.
One of the bright spots of Granger being out has been Paul George's maturation and growth. What do you make of his play?
That is, and I think it'll make (the team) even better when Danny gets back, I think he has taken a gigantic leap forward because it's one thing to be a talented player who can make jump shots, can jump, run and defend—one thing he does extremely well. But offensively, when all of a sudden there's no Danny out there, now you're looked at as the guy that's going to have to make things happen a lot. He's done that and he's figured out the difference in that and what a normal player does. He has to try and get his shot, the shot he can make every night. In the beginning, that's not that easy. He was just taking shots as they came and now he's starting to create the shot. He's done a great job of evolving.
The thing about Paul is that he just played against the best players in this league and I could say he outplayed them. So that puts him pretty far up there as far as the caliber of player he is. If you take that into consideration, and then realize he's got levels that he can go to—by certain things as he goes on, which he will accomplish—that will put him at the very top of the league. I don't know what his limit it. I think he's an unlimited guy. He's worked and figured out what he has to do in order to be a good player every night. I'm very, very impressed with him.
When Granger returns, what kind of dynamic do you anticipate between he and Paul?
They'll make it work because they're both at a high level. It's going to be good for Danny, particularly coming off missing time, because Paul can now create the plays and Danny is out there shooting the ball, which Danny does very well. Danny can also create plays so it'll make it easier on Paul. It's going to be a very difficult decision for the defense to make if they're going to try to guard our inside people. If they're going to have help inside and you're leaving one of those two open, that's a bad choice.
Do you find their struggles on the road concerning at all?
That's a figment of the press' imagination. It's a thing that they haven't done. They don't have an over .500 record on the road. The fact is they have nine wins (9-13). How many teams have nine wins or more in the league? ... So I'm not worried. I think we compete on the road. Again, the schedule has been difficult. We will have more back-to-backs than anybody in the league, particularly with the rescheduling of the Chicago game that we missed. We've had a lot of four games in five nights, again, at the top end of the league in that.
What you have to realize is we're a very young team. Even though they played well last year, you come in and you're missing your key ingredient, Danny Granger, who was the high-scorer last year and the go-to guy ... I looked at the schedule and said if this team doesn't get off right and starts losing a lot of games right away, that could knock their confidence and you could go in the tank. They haven't done that so I'm very pleased with that.
As good as Roy Hibbert has been on defense, what do you attribute his offense woes to?
I really don't know and I really don't care. I think it'll get better. If you think about it, what do you want out of a center? You want rebounding and you want shot-blocking. The best center of all-time was Bill Russell—rebounder, shot-blocker and he had dunks. That's what he did. Other than that, he wasn't an offensive player, whether he could have been or couldn't have been. The fact is that his team didn't need him for that. What you need out of a guy at the center position is what I've just said.
How much did you know about Lance Stephenson before you came here and is it fair to say he's the teams' most improved play?
I don't know his game all the way. But I did see him play in college and when he's played here. What he's done is fit into the role—I think it's good for him to play 2-guard. At the point guard position, that's a very difficult position for a young player. You can get the impression that's almost like playing in the school yard. He's going to make a lot of mistakes there. When he got to the 2-guard, he's pretty much stayed within what is expected of a 2-guard. He's cut down on mistakes because he has stabilized his game. I think that if he has to go back out and play point guard, he's going to approach it a lot differently than he would have before he played 2-guard.
... I think Lance has learned how to play within himself and he really helps our team in a lot of areas that aren't noticed. He's been, at the very least, a really stable, sound player both offensively and defensively.
This offseason was about improving the bench but many times when coach Vogel has gone to his bench, there has been a drop-off. Why do you believe that is?
I think the bench had to learn to play together. They were going in there five guys at a time so in effect, it was another team. They haven't had the advantage that the first team had of playing together and knowing each other so they struggled trying to get through that and I think that'll get better and better as the year goes on... There have been some games that the bench has not gone out and not played well. But there have been a lot of games where they've come out there and basically because they play a faster pace, have picked up the energy of the team.
Why did you choose not utilize the D-League during your previous stint with the team and how do you think it has helped the rookies?
I didn't use it in the past because I had veterans. I didn't have that many young guys and the D-League wasn't as developed as it is now. I think in this case, it really helped because it didn't look like Orlando (Johnson) or Miles Plumlee were going to get any time so now they're just sitting on the bench and that's no good. Even though it helps for them to come in and play against our guys every day, I think game time becomes important because you need to get out there and play and so that was a good option and I was happy that we did that.
Quotes For the Road
- I think George Hill is going to be an underrated point guard. He's an extremely good point guard.
- Gerald Green is not hitting shots but he's playing as hard as he can in other areas of the game and impacting the game that way
- Sam Young, when he was playing, gave us a lot of elements, including defense and his overall toughness on the floor.
- I like (Ian) Mahinmi's game. I think he's a valuable addition to what we're doing.
- I like D.J. (Augustin) and the way he's playing.
- Tyler Hansbrough comes in and gives us energy