Halfway home, the Pacers appear to be on the right path with their 25-16 record. That they've done so without Danny Granger, their leading scorer from the past five seasons, and with a few players performing below expectations, makes them look all the better.
Where they go from here, however, depends on three primary factors:
Can Granger return and regain his level of previous seasons?
Can Granger re-acclimate himself to a team that is significantly different than the one he played for last season? Meaning, mostly, can he co-exist with Paul George, who has stepped into a starring role and is regarded by some – Reggie Miller included – as the future face of the franchise?
Can the Pacers figure a way to beat winning teams on the road, since, you know, they'll have to win a few road games to advance far in the playoffs?
Or, as George so bluntly put it: “When it comes down to playoff time, if we don't have the higher seed, we're pretty much screwed. We've got to be able to learn to win on the road.”
The Pacers' 25-16 record (their best at the midpoint since the 2003-04 team was 30-11 on its way to 61 wins) hardly seemed likely as recently as mid-December. They started 4-7, but changes in offensive strategy gradually took hold. It wasn't until Dec. 14, when they beat Philadelphia to improve to 12-11, that they grabbed a winning record they would keep. Since then they've gone 14-5 and at times looked like an actual title contender.
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At home, at least. Out on the road they remain a losing team, 9-13, and are a shadow of the one that occupies Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Only one of those precious road victories came over a team that has a winning record today, Chicago. That was the game in which George, embarrassed by his scoreless outing three days earlier at Golden State, erupted for 34 points, signaling a new direction for his season – if not his career.
So, yeah, generally speaking, they're happy.
“We can't complain,” David West said. “We're in a good position.”
But not in a great position, and certainly mindful of the need for improvement.
By the time they play at home again, on Jan. 30, we'll have a better read on them. The four-game road trip that begins Monday afternoon in Memphis and takes them into the All-Star break will be revealing. The Grizzlies, Utah and Denver have winning records, and Portland just dropped to .500 after losing five straight. It will be the Pacers' best chance to prove they're something more than a bunch of homebodies who can't handle the rigors of road-dom, although they can't be thoroughly evaluated until Granger has returned.
“Nothing builds confidence and belief more than a road win over a plus-.500 team or playoff team,” coach Frank Vogel said.
It's the last remaining hurdle for the Pacers. They lead the Central Division, a game head of Chicago, and they've defeated the two teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings, Miami and New York. At home, anyway.
How do they take their act on the road?
“Defense travels, that's one thing I know,” Vogel said. “When you go into opposing buildings every night and your defense is solid, it just comes down to executing offensively.”
The Pacers are perhaps the NBA's best defensive team, so the onus clearly is on the offense. They're not exactly blowing fuses on the new scoreboard at Bankers Life, where they average 94.9 points, but they're the second-worst scoring team on the road, averaging 88.5. They hit 39.6 percent of their three-pointers at home, but just 28.7 percent on the road.
The solution, then, would seem to be to move the ball better, rely less on three-pointers and hit more of the shots they take.
The Pacers won seven-of-10 road games through one stretch, but have since lost four-of-five. The only win came over Charlotte, which has won just five of its 20 home games. The other losses, to Orlando, Brooklyn, Boston and Atlanta, came by an average of 12.5 points.
“We've just got to get some composure,” David West said. “There are times offensively where we panic. We panicked in Brooklyn (after taking a 12-point third-quarter lead). You just can't do that when you're trying to upset somebody on their home floor.
“We've got to continue to tweak things and get our guys in spots that are going to give them the best chance for success.”
Granger could help or hurt that mission. He's due back sometime around the first week of February. Vogel of course will work him back into the lineup gradually, although he hasn't decided whether he'll use Granger as a starter or reserve at first. Regardless, Granger will be in the starting lineup as soon as he's ready to play starter minutes, at which point a subplot will take root.
George, Granger's understudy last season, has flourished in the spotlight that Granger vacated. He's averaging a team-high 17.4 points, hitting a team-best 38 percent from the three-point line and 81 percent from the foul line. He's also one of the league's best defenders. He's to the Pacers what Andrew Luck is to the Colts in many respects, but he plays both ways.
Granger hasn't spoken with the media since his latest knee issue arose, two days before the season-opener, so we don't know his thoughts on melding with the lineup that has gotten along fairly well without him. Is he willing to step back from his previous starring role and become a supporting cast member? Reggie Miller gracefully stepped aside for Jalen Rose in the 1999-2000 season, and played second, third or fourth fiddle in the offense until he retired in 2005. Rose, however, had difficulty making room for Jermaine O'Neal and other younger players, and wound up getting squeezed out by a trade during the 2001-02 season.
Granger and George will have to work out a similar two-step shuffle. So far there's no reason to expect trouble. George says that Granger has been “the first to be in my ear” this season with advice and encouragement. Granger turns 30 in April, and his knees are 40. He should welcome the opportunity to be an important part of an ensemble rather than a star attraction. George, meanwhile, will have to give up some of his offensive opportunities when Granger returns, but he's displayed maturity beyond his 22 years. Their willingness to co-exist will have a major influence on the fate of the season.
Lance Stephenson will have to adjust as well. He had an explosion of his own in Granger's absence, moving into a starting role and solidifying himself as a legitimate pro.
When training camp began, it was legitimate to ask if Stephenson would even be part of the playing rotation. After all, this was a guy who last season averaged 2.5 points and shot 38 percent from the field and all of 13 percent from the three-point line. Now he's a starter, averaging 7.8 points and shooting 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. He's also putting solid effort into defense. The guys on the playgrounds back in Brooklyn wouldn't recognize him.
He'll have to go back to the bench after Granger returns. When asked about that, he shows no hints of disappointment. He never expected to start this season, so he should view his opportunity as an unexpected bonus that advanced his career, but one too good to be true – for now.
Finding offensive consistency will require more from Roy Hibbert and the reserves. Hibbert has played better the past couple of weeks, but still shoots just 41 percent from the field and averages 9.8 points. He's missed an uncanny number of shots within five feet of the basket. With George's emergence and Granger's impending return, the Pacers would be happy if he could just match his offensive output from last season – 12.8 scoring average on 50 percent shooting.
The front office remodeled the reserve unit in the off-season, exchanging Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Lou Amundson, A.J. Price and Leandro Barbosa for D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Ian Manhimi and Sam Young (waived, but expected to return when his sprained ankle heals), as well as draft picks Miles Plumlee and Orlando Johnson and free agent Ben Hansbrough.
There was great anticipation of having an improved backup unit, but so far it hasn't happened. Manhimi has brought stability behind Hibbert, and Augustin has begun playing well after a poor start, but Green in particular has not lived up to expectations. His scoring average (7.4) has dropped 5.5 points from last season when he played for the Nets, and his field goal percentage from 48 percent to 35.
Granger's return will improve the bench as well, presuming Stephenson adapts well to playing off of it.
So, halfway home, the Pacers have good reason to be optimistic for better days. But only if they don't get lost amid all the detours on the road.