On Tuesday night, NBA fans can finally move past the frenetic 2017 offseason and enjoy the culmination of earth-shattering trades and promising draft picks as they take the court for the new season. The world will see how new superstar pairs and trios mesh and if any team can potentially take down the Golden State Warriors.
Throughout the first several weeks, teams will look to establish their identities for the new season. Before tipoff, what are some key questions facing the Indiana Pacers as they head into the new year? We'll tackle 5 topics today and look back at how Indiana addresses them as the season progresses.
1. Does Myles Turner make "the leap?"
This is without question the most important aspect of any subject involving the 2017-18 Indiana Pacers. Heading into his third season, center Myles Turner has been given the proverbial keys to the car as the franchise's star player. From year 1 to 2, Turner already exhibited a great deal of growth of the offensive side of the ball, adding a more consistent 3-point shot and becoming a very consistent finisher at the basket.
At times last season, Turner would find himself struggling to contribute to Indiana's scoring, particularly late in the season when he posted multiple single-digit scoring games. With no Paul George this year, Turner needs to establish himself as the main consistent scoring option for Indiana if the Pacers want to have any chance at playoff contention. Making Turner the focal point of the offense should provide him with a better opportunity to develop that consistency.
2. What should we expect from T.J. Leaf?
The Pacers selected Leaf from UCLA with the 18th overall pick in this past summer's draft. Leaf averaged a team-leading 16.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game and was an honorable mention for the AP All-American team. Leaf projects as an athletic stretch-4 who has a reliable 3-point shot, and he's capable of handling 1 on 1 situations, as he demonstrated here:
It's difficult to say whether or not Leaf will get significant playing time early in the season. Before the Paul George trade, Leaf was slotted as Thaddeus Young's backup in the power forward position, but now it's likely that the more experienced Domantas Sabonis will move into that spot, bumping Leaf to the third string. If Leaf demonstrates early growth, it's possible that Sabonis could side inside and play as a small-ball center in certain situations. That would pave the way for Leaf to come into the lineup with the second string for longer spurts and help his development. Leaf's athleticism and skill are too valuable for him to sit on the bench for a whole season, so look for coach Nate McMillan to create lineups where the rookie can get comfortable on the floor. With Glenn Robinson III out for at least two months, Leaf might see more
3. Does the rebounding improve at all?
After enjoying several seasons at or near the top of the league in team rebounding, Indiana dropped off dramatically in that category last season. The Pacers' 48.7 rebound percentage was tied for fifth-worst in the league, and they suffered several losses simply at the hands of failing to secure rebounds and preventing second-chance opportunities. Indiana will rely mostly on Thaddeus Young to spearhead the rebounding, but look for contributions from Turner, Leaf, and Lance Stephenson.
4. How much does the defense struggle?
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the Paul George trade is the departure of George's All-NBA defensive ability. Indiana was an average team defensively last season with a team defensive rating of 106.3, 16th in the league. If the defense takes a nosedive, the Pacers could be in for a long season if they can't muster any improved scoring. Losing George will hurt particularly on the wing, where he was able to switch onto most positions without much difficulty. The Pacers will need instant contributions from Sabonis and Victor Oladipo, both of whom were among the better defensive players for Oklahoma City last season in terms of individual defensive rating. Sabonis, in particular, will have to match the versatility of C.J. Miles, who routinely guarded small and power forwards on opposing teams. Having Darren Collison replace Jeff Teague also figures to be a positive defensively, as Teague was routinely beat by opposing point guards.
5. Is Indiana a playoff team?
I'm inclined to say no as it stands now. When a 42-win team loses a top-10 talent in the NBA, the prognosis typically isn't spectacular, and I expect Indiana will be one of the first teams on the outside looking in at season's end.
The great equalizer, however, is playing in the Eastern Conference. Each season it seems the talent gap between the East and West gets larger and larger, and this year may prove no different as teams like New York, Orlando, and Atlanta either begin or continue their rebuilds. If Indiana has several things go their way, such as Turner's progression as the star, instant contributions from newcomers, and the rest of the East simply being bad, it's possible the Pacers could sneak into a bottom-2 playoff spot with a high-30s win total.