Greetings, Hashtag Basketball readers.
I'm excited to join the Hashtag team as a featured content writer for the Indiana Pacers. It's been a while since I have been on a season-long grind writing about a sports team, but I'm looking forward to sharing my sports musings at length once again.
I've followed the Pacers nearly all my remembered life, and I began covering them in blog form right around the beginning of the Frank Vogel era in early 2011. The goings-on within the franchise since then has not failed to intrigue. A 3 1/2-year run powered by "smash-mouth basketball" and stifling defense yielded two straight appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals and the emergence of a young star, and current face of the franchise, Paul George. Though coming up just short in the postseason, the Pacers had established a gritty defensive identity with which they seemingly could contend perennially.
That all changed in August 2014 when George suffered a broken leg in that gruesome incident during a USA Basketball scrimmage that kept him out of all but the last six games of the following NBA season. George's injury set in motion the chain of events that led to where the Pacers find themselves today -- striving to reinvent themselves as a force on the opposite end of the court.
Team President Larry Bird has made it clear he wants more points and faster pace on offense, and those things, in and of themselves, are fine aspirations. The issue to this point has been the means Bird has taken to meet those ends. Entering last season, he tried to hastily implement a "small ball" approach a la the Golden State Warriors -- a misguided attempt at copycat basketball without considering the immense talent that enabled the Warriors to play that way -- that saw George grudgingly play the power forward position, C.J. Miles get worn down at the same spot, and free-agent signing Monta Ellis struggle to carve out a niche in an offense he was acquired to invigorate. Despite a fast start, the scheme flamed out quickly, forcing then-coach Frank Vogel to revert to a more conventional lineup. While that decision led to wins and a return to the playoffs, Bird evidently wasn't pleased, opting not to renew Vogel's contract and ensure he got his way going forward.
Since Bird proceeded to embark on a spree of transactions to effect his desired change, why not grade 'em?
I acknowledge that accurately grading moves isn't feasible until we have seen the ramifications of those moves manifest in actual games, but it's reasonable to offer marks based on how they project to serve Bird's desires for the Pacers -- namely, whether they'll speed up the pace and put the ball in the basket more often. I might or might not also throw in my personal thoughts on whether they'll make the Pacers an overall better team, because, well, I assume that's what organizations go for.
I'll split up the offseason into three "grading periods" -- the first immediately after the end of the 2015-16 season leading up to draft day, the second from draft day to the eve of free agency, and the third from the start of free agency to now. Let's dive in.
Third Grading Period: C
Bird spent most of this period with a failing grade until a major trade toward the end saved his average. The reason for the dip? The decisions concerning the Pacers' head coaching position and Bird's handling of them.
Unsatisfied with the strategy that got the Pacers to two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals but couldn't consistently score at a high level, particularly in late-game situations, Bird decided Vogel wasn't the man to guide the offense and allowed the six-year head man's contract to expire without extension. I didn't agree with Bird's decision to part with Vogel, nor did I at all appreciate Bird's public comments about his final conversation with Vogel, so he already had two huge strikes against him in my book before he hired Nate McMillan, who had been the Pacers' associate head coach the previous three seasons.
The hire was damn near impossible to reconcile with any of the rationales Bird had given for wanting to bring in a new head coach. He said the players needed to hear a new voice. McMillan was not a new voice. Sure, he was taking a new position that would allow him to more freely implement his philosophy, but his presence and demeanor were not foreign to the franchise. Secondly, Bird said he wanted faster pace on offense. McMillan's teams in Portland and Seattle did not play fast offensively. It seemed a guy like Ettore Messina or David Blatt would have better met Bird's stated criteria. I already vehemently disagreed with jettisoning Vogel and Bird's handling of that situation. His decision to go completely against his reasoning for change had me seriously wondering to what dark place he was taking this franchise.
Fortunately for the Pacers, however, Bird began to save face shortly before the 2016 NBA Draft.
A fast, dynamic point guard is essential to the style of play Bird wants, and he got just that in Jeff Teague, an Indy native and NBA All-Star. In a blockbuster three-team trade that sent five-year Pacer George Hill to the Utah Jazz and Utah's first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks, Teague comes in to fill Hill's role at point guard and hopefully facilitate the offense better than his fellow Indy native. Teague certainly is an upgrade from Hill in terms of ability to pass, dribble-penetrate and create for others, which is what the Pacers have been lacking since ... well, a young Jamaal Tinsley? Mark Jackson, even? However, some critics of the deal point to Hill's stellar point-of-attack defense as a sacrifice that could result in a net negative for the team. This is an understandable concern; Hill has totaled 20.2 career defensive win shares to Jeff Teague's 15.3. However, Teague's three defensive win shares in 2015-16 bested Hill's 2.8. While Hill's value certainly manifests itself in his length and prowess on the defensive end, he often has struggled to defend point guards in the league's top tier or even just especially quick points. Point being, the defensive drop-off might not be as drastic as it might seem on the surface. Further, the added dimension and creativity Teague can provide for Paul George, Myles Turner, and others should result in a noticeably more fluid offense. This move itself warranted an A grade. Average that out with the F for the head coach blunder, and the Pacers get a C for this period.
Second Grading Period: A-
Bird continued to find success with his franchise makeover on draft day. Stuck with an unenviable 20th pick in the first round of the NBA Draft -- hardly a spot at which to net a difference-making rookie -- Bird opted instead for a veteran. He, fortunately, found a partner in the Brooklyn Nets, whose disastrous attempt to form a superteam with aging former Boston Celtics stars had left them without a first-round pick and a productive power forward, Thaddeus Young, available for that price. Bird pulled the trigger without hesitation and secured his new starting four, which confirmed the assumption that Myles Turner would be moving to center full-time. It should work out nicely as Turner can focus on developing his immense potential as a rim protector and the Pacers still can bank on production at the power forward spot. Does bird want more scoring? Young can score. He has averaged nearly 14 points per game for his career at nearly a 50-percent clip. He is a sure bet beneath and around the basket, though questions have arisen about whether he adequately can fill that "stretch-four" role beyond the arc. His 3-point field goal clip in Brooklyn last season was a meager 23.3 percent, and further, he rarely attempted 3-pointers, averaging 0.4 attempts per game. That might help explain the lackluster percentage, but those attempts will need to be more frequent if the Pacers are to employ a faster-paced, dare I say small-ball offensive attack. Young's career 3-point clip is 31.9 percent, so perhaps 2015-16 was an anomaly. Regardless, Young will score. He absolutely meets Bird's criterion of scoring more points. Further, he's a strong veteran presence on which younger guys can learn from, much like David West was while in Indiana. For the price they paid -- a late first-rounder -- this acquisition was a great bargain.
The Pacers also made a selection during the draft, spending the 50th pick on former Iowa State standout Georges Niang. A two-time AP All-American and career 50-percent shooter in college, Niang was widely regarded as a valuable late-draft selection with the potential to contribute on an NBA roster with seasoning. You don't find too many intriguing prospects toward the end of the draft, but Niang is one such prospect. I could see him making the Pacers roster and/or logging heavy minutes with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the NBA Development League in 2015-16, and from there, who knows? There's always a place for players who can put the ball in the basket.
Third Grading Period: B+
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Pacers' free-agency participation was its discretion at a time when NBA franchises could spend more freely with a higher salary cap. At the start of free agency, the cap jumped from $70 million to just north of $90 million, and player contracts skyrocketed as a result. While former Pacers Ian Mahinmi and Solomon Hill received contracts paying them annual salaries of approximately $16 million and $12 million?, respectively -- unthinkable under previous caps -- Bird opted for a serious bargain in signing Al Jefferson to a three-year deal paying him about $10 million annually. Since Mahinmi likely would have backed up Turner at center had the Pacers retained him, the team arguably secured far more bang for its buck by acquiring Jefferson to fill the same role. Jefferson, though aging and prone to injury -- he has played a full season just twice in his 12-year career -- still can score at a level more than adequate for a backup center. He doesn't necessarily fit Bird's vision of playing faster, but he definitely fits the vision of scoring more points. As long as he can stay reasonably healthy and earn those beneath-the-basket points, he will be well worth the contract the Pacers gave him and should go down as one of the offseason's better signings.
The Pacers also acquired backup point guard Aaron Brooks on a one-year, $2.7 million deal. The signing was met with mixed reviews from what I gather; while most agree the former Oregon standout could provide some scoring spark off the bench, some wondered what his presence would mean for another former Oregon point guard, the second-year man Joe Young, who showed flashes as a rookie in 2015-16. The good news on that front is that Brooks' contract doesn't necessitate he maintain his depth-chart position all season. If Young takes a significant leap, the Pacers could give him the green light with little difficulty. I see no issue in bringing in Brooks.
Finally, Indiana added a couple of big men on small contracts to ensure depth in the frontcourt. Jeremy Evans and Kevin Seraphin should have a healthy competition as the preseason progresses, and if one or both makes the roster, McMillan will have the wherewithal to employ mostly conventional lineups with the lengthy, athletic bigs who have become so crucial in today's game.
All in all, for such an ambitious offseason makeover, Bird has accomplished a lot. I still don't think Vogel deserved the shaft he got, but that's water over the dam now, and it's up to McMillan to evolve from his previous head-coaching stints in order to effectively implement Bird's desired style. One advantage McMillan will have that Vogel didn't have is more compatible player personnel. I expect success is well within reach early. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out on the court.