The first week of the Indiana Pacers' 50th season of professional basketball competition (ABA and NBA) has arrived.
The Pacers will be busy during their first week, playing three contests in four nights, the last two being back-to-back road games. Indiana will debut a largely new core of players and will employ something of a new overall team philosophy, and those things figure to take a little while early in the season to settle in. Interestingly enough, though, much of the same could be said for the Pacers' first three opponents.
Let's examine some matchups and other aspects to watch in the Pacers' first three games.
Wednesday, 26 October 2016 at 07:00 PM ET Home
The Pacers open their 50th season of professional basketball competition (ABA and NBA) against a revamped Dallas Mavericks team. Much like the Pacers, the Mavericks were an active participant in the height of the NBA's offseason. Kevin Durant's signing with Golden State meant the Warriors had to clear cap space to accommodate his max deal, and Dallas ended up a double beneficiary. Two former starters on the juggernaut Warriors team, center Andrew Bogut (via trade) and forward Harrison Barnes (via restricted free agency) join the fray in Big D with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki. The Pacers won both matchups with the Mavericks in 2015-16, but Dallas' new additions should ensure Indiana has a competitive opponent and thus an entertaining opener.
Any breakdown of a game against the Mavericks starts and ends with Nowitzki. The 18-year veteran from Germany still is a prolific scorer and the quintessential "stretch-four" that is becoming so popular in the NBA. Nowitzki averaged 18.3 points per game (20.9 per 36 minutes) and produced 110 points per 100 possessions in 2015-16, all the while shooting at a 44.8-percent clip. A threat to score from every spot on the court, Nowitzki figures to be a challenging individual matchup for Pacers forward Thaddeus Young, who can expect Nowitzki to pull him out to the perimeter with frequency. That prospect might lead one to wonder whether Pacers coach Nate McMillan might put elite defender Paul George on Nowitzki for a number of possessions. George prefers not to play the four, but it could be on the table for a few instances on defense. It is worth noting Nowitzki registered a negative plus-minus in both meetings with the Pacers last season, though in only one of those meetings did he actually struggle to shoot.
George likely will open opposite Barnes, who shot poorly with the Warriors when the Pacers played them last January and proceeded to have an abysmal postseason. Barnes is a gifted athlete but is inconsistent and more of a role player than a focal point, and on a team with significantly less talent than Golden State, it very well might be hard for him to play up to his new eight-figure salary. At any rate, George figures to win this matchup. The center bout between Indiana's Myles Turner and Dallas' Bogut could be intriguing. Bogut earned a reputation as the Warriors' defensive anchor, whereas the Pacers hope Turner can translate his athleticism into the same both under the basket and in space. Turner's performance against Bogut could give Indiana an idea of where his development is, and a productive stat line would be highly encouraging. One worrisome area for the Pacers is the backcourt, particularly on the defensive end. Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey could struggle to guard a Mavericks unit consisting of Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris and Seth Curry. Of course, it could be the same story the other way around.
My gut tells me this one is going to be an offensive affair. I'm expecting a lot of points and back-and-forth, which at least should make for an entertaining opening night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers probably will need the customary first few weeks or so to work out kinks, especially with a mostly new lineup, but if they can match or best Dallas offensively, they'll be off to a good start.
Friday, 28 October 2016 at 07:30 PM ET Away
The Pacers have no business losing to the Brooklyn Nets. This is a team that mortgaged its future on the summer 2013 mega-trade with the Boston Celtics to acquire Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in the hopes of quickly putting together a championship contender for its new arena... and whiffed mightily. The Nets are left reeling from that failed trade with little talent because they jettisoned so many of their draft assets to acquire those aging veterans. The only reason they had a first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft was the Pacers' desire to take Thaddeus Young off their hands. Center Brook Lopez remains, but he appears to be Brooklyn's only player who would start on a legitimate playoff team.
There honestly isn't much at all to analyze about this game. The Pacers appear to have a talent edge in every individual matchup except starting center. If Indiana loses this game, it will be because they didn't show up mentally. I guess we can expect most teams to have a handful of those games per season, but that would be the sole reason for a Nets win here. There's no plausible way Brooklyn beats Indiana at the latter's peak level.
Saturday, 29 October 2016 at 08:00 PM ET Away
Arguably the most bitter Central Division rivalry for the Pacers and (to a much larger degree) their fans gets going early in 2016-17. The Chicago Bulls are yet another team that will look significantly different from its 2015-16 iteration. Gone are mainstays Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, both of whom now play for the New York Knicks, and also gone is Pau Gasol, who in true aging good veteran fashion has joined the San Antonio Spurs. So if all those guys -- key Bulls players the last few seasons -- are out, then who's in?
The highest-profile addition to Chicago's roster, of course, is Dwyane Wade. The 12-time All-Star and three-time NBA champion felt he had made financial sacrifices for the good of the Miami Heat during the LeBron James era and afterward so that the franchise could accommodate Chris Bosh, and that this season was the time for Miami to return the favor. When the Heat wouldn't give Wade the contract he felt he deserved, he parted with the only professional home he had known and went ... home. The Chicago native signed a two-year, $47 million deal with the Bulls, a move that astonished the sports world and still doesn't really seem to have sunk in. Though he isn't quite the transcendent player he once was, Wade still has plenty to offer, having averaged 19 points per game (22.5 points per 36 minutes) at a 45.6 clip in 2015-16. Wade had an especially productive playoff run last season, averaging 21.4 points and 4.3 assists per game. While he isn't much of a threat from beyond the arc, or really from a jump-shooting standpoint, he still is capable of making plays and a matchup for which to be accounted.
The Bulls might find themselves with some lineup redundancy issues, because in addition to Wade, they brought in Rajon Rondo in the offseason. Rondo has long been criticized as a headcase, not to mention a headcase who can't shoot, but he does bring elements of distribution and some point-of-attack defense to the table for Chicago. He and Wade are similar in those regards, though, and neither can shoot exceptionally at this point, which might present obstacles as supporting cast members to Jimmy Butler. The Bulls still seem to be building around Butler, which is understandable, but his injury history presents concerns; he has played a full 82-game slate just once in his career and hasn't played 70 games the rest of his seasons. This shouldn't be a concern for Saturday's game though, in which he likely will be going head-to-head with Paul George. As with the season opener against Dallas, I like George to hold down his matchup in this one but fear for the backcourt on defense; Rondo and Wade could give Teague, Ellis and Stuckey a few fits when the latter group is looking to score as well.
If Myles Turner plays disciplined basketball, I like his chances to hold his own against Robin Lopez, while (once again like the season opener) Thaddeus Young will have to cover a lot of ground against stretch big Nikola Mirotic. Young should have a nice offensive night, though. If Al Jefferson can lead the bench to some consistent scoring, the Pacers should have a nice enough chance to get an early lead in their season series with the Bulls.
United Center always is a tough road environment, but maybe the home crowd will be a bit less hostile with attention diverted to Game 3 of the World Series happening over in Wrigleyville that same night. Just a thought.