Sizing up the Central: The Indiana Pacers

August 25th, 2013 by Robert Attenweiler

Hi, Central Division. Haven’t seen you for a while. Looks like summer’s been treating you well. I mean, everyone except for you, Milwaukee. But for everyone else, yeah, summer lovin’ totally had us a blast.

As we slog steadily toward September, we here at Cavs: The Blog thought it might be good to check in on our mainly geographically linked rivals in the NBA’s Central Division. Just as Cavs’ fans are (mostly) all bonging the Bynum Kool-Aid, each of the other teams in our division, our de facto rivals, have done some thing(s) to give their own fan bases, to quote Bonnie Raitt on this blog for what I truly hope is the first time, something to talk about. Have the Cavs bettered or worsened their chances in the Central? We won’t know until the ball gets tossed, but let’s start by looking around The Division with the Pace Cars of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Last Season: You know this just as well as I do — The Pacers pushed the eventual champion Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Arguably, the best (i.e. worst) match-up for the Heat, the Pacers feasted in the low post as Roy Hibbert and David West were able to exploit the small-balling Heat and Paul George took a big step toward the chomping jaws of super stardom. The starting five of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert was among the best. The bench, however, was the second worst scoring unit in the league. Unfortunately, the first could only buoy the second for so long (which, to the credit of the first was, after all, the Eastern Conference Finals).

What They’ve Done This Off-Season: 1.) They brought back Larry Bird. The Legend’s team-building was consistently questioned during the Mike Dunleavy-Troy Murphy years but, prior to his leave from the team, he was able to turn a NBA middle-of-the-roader into a contender without bottoming out first (not the first time the Pacers had accomplished this feat). 2.) They re-signed David West to a three-year/$36 million contract. This was the rare move: the move they had to make, the move no one expected them not to make, and the move that they did make. West’s production last year was back to his pre-ACL injury days. 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. By every account, West also provides enormous leadership value to a still young-ish team. 3.) They signed C.J. Watson. He’s a career backup point guard who has averaged 7.6 points on 42.2% shooting. Not very impressive until you note that last year’s third guard was D.J. Augustin and his 4.7 points on 35% shooting. 4.) They traded for Luis Scola. While the Argentinian power forward has never been lumped into the same defensive commitment category as most of this current batch of Pacers, he does give the team a needed offensive bump off the bench. Last season with the woeful Suns, Scola averaged 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds as a part-time starter. Now, coming exclusively off the bench for the Pacers, Scola’s minutes can be monitored to keep the aging big man fresh for the playoffs when the Pacers would feature one of the more versatile front courts in the league. 5.) They get Danny Granger back. Okay, nobody knows how this is going to work out…

How they match up with the Cavs: Okay, let’s be frank. Every projection about the Cavs this year will involve some version of the “as long as they stay healthy” model. And, yes, 50 games of Andrew Bynum and 70 games of Kyrie Irving (not to mention 75 from Anderson Varejao) would make for a very different season than if all of those numbers were much, much (depressingly) less. So, for the sake of having somewhat positive prognosticating, let’s say we have 50 games from Bynum, 70 from Irving and 75 from Varejao. Okay, so the Pacers (along with the Bulls) are still the class of The Division, but the Cavs match up with them much better and in potentially entertaining ways.

The first thing I want to see from the Cavs in any match-up with a defensive-oriented team is… well, how well they play defense. Do the Cavs still stick out as a defensive sore thumb? Second, a somewhat healthy Bynum will chance any match-up with a team with a somewhat dominant center. Though it’s safe to say that Hibbert should be better than an 80% Bynum at this point in both of their careers, Bynum is one of the few players big enough to match Hibbert’s sheer width and bulk. The teams will generate offense from different points on the floor, with the Cavs relying mainly on their backcourt and Bynum and the Pacers leaning on George/West/Hibbert. Still, the Pacers teams you’ve seen the last couple seasons probably look more like Mike Brown’s model for the Cavs than, say, the high-scoring Golden State Warriors. The Pacers have been there already, though. That, ultimately, will be what separates these two teams this year; the Cavs will still make mistakes that the Pacers can no longer afford to make. The Pacers should even eek out the Rose-renewed Bulls to be the East’s second best team. The Cavs and the Pacers might have some entertaining games this season but, in the end, the Pacers will take 3 of 4 from the Cavs (even if 2 of the losses are highly competitive).

Match-up to watch: Scola vs. Anderson Varejao. Both big men are projected to come off the bench and both will have crucial roles with the second units of their respective teams. While Varejao will come in to be his old, pin-bally self on defense, Scola will be looked to for the lion’s share of the Pacers’ bench production. If Mike Brown is able to best utilize Varejao’s improved offense — especially in the pick and roll —the Cavs will have a two-way threat manning the middle of their second (and, in some cases their first) unit that could frustrate the Pacer’s main hope at support for their stellar starters.