Not having Jamaal Tinsley around will be a huge addition by subtraction. In the last five years, you never knew whether he was going to play or not. It's hard enough as the opponent to wonder about his status; it's much harder for his own coach not to know from night to night whether he's going to have his point guard. His play hasn't been terrific, either, and then you add the bad influence he is on the young players in their locker room. As much as Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were criticized for being the bad seeds of that franchise, I would argue that Tinsley has been worse.
Now they're replacing Tinsley with T.J. Ford, whom they got in the trade with Toronto for Jermaine O'Neal. First, let's note that it was time for O'Neal to go. Even at his best he was not a franchise guy -- he needed to be your No. 2 guy -- because you couldn't throw the ball to him at the end of the game and he'd get you a basket. So the trade gives Indiana, among other things, an upper-echelon point guard in Ford. T.J. has his issues, but he's in the top half of the league among starting point guards, and I believe you can win in our league if you have an upper-echelon point guard and marginal talent at the other positions. You won't be a championship contender, but you can challenge for the playoffs.
Ford's strength is his speed. He's one of the fastest players in the league with the ball in his hands. He puts pressure on the defense after misses and makes. He does get in trouble by beating everyone on his own team down court and missing on a 1-on-2 break, because he doesn't finish well in traffic. From a defensive standpoint, you don't want to see him beat his man, but if he does it's sometimes good to let him get all the way to the basket because you'd rather see him trying to finish inside than pull up with that little runner of his. Ford is not a great a shooter, he's just OK, but he's a guy who can score 25 points some nights, and on this team I won't be surprised to see him averaging 15 per game.
Ford fits their style perfectly, which is a bit of a surprise because the up-tempo system Jim O'Brien used last year was not the way he has played in the past. I give him credit for adjusting to his players, and Ford will make them even better in the open floor. Plus, they've added Jarrett Jack, who among backup point guards is also among the upper half in the league. So they've gone from being weak at that position to being strong.
The downside of this style is that they were awful defensively. But they might have helped themselves at that end by supplementing Jeff Foster up front with a pair of true centers in Rasho Nesterovic and rookie Roy Hibbert, who both arrived in the O'Neal trade. Nesterovic is a highly underrated player in the trade. In the second half of last season, he was a key contributor to Toronto with his defensive presence and rebounding.
The improvement in Mike Dunleavy has everything to do with opportunity. He was playing in an up-and-down style that was perfect for him, and he had a lot of stuff being run for him with O'Brien encouraging him to take shots. I used to say Dunleavy was just OK as a shooter. In fact, he wasn't great at anything, but he was decent at a lot of things. He could handle, pass, shoot and drive. But last year, the style of play and his improved confidence helped him to improve his shooting, and that in turn helped him improve in all areas. He's still a poor defender, but this up-tempo style is maximizing his strengths.
This will be a defining year for Danny Granger. We'll find out just how good he is. He is a threat to become an All-Star someday, but that isn't a shoo-in and I don't see him as being quite good enough to build your team around. Granger's biggest strength is his shooting. When you're taking close to 300 threes and making almost 40 percent of them as he did last year, then you're a good shooter. But he needs to improve his driving and ball handling and scoring off the dribble. If you force him to put the ball down, he'll miss more often than he makes. He needs to develop his post-up game and become a better defender. You put him together with Dunleavy and the Pacers have a solid pair of wings, but compared to what you see on other teams, they don't scare you.
Troy Murphy is a standstill-shooting big man who can threaten on the offensive glass. He will battle, but he's not a good defender. He'll give you balance with his shooting to spread the floor.
Overall, they're better than last year. They have a chance to win 40 or more games and challenge for the playoffs.
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