It’s tough to get hyped for the Indiana Pacers this year. There are probably a dozen different teams across the NBA that seem more exciting going into this season. The Death Star Warriors, the Victory Lap Cavs, Thibs and KAT, Wade, Rondo and the Bulls, James Harden as Steve Nash from the future, Russell Westbrook as Denzel in Man on Fire... There's plenty to watch. But let me explain why I'm fascinated by the Pacers.
It starts with Paul George. He's definitely a top-15 player in the NBA, maybe closer to top-10. He's also got two years left on his contract. Starting next summer, he'll be in his seventh year in the NBA and eligible to sign a gigantic contract extension. Or he could refuse the extension, indicate he'll leave the following summer, and force Larry Bird to trade him. What happens to George could affect the balance of power throughout the league, and it'll probably depend on what happens this season.
Bird knows this. That's why he traded for Jeff Teague before the draft. It's why he added Thaddeus Young to play the four, and gambled on Al Jefferson for scoring off the bench. He let Ian Mahinmi sign in D.C. to clear the way for a full year of Myles Turner and Myles Turner’s hair starting up front. He also declined to renew Frank Vogel's contract, and went with Nate McMillan in hopes of jumpstarting the offense.
The question: Will any of this work?
There are reasons to be cautious about Pacers hype. It's not hard to dismiss the Pacers off–season as an upgrade on paper that won't really be borne out on the court. They added a bunch of recognizable names, but between losing George Hill, Mahinmi, and Vogel, they clearly sacrificed defense. It looks like a trap for casual fans who get excited in October, only to look up in February, dazed and confused during an 18-point loss to the Hawks.
Having said that, the Pacers have succeeded for the better part of the past decade. They play hard, and their teams are consistently smart. They're more competent than most organizations around the league. If you credit Vogel for all that success, then obviously, sell Pacers stock this October. But if you credit Bird, the organizational infrastructure, and the type of players the Pacers generally end up with, there's room for more optimism. This argument says this Pacers team will figure out defense basically because the Pacers always figure out a way to compete with everyone.
And if they can remain average on D... Teague will help them in transition and he should ease the pressure on Paul George in the halfcourt. Thad Young will chip in on the glass and help in transition. Monta Ellis will probably be out of place next to the starters, but he could be excellent as a scorer with the second unit. And if Myles Turner can build on last season, he anchors the defense and helps space the floor for George and Teague on the other end.
There’s the rough outline of a three-seed in the East. There's more upside than Toronto had last year, and more talent than any team in the East this year outside of Boston and Cleveland. If Turner builds on last year's progress and looks like a future All-Star, that development coupled with a 50-win season could definitely be enough to convince George to sign an extension next summer.
For now, we can all wait for a season that'll answer a dozen nerdy NBA questions. How much credit did Frank Vogel deserve for those Pacers teams? Is Nate McMillan better than anyone remembers, or worse? Is Myles Turner a real building block? Thad Young has been allegedly good for the past five years, but can he actually help a winning team? At $30 million, did Al Jefferson get overpaid or underpaid this summer? Is Jeff Teague worth $75 million next summer? Will Monta Ellis save the bench, or wreck the starters? Remember the two months last year where CJ Miles was awesome? Was that a mirage?
And then there's George. He was so, so good through the first month of last year. He put 29.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game on 47.5% shooting. It was MVP-level. But whether it was natural regression or fatigue from carrying the offense every night, his numbers by January were down to 21.8 points and 6.5 boards on 40% shooting. This year, assuming he's somewhere between those two extremes—say, 25 and 7 on 45% shooting—he's a top-10 player in the league and a dark horse MVP candidate.
He'd also be the most attractive superstar on the market next summer. Better than Boogie, Melo, Blake, Westbrook, Love, Jimmy Butler, or anyone else who might move. On Team USA in Rio, he was probably the second or third most valuable player, and pairing his all-around game with KD's scoring was the most dependable kill shot America had all summer. That’s the role he can play on a great team.
If Larry Bird wants to trade him next June, the Celtics should have a top-five pick and possibly Jaylen Brown to offer, or the perpetually-thirsty Lakers could possibly offer a top-3 pick of their own. Either scenario allows the Pacers to start a rebuild immediately. There will be ten other suitors, too, and Myles Turner is young enough to build the future around with or without George.
All of it's on the table right now. They could surprise the East and George could be an MVP candidate by February, or this could all be turned upside down by next October. Almost every other team in the league already has a clear trajectory for the next 12 months, but Pacers possibilities are endless.