NBA 2014-15 Power Rankings Preview: #9 Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers lost Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to injury. Can they still scrape out a playoff berth with what's left?

This NBA offseason has been very eventful, and the preseason is now in full swing. To help hoops junkies with the transition from the lull of summer back to competitive basketball, we here at numberFire will be rolling out our projections for next season in the form of team previews, starting at 30 and going all the way to number one. We continue today with the 9th-ranked Indiana Pacers!

Indiana had a very successful year last season - at least on paper. They finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 56-26 record and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers seemed poised to compete for an NBA championship for a number of years. Now, after this past summer, their future is less clear. They lost Lance Stephenson to free agency, and unfortunately, Paul George has been lost for this season due to a serious leg injury. Yet, the number one defensive team in the NBA is still projected to be a playoff team (and the 4th seed in the East at that). So, there may be some hope in Indiana.

numberFire Metrics

Projected Record: 46-36
Eastern Conference Rank: 4th
NBA Rank: 9th
nERD: 55.8
Playoff Chances: 80.46%
Championship Chances: 4.25%

My first reaction when I heard about Paul George's injury was probably similar to what a lot of you thought: the Pacers are done this year. However, Indiana is projected to finish 46-36, ranking 4th in the East and 9th in the NBA. This starts to make some sense when you recall that this was the number-one ranked defense in the NBA last year, and they do return 60% of last year's starting five.

We can all recall from last year that this team lives and dies based on its defensive efforts. That will just become even more important this season. Indiana, despite key losses, still returns George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert, all good-to-great defensive stoppers. Monst important, Indiana still has their Coach from last year in Frank Vogel, who implements all of their defensive schemes.

The painful part of this season will most likely be on the offensive end. Last year with arguably one of the top-five players in the league, George, and an up-and-coming talent in Lance Stephenson, this team was still only the 23rd-ranked team in the NBA offensively. Now, the top returning scorer from last year is David West, who averaged 14.0 points per game and had a usage rate of 21.9%. Clearly, they are going to need to suck the air out of the ball again like they did last year when they ranked 24th in possessions per game.

Player Movement

Notable Additions
C.J. Miles (via free agency)
Rodney Stuckey (via free agency)

Notable Losses
Lance Stephenson (free agency)
Paul George (year-ending injury)

Initially, the conversation in Indiana this summer revolved around why they failed to match Stephenson’s demands and let him set sail for Charlotte. That soon changed to questions surrounding what the Pacers would be able to accomplish this year after losing George. That remains the most significant concern as the Pacers approach the start of the regular season. However, they did make two notable acquisitions this offseason in Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. Both have significant experience in the league and were capable back-ups this past season for their old teams.

This season presents an opportunity for one or both of them to start at shooting guard (Stuckey) and small forward (Miles). Stuckey is a combo guard who can definitely put points on the board and sometimes can man the point like he did occasionally during his stint in Detroit. In order to become relevant on this team, however, he is going to have to bolster his peripheral statistics (rebounding and assists). Over his career, Stuckey has averaged 2.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. If he plays 30-plus minutes per game this season, however, Stuckey could reasonably bump those, but he does already average 29.1 minutes per game in his career.

Miles is a little bit bigger than Stuckey and will gravitate to the small forward position for the Pacers. He similarly suffers in the rebounding and assists category and will need to bump his career numbers (2.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game) upward to help this Pacers team. In any event having lost over 35 points per game from last season’s roster, the Pacers are going to have to find new weapons. Stuckey and Miles fit the bill as well as anyone else on the roster.

Neither of these additions will even come close to replacing Stephenson or George, but they both can fill the stat sheet and at times can be prolific scorers.

Three Burning Questions

How is Indiana going to win 46 games?
There will be three guiding principles for Indiana this year: defense, defense and defense. Every time you hear someone talking about good NBA teams, it’s usually focused on their defensive strengths, and when experts talk about problems for teams that are trying to win a championship, it usually centers around some perceived or actual defensive weakness.

Defense has not been the issue in Indiana. Vogel is a proven coach when it comes to implementing defensive schemes and getting his team to play hard night in and night out. You could see this in the playoffs last year. The Pacers were anemic on offense at times yet somehow made the Eastern Conference Finals and pushed the Miami Heat to six games.

The backbone of the Pacers defense is still going to be Hibbert and West. Plus, the head of the snake, George Hill, is healthy and ready to go. The bigger question will be whether Stuckey and Miles can contribute on defense and help fill the gap caused by losing George (an extremely versatile and talented defensive presence) and Stephenson (a fearless on ball defender).

Where is Indiana’s scoring coming from?
Indiana looks like a team that is going to struggle to post 95 points per game this season. (Last year they averaged 96.7 points per game as a team.) This team struggled offensively last year, and that was with Stephenson and George. Now, they've replaced them with what, until this year, were basically players that are career back-ups or sixth man types in Stuckey and Miles.

Although there is ample opportunity for one or more players on this team to have career offensive years, it could end up being a next-man-up situation. Meaning, from night-to-night it could vary and just depend on who has the hot hand. However, if you were to pick someone at this point you'd think Stuckey probably has the best opportunity to post 15-17 points per game. He's shown an ability to fill it up in the past with the Pistons and, in a starting role, could have an opportunity every night.

Can Roy Hibbert improve this season?
Hibbert was somewhat of a darling prior to the beginning of last season. Many people felt that he was going to take a step forward for the Pacers and become an offensive weapon. Unfortunately what people saw last year was a relatively weak and slow offensive game with an abysmal shooting percentage for someone that is 7’2”, shooting 44.9% from the field. Hibbert did, of course, continue to play solid defense.

In order for the Pacers to make some noise this year and not just tread water as a stifling defensive team that cannot score enough to advance in the playoffs, they will need multiple players to step up and have career years. Hibbert has shown in the past an ability to average around 13 points and 9 rebounds per game. This year, given the tremendous opportunity that exists for added scoring, there is a distinct possibility that he could average 12 to 15 shots per game. This would give Hibbert a chance to average around 15 points and maybe 9 or 10 rebounds per game (depending on his overall minutes). The time is now if Hibbert is going to step forward and be a bigger part of this Pacers offense.

Fantasy Hoops Stock Watch

PG George Hill (Yahoo O-Rank: 80)
George Hill was really the fourth or fifth offensive option on the Pacers last year. Now, however, he has an opportunity to slide up at least one spot and become a larger offensive force. He posted 10.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 steal per game last season. With Stephenson gone, there is a chance for him to become more of a playmaker, increase his minutes, and add a little more offensive punch to his game. The Pacers will need someone to lead from the point guard position this year, and it certainly seems possible that Hill could outperform his O-Rank over the course of this season.

PF David West (Yahoo O-Rank: 63)
David West is the highest ranked player for the Pacers according to Yahoo’s fantasy basketball O-Ranks. That is not a good thing if you’re a Pacers fan. Although West is dependable and a very solid player, he doesn’t exude offensive ability. Rather, he has a solid mid-range jump shot and is a crafty player inside, which allows him to generate around 14 points per night like he did last year when he 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game.

He also added 0.8 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. Those are pretty rare statistics to find in one player, but the question for this season is whether he can produce at an even higher level. West will be a solid contributor on any fantasy team across seven categories, but it’s difficult to see him really topping last year’s numbers even with a bigger opportunity.