Tha Sports Junkies 101

High Expectations for Pacers in 2017

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Now that we’ve had some time to come to terms with the fact that Kevin Durant to the Warriors is no longer a far-fetched idea,  we can take an in-depth look at some other teams who have had a less noisy, but still noteworthy free agency so far.

Despite reports of blockbuster trade talks that would potentially send either Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin to Boston dying down, the Celtics bolstered their front court with the addition of veteran big man, Al Horford. The Knicks made some noise by acquiring former MVP, Derrick Rose, from Chicago and adding 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, Joakim Noah, to anchor the defense. There are a handful of teams not named the Warriors who feel they made moves that put them in a place to contend for a championship, but the team I feel that is most ready to make a run in 2017 is the Indiana Pacers.

Oh how soon people forget. Prior to Paul George’s horrific leg injury in the Summer of 2014, the Indiana Pacers were seen as a team that would long vie for the Eastern Conference crown along side LeBron James’ Miami Heat. Those Indiana teams, led by George, pushed the Heat to their absolute limit, taking them to seven games on more than one occasion, forcing LeBron to work some late game magic to ensure a Miami victory.

Things change very quickly in the NBA, however, and this is not the same Indiana Pacers team that nearly dethroned the Miami Heat only a few seasons ago. Gone are the likes of David West, Roy Hibbert and George Hill, and Nate McMillan has taken over for Frank Vogel as head coach. But with the addition of All-Star point guard and Indiana native, Jeff Teague, along with a versatile forward in Thaddeus Young things are looking up for a Pacers team that hasn’t been out of the first round of the playoffs since 2014. While Teague and Young are two solid additions and will likely start for the Pacers, there are two factors that I believe will determine the fate of  Indiana’s title hopes in 2017 and the years that follow; Paul George’s emergence as a legitimate MVP candidate, and Myles Turner’s development.

We’ll start by discussing the less important of the two factors, Turner’s development. Turner battled some injuries during his debut season and like most 19 year olds in the NBA, saw some inconsistent production. Turner averaged 10.3 point, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks on 50% shooting as a rookie, solid numbers for a guy drafted 11th overall who not only had to learn the NBA game but fight through injuries as well. Turner showed flashes of his potential at times throughout the season, and over a six game stretch in January the Texas big man averaged 19.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on 62% shooting. Turner’s rookie numbers won’t wow anyone and he’s certainly no Karl Anthony-Towns, but if he continues to grow as a player and stays healthy he has the tools to become a top 7 center in the league.

Ultimately, Turner’s development and the ability of the new look Pacers to gel together as a team mean nothing if the face of their franchise can’t take the next step into superstardom and bring it all together. Paul George needs to perform at an MVP level  if the Pacers are to have a realistic chance at winning a championship. It’s hard to ask for any more from a guy who has led the Pacers to within a game of the NBA finals on two separate occasions, and more recently willed a diminished Indiana unit to the playoffs and a game 7 against a 56 win Toronto Raptors team. However, the sad reality of the NBA is that you need a superstar caliber player to win a ring, and George is the only player on Indiana’s roster that has the ability to fill that void.

Aside from the 2015 season which saw George miss all but 6 games due to a leg injury, the Fresno State product has improved every year he’s been in the league. His points per game averages have shown a steady increase each year, going from only 8 per game as rookie in 2011, to 23 per game in the 2016 season. Aside from the evolution of his offensive game, George has established himself as one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, and emerged as the primary ball handler for this Pacers, seeing his assist numbers increase to over four per game in 2016.

The only legitimate gripe most fans have with George is his ability, or lack there of, to maintain an MVP level of play throughout the course of an entire season. George has developed the reputation for getting off to hot starts but seeing his numbers and efficiency plummet as the season drags on. In the 2015-2016 season the Pacers star averaged 27.5 points per contest on nearly 48% throughout the month of November, but never averaged more than 23 in a single month following his initial scoring outburst. If George can somehow maintain his early season production and efficiency over the course of an entire year, the Pacers may once again vie for supremacy in the East.

George is only 26, and won’t turn 27 until next May, so his best basketball is yet to come. He is known around the league as one of the hardest working guys, and if he continues to improve at the same rate we could very well see George’s name mentioned on the short list of MVP candidates in the coming years, thus once again placing the Pacers at the forefront of the Eastern Conference.