Will the Indiana Pacers break out?
5-on-5: The Central's second-best team is looking to get in the postseason habit
Will the Pacers' complementary pieces improve, giving the Pacers hope for advancing past the first round for the first time since 2004-05?
We continue our Central Division tour with a look at the youthful Indiana Pacers, the No. 8 East playoff seed last April that impressed with a spirited effort in a five-game, first-round exit at the hands of the regular-season champ Chicago Bulls.
1. Fact or Fiction: Darren Collison is the answer at PG.
Tim Donahue, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fiction. Darren Collison may be an answer at the point, but not the answer. His offensive game suffered greatly from the lack of a quality pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop partner, but the permanent problems are his size and his defense. That being said, a Collison/George Hill combo is good enough to allow the Pacers to focus on other needs first.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fact, sort of. Teams have won big with worse point guards, and I certainly wouldn't call him a liability. But Collison by himself isn't a difference-maker, even if the Pacers can convince him to convert some of those 22-foot 2s of which he's so fond into 3-pointers -- he's small and doesn't see the floor well.
Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: Fiction. If the Pacers were completely sold on Collison, would they have traded for George Hill? Probably not.
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: Fact. Collison is a perfect complement to a rebuilding project like the Pacers. He's an excellent passer and can score to some degree, but he's unselfish enough that there isn't going to be any Russell Westbrook thing going on when he gets better. Playing under Chris Paul did him a world of good.
Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fiction. Collison struggled until Jim O'Brien was canned so I do expect improvement. But he is a young, quick point who should have flourished running a fast-paced offense for a team devoid of leadership. Instead, during his second season, he dropped off statistically in all the categories that matter and tallied double-digit assists in just four games.
2. Fact or Fiction: Paul George is the answer at SG.
Tim Donahue, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fact. Strictly speaking, Paul George is the answer at something -- not necessarily the 2, but, close enough. He showed a lot in terms of defense and maturity, but he needs to find an offensive identity. Frank Vogel's offense cannot ignore him the way it did down the stretch last season. George needs to be given a prominent, defined role.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fact, sort of. George is absolutely the answer to something -- I think he's one of the best young wings in the league -- but at 6-8 he's stretched both defensively and as a ball handler at the 2; his future is more likely to be at small forward. Which is a bit problematic given that Danny Granger already plays there.
Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: Fact. There's consensus among observers that George played phenomenal defense for the Pacers in their first-round playoff appearance. The Pacers have witnessed their other defensive wings fizzle out (Dahntay Jones, Brandon Rush), but it seems that George may buck that trend.
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: Fiction. When the Pacers nearly nabbed O.J. Mayo at the trade deadline, it was an indication that they aren't totally content with George as a major part of the future. Even after a subpar first season, though, he still has the time to convince Vogel and the rest of management that he can be a reliable rotation player.
Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fact. He is an excellent athlete who takes pride in defense. He is dangerous in transition and refined enough to score in the half court. He can handle the ball from both wing spots and guard three positions. Nationally, a lot of people took notice of the way his defense disrupted Derrick Rose in the playoffs. People in Indiana knew before that.
3. Fact or Fiction: Tyler Hansbrough is the answer at PF.
Tim Donahue, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fiction. Tyler Hansbrough is the type of player every team should want, but he has very real limitations that make him a less-than-ideal starting 4. Still, Tyler has spent his life defying expectations. If he proves me wrong, I expect him to shape a career and game that looks a lot like David West's -- with a mean streak.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fiction. I like what he brings but I think he's stretched as a starter given his lack of length and aversion to passing. As an energy backup who also provides an underrated source of second-unit scoring? Love him in that role.
Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: Fiction. Hansbrough would be a solid energy guy off the Pacers' bench. As a starter, I'm not sold. This is a position they could address in free agency, with a forward like West available.
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: Fiction. Hansbrough might work hard, but he doesn't provide the scoring or defense at the 4 that the Pacers need to make the jump to the top of the East. The Pacers will likely go hard after West and Kris Humphries to fill that spot.
Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fiction. Hands Bro can be an excellent first big off the bench for a championship team and perhaps even a productive starter in the right frontcourt. But to look at him as an "answer" on a roster so removed from contention, no matter the question, is overstating his ability to individually affect a game.
4. Fact or Fiction: Roy Hibbert is the answer at C.
Tim Donahue, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fiction. Hibbert's PER was over 18 against lottery teams, under 15 against playoff teams, and just over 12 in the playoffs. He does not handle defensive adjustments or adversity well. He is prone to go into a funk when his offensive game isn't working, which is an all-too-common occurrence.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fact. He proved that last season, with the key unappreciated stat being that he cut his foul rate enough to stay on the floor long enough to be a legit starting center. He's still getting better, and while he'll never make all-defense he's evolving into a great half-court post weapon.
Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: Fact. I've said it numerous times now on previous 5-on-5s: The center position is thin on talent. Hibbert isn't an elite, game-changing center. But he's serviceable and that's really all you need at that position these days.
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: Fact. Hibbert still has a lot of room to improve on the offensive and defensive ends, but he's a good rebounder and he can block shots -- it also doesn't hurt that he's 7-foot-2. A great center is a rare enough commodity in the NBA these days that the Pacers aren't going to give up on Hibbert, who's certainly in the top half of 5s right now at the young age of 24.
Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fact. With so few traditional centers left, a guy this big, with this skill set, is an asset. His inconsistency is baffling and his mental makeup seems enigmatic, but he has touch in the paint and can pass out of the high post. He won't provide a reliable 35 minutes every night, but his positives should outweigh his limitations. Should.
5. Fact or Fiction: The Pacers are on their way to the East elite.
Tim Donahue, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fiction. Danny Granger remains head and shoulders above his teammates in terms of NBA value, and that does not make for an elite team. To get there, the Pacers will need to add two players as good as or better than Granger -- probably a scorer and a quality big. Paul George is the only young player capable of making "the leap."
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fiction. They have a ton of cap space this summer, but it's not clear how they'll lure good players to the corn belt, nor, for that matter, who will be the GM making the decisions on how to utilize the space. They've given themselves a chance, but much work remains.
Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: Fiction. They're a team that's good, perhaps better with the acquisition of George Hill. But what other moves can they make to improve without giving up the key pieces on their team? Unless they can find someone looking to dump star talent for cap relief, they're stuck in a holding pattern.
Danny Savitzky, Nets Are Scorching: Fiction. The Bulls exposed that even with very good coaching and great effort, the Pacers aren't quite ready to make the jump into the East's upper echelon. They're still one key player short of making that a worthwhile conversation.
Jared Wade, Eight Points, Nine Seconds: Fiction. Last season can be considered a success for a franchise climbing its way out of an abyss so deep, but let's remember that Indiana still won only 37 games while playing in one of the worst divisions I have ever seen. There is no reason the Pacers can't win 45 games next season, but "elite" is a faraway adjective for this squad.
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