Indiana Pacers season preview

The NBA season will be here before you know it and FanSided is here to get you ready. In the lead up to Opening Night, we’ll be previewing two teams each day, reviewing roster changes, discussing important players and challenges, and hearing the perspective of our FanSided site experts. Let’s get ready for basketball!

Roster Changes

Inputs: Jeff Teague (PG, traded from the Atlanta Hawks); Thad Young (PF, traded from the Brooklyn Nets); Al Jefferson (C, signed for three years, $30 million); Jeremy Evans (PF, traded from the Dallas Mavericks); Aaron Brooks (PG, signed for one year, $2.5 million); Kevin Seraphin (C, signed for two years, $3.6 million)

Outputs: George Hill (PG, traded to the Utah Jazz); Ian Mahinmi (C, signed with the Washington Wizards); Solomon Hill (SF, signed with the New Orleans Pelicans); Jordan Hill (C, signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves)

Retained: None

Biggest strength

The Indiana Pacers gave the Raptors a run for their money in the playoffs last season, taking the No. 2 seed to seven games in the first round. All things considered, it was a positive season for Indiana as the team increased its win total by seven games over the previous year and witnessed Paul George return to superstar form in his first full season since breaking his leg in 2014.

If Indiana is going to take the next step in 2016-17 it will take a total team effort, and with the help of some offseason maneuvering and young player development, the Pacers could front one of the deepest rotations in the NBA. While the Pacers’ starting until was solid offensively last season, averaging an 11th-best 68.3 points per game, the bench ranked 20th among NBA reserves with 33.9 points per game. When you consider the team was 23rd in overall offensive efficiency, the Pacers will need to become a more well-rounded offense this season now that their defensive credentials are out the window.

The Pacers made a strong signing to anchor their bench scoring, adding veteran center Al Jefferson on a three-year deal. Jefferson is past his prime and not a great bet to stay healthy all season, but at age 31 he is still one of the best low post scorers in the league and chipped in 12 points per game on 48.5 percent shooting in 23.2 minutes per for Charlotte last season. He will thrive for Indiana’s second unit as a better go-to option than the departed Jordan Hill.

The Pacers bench also includes capable point guards in veteran Aaron Brooks and sophomore Joe Young to backup new starter Jeff Teague, and veteran Rodney Stuckey to spell Monta Ellis at the two. C.J. Miles is one of the better NBA three-point specialists on the wing (2.2 threes per game on 36.7 percent shooting last season) and can now focus on a bench role after being thrust into the starting lineup 24 times last season. Lavoy Allen is another solid contributor who will shift from fringe starter to solidified bench option.

Simply put, the Pacers rejigged their roster in a way that supplements their strong starting lineup with an equally strong bench. The key piece to the puzzle was the addition of Thad Young, who takes over at starting power forward, allowing George to assume his natural small forward spot and Miles and Allen to find consistency on the second unit. The Pacers would also be wise to run Ellis a lot with the backups, now that Teague will take on a more ball dominant role than the departed George Hill.

Most important player

While the Pacers’ success this season — with a revised roster and new coach in Nate McMillan — is up in the air, they’re still a team that knows what they’re getting from most of their players. They know they have one of the top ten guys in the league in George. They know they have a former All-Star point guard in Teague, as well as solid starters in Ellis and Young. It’s a team that looks great on paper, because you are familiar with the names and what they’ve accomplished in their NBA careers up until now.

The player in the starting unit we know the least about is also the one with the highest upside, and the biggest key to Indiana taking the leap to Eastern Conference elites in the 2016-17 season. That player is sophomore center Myles Turner, who at just 20-years-old will be asked to take his game to new levels this season after a very impressive rookie campaign.

Turner gets lost in the shuffle of the 2015 draft class, mainly because it was a loaded bunch that included several other impressive bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, and Jahlil Okafor. Even guys like Frank Kaminsky and Trey Lyles crowded the conversation. While he didn’t get the same burn as KAT and Porzingis, Turner did a lot of good things in 22.8 minutes per game. He averaged 1.4 blocks in those limited minutes, a rate that was better than Towns and just a smidge under Porzingis who is a good four inches taller than Turner.

Aside from his already elite-level shot blocking, Turner is a tremendous athlete in getting up and down the floor, who shot 49.8 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from the line as a “raw” rookie. (At least that’s what everyone thought he would be.) The defensive presence was no big surprise, but Turner’s ability as a spot-up shooter with range may have been the most overlooked aspect of his game, causing him to fall to Indiana at 11th overall in last year’s draft. Even in a loaded draft with few lottery picks currently looking like busts, Turner was a steal.

Turner is still raw in the sense of being a great team basketball player, but the dude has all the room to grow as the one of the youngest players in the league. If he can become a defensive force for a team surely lacking one in the paint, as well as an offensive threat with range out to the three-point line, Indiana could possess one of the league’s most dynamic, young duos in George and Turner.

What does success look like?

— Ben Gibson, @8pts9secs, 8 points, 9 seconds

The Indiana Pacers’ goal should be challenging the Cleveland LeBron James… um, Cleveland Cavaliers. They don’t have to beat them, but they need to show they can push them to the limit. That is a step in the right direction for the Pacers. When LeBron was with the Miami Heat, that is what stood in between the Pacers and a Finals appearance. Once again, LeBron and his team serve as the litmus test for the Pacers.

That isn’t to say that the Pacers are on the same level as Cleveland Cavaliers this season, or even good engough into the Conference Finals, but with the spectre of a possible Paul George departure looming in the next few years, merely treading water as another playoff team in the Eastern Conference isn’t going to convince PG that this team has a bright future. Realistically, the Pacers making the second round against anybody should be the goal, but with keeping Paul George around for the long-term being a priority, the Pacers can’t settle for what’s realistic.

For this to happen, Myles Turner has to take a step forward as a center in the NBA and provide consistent defense beyond just blocking shots. The backcourt of Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis need to co-exist without stepping over each other, also while not being a train wreck defensively — and that’s assuming things run smoothly for the rest of the starters. Hopefully, Al Jefferson turns Indiana’s bench into something respectable.

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