“I am raising the stakes right now … If this is a poker game, I am shoving my chips right in the middle of the table. I am raising the ante. Anybody who wants out can get out. This team is going to the playoffs. OK? This team is going to the playoffs.”
I can just imagine Larry Bird repeating the mantra to himself the morning after pulling off a win-win trade for my Indiana Pacers while he’s at his home gym cashing 92 out of 100 threes before breakfast.
By acquiring Darren Collison and James Posey from the Hornets as part of a four-team swap in which Indiana gave up Troy Murphy, team president Bird addressed Indiana’s three biggest needs — point guard play, defense, veteran poise — and put the Pacers on track for their first playoff appearance since 2006; also the last time Indiana broke the 40-win barrier.
So I’m calling it now: The Pacers will be in the 2011 NBA playoffs.
There’s a lot to like about this roster, and it starts with Danny Granger. The common criticisms of Granger are that he’s not really a franchise guy, that he’s too in love with his outside shot, and that he can’t stay healthy. Even with my bias, I wouldn’t put Granger in that elite-elite class of small forwards in the League (LeBron, Carmelo, Pierce, Durant), but he’s only a notch below those guys and just a notch above fellow rising stars Rudy Gay and Andre Iguodala. While we expect 6-foot-8 agile athletes to attack the rim on the regular, the jump shot is Granger’s bread-and-butter; it’s what made him the NBA’s Most Improved Player in ’09 when he dropped 25 points per game. And in truth, Granger took fewer threes last season than he did in his breakout year. If he can stay healthy enough to string together about 70 games and hit about 38-40 percent of his treys, Danny Buckets can definitely lead Indiana to a lower playoff seed in the East.
Roy Hibbert is Indiana’s other franchise cornerstone, a 23-year-old seven-footer who could be one of the League’s premier centers in a couple of years. He had some dominant games last season — e.g. dropping 25 points and 13 boards on Memphis, 20 points and 6 blocks on San Antonio, and 26 points, 8 boards and 4 blocks on Orlando — and this summer has been working with Bill Walton on refining his post moves and staying out of foul trouble. Look for Hibbert to have the kind of breakout season in ’10-11 that Brook Lopez had last season.
Collison is the newest part of Indiana’s young core. After a surprisingly effective rookie year in New Orleans, averaging 18.8 points and 9.1 assists in his 37 starts, he was on the Pacers’ radar all summer for a reason: He’s perfect for Coach Jim O’Brien‘s up-tempo offense. Collison plays fast, but he stays in control. He’s a four-year college player who saw action in multiple Final Fours with UCLA, so despite falling farther in the Draft than he should have, he came into the League more pro-ready than a lot of rookie point guards. When he’s not running Indy’s fast break, Collison’s dribble-penetration and court vision will create open shots for Granger on the wing and easy looks for Hibbert at the rim, as well as scoring opportunities for slashers like Dahntay Jones and Paul George, and shooters Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Brandon Rush.
Collison’s arrival also allows the Pacers to part ways with T.J. Ford, who although talented, just didn’t work out. Whether T.J. is bought out, waived, traded or Marburied, he’s likely not going to play at all for Indiana this season.
Surrounding the trio of Granger, Hibbert and Collison will be two-guard Rush, a Bird favorite who many believe is ready for a big season; rookie George, a highlight-reel athlete who can play the two or the three; Dunleavy, a great shooter and Indiana’s best playmaker over the last few seasons; Posey, a playoff-experienced vet who can still lock-up on defense; Jones, a younger defensive stopper; Josh McRoberts, a Murphy Lite who played well in the Orlando Summer League; and rookie Lance Stephenson, a power guard who also shined in the summer league. If ’09 Lottery pick Tyler Hansbrough, who was recently diagnosed with vertigo, can recover well enough to contribute significant minutes, he steps into the Blair/Big Baby/Varejao role of the hustler, rebounder and post defender every good team needs.
The East got tougher this summer. At the moment you’d have to consider Miami, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Chicago locks for the postseason. That leaves two spots up for grabs, and seeing as 2010 playoff teams Cleveland and Charlotte haven’t improved, there’s a window for the Pacers to climb into.
And while it would almost certainly end quickly in four or five games, more important is the accomplishment and the symbolism. The franchise is getting back on track. And whether they grab an 8th or 7th seed or not, this upcoming season’s prospects at least fall more closely to Jim Fassel‘s playoff/poker quote than ex-NFL coach Jim Mora‘s more famous line:
Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I’m just hoping we can win another game!”