When the Milwaukee Bucks grow up, there’s little doubt they’d love to be the Indiana Pacers. At least that’s the ideal scenario, given the way things have been heading over the past few years.
After the Malice at the Palace, the Pacers tore down from the top and slowly started to rebuild. But they didn’t rebuild by tanking their way to the top of the lottery, rather the Pacers collected late lottery draft picks and tried to be as shrewd as possible with signings and trades. Every year gave hope of the chase of a final playoff spot, but gave way to the reality of just missing out. From 2006-07 through 2009-10, the Pacers finished ninth, ninth, ninth and tenth in the Eastern Conference.
But little by little, the Pacers hit on their draft picks and improved. Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Paul Georgeformed the foundation of a team expected to go deep into the playoffs this season after two straight playoff births culminating in the Pacers taking the Heat to six games in the second round this past May.
Meanwhile, the Bucks have taken over the mantle as most mediocre team in the land, grabbing the ninth seed in both 2010-11 and 2011-12 after the surprising 2009-10 run to the sixth seed. Along the way, the Bucks appear to have picked up a couple of building blocks of their own in Tobias Harris and Larry Sanders.
The Bucks see what the Pacers have done and, more than any other team, seem to want to emulate their relative success obtained on a tight budget. Build a team that can consistently make the playoffs and occasionally challenge or surprise seemingly superior opponents. It’s not fighting for a championship every year, but it is selling the very real hope of wins on most nights and playoff games at the end of the year.
But a wrench has been thrown into the Pacers plan. Granger is out at least until the middle of January. The centerpiece of a competitive team, even if out of place as a number one guy, Granger’s injury has sent shockwaves through the Pacers lineup. For more insight on how that affects both Indiana and Milwaukee this season, we got a chance to e-mail with Tim Donahue of 8 Points 9 Seconds.
JS: The general consensus across the league was that the Pacers could face a challenge from the Bulls, but largely were a runaway favorite in the Central Divison, has Granger’s injury changed that perception as far as Indiana fans are concerned?
TD: I can’t speak for all Indiana fans, but I told someone before the season that I thought the Pacers ceiling without Granger was about 45 wins. Eight games into the season, that looks a bit optimistic. With a healthy Granger, the Pacers should have been a 50 to 55 win team. Right now, they’re a team with a good defense and one of the worst offenses I’ve ever seen. It’s only November, but they’ll have to get a lot better to be a .500 team.
JS:Does Indiana’s struggles without Granger now shift him back from overrated to underrated?
TD: Possibly. Over- and under-rating players is something of a national pastime, and most of it is pretty silly. However, Danny’s absence is huge. I posted a piece last Saturday showing that the +/- per 48 minutes for the 9 other key Pacer rotational players last year went down by an average of 11.4 points per 48 when Danny was off the floor. Further – with the exception of David West and the lightly-used Dahntay Jones – all of their individual eFG% dropped when Granger was on the bench. It’s a fair statement to say that Danny Granger isn’t good enough to be a Superstar or Alpha Dog. However, people consistently make the mistake of assuming that a player not being as good as they want them to be means said player isn’t good at all. They’re consistently wrong about that, and Danny is an excellent example of this phenomenon.
JS: Paul George has been kind of thrust into role of savior sans Granger. Is that a fair expectation for him in his third season? Milwaukee fans kind of forced that role onto Brandon Jenningsafter his 55-point game and he’s been evaluated with some unrealistic expectations ever since. It’s more or less made it impossible for him to be fairly assessed. He’s improved quite a bit since his rookie season, but he still isn’t a number one guy. Of course, not everyone can be that. Is George going to be seen as something of a failure if he can’t be that soon?
TD: No, it’s completely unfair, and I actually believe that Paul George is currently doing a significant amount of damage to himself and his game by trying force his way there. Paul George is a good basketball player with a relatively unique collection of physical attributes and skills. Unfortunately, innate scoring or shooting ability are not among those. He has enough skills to be a scorer in the high-teens at some point down the road, but he’s nowhere close to being ready to shoulder primary responsibility. It’s my firm belief that Coach Frank Vogel is making a huge mistake by not specifically telling Paul George (and Roy Hibbert, for that matter) to just play his game, then pushing David West and George Hill to give more offensively. It’s happening, sorta, but not by design, and George is clearly feeling the pressure. (Also: see my answer above about “not good enough vs. not good.”)
JS: Aside from losing Granger, there are other problems with the Pacers. Milwaukee struggled quite a bit adjusting to being everyone’s darling in 2009-10, especially without Andrew Bogut. We saw John Salmons go from a go-to option to a shell of his former self after a contract extension. Obviously Roy Hibbert has a stronger history than John Salmons, but we’re seeing him struggle under the weight of a max deal. Is he putting too much pressure on himself or what’s going on?
TD: To be fair to Hibbert, he suffers more than anyone from the absence of Granger. Teams are just sitting in his lap. Also, he’s not really an offensive force, and never really was. He only scores in one of two ways – post ups and offensive rebounds – and that puts a pretty hard ceiling on how much he’ll average per game. He is one of the worst PnR players I’ve ever seen. His value was more at the defensive end – protecting the rim and rebounding. However, this situation is really underscoring how overvalued Hibbert was specifically, and centers are generally. He had no business getting a max offer, but it was obvious he was going to get one by the time he was named an All Star.
The Pacers were trapped, because the contract was bad, but not out of whack with what centers get paid. Of course, the way centers get paid in the NBA is completely out of whack, but I digress. So the Pacers had to match (technically, offer the same deal that Portland was going to offer), and Roy is still Roy. His performance thus far is a little disappointing, but thoroughly unsurprising to me.
JS: Without Granger, is it realistic that Milwaukee could possibly stay ahead of Indiana in the East?
TD: It’s absolutely realistic. I haven’t watched Milwaukee enough to have a firm grasp on who they are, but I can tell you that I was in a Pacer locker room last night that couldn’t articulate what was wrong with the offense, and clearly didn’t have any sound ideas on how to fix it. Additionally, they are very uncomfortable with each other. I asked David West about it last night, and he said, “I don’t know what it is. There’s just no rhythm. There’s no continuity in terms of one pass and one guy to the next guy. It’s too hard at times.”
When asked if he was surprised at how much Danny’s absence had impacted the offense, he said that he felt they had players who could fill the gap, but it wasn’t getting done. “Tonight is sort of a microcosm of how things have been going for us. Having attempts, having shots that we are confident we can make…(shakes head)…Just at times, it’s too hard. We work too hard to just get one good look.” The Pacers are floundering right now, and it’s hard to tell when – or if – they’ll get the ship righted.