by Kent Sterling
The Indiana Pacers have been oddly active in trying to upgrade their roster over the past few weeks for a team that had the best record in the NBA for a significant portion of the season.
Coach Frank Vogel’s challenge is quickly getting the new guys up to speed and comfortable on both ends of the floor with their new teammates – a group that felt very good about its chance to win before they arrived.
It needs to be done with haste to ensure the acquisitions pay dividends equal or greater to that provided by the outgoing players. That’s especially true when the deals are made to impact the now rather than the later.
The trade deadline deal with the Philadelphia 76ers that sent forward Danny Granger for wing Evan Turner and power forward Lavoy Allen is going to be evaluated in total by the middle of June. It’s not like the Trent Richardson deal the Colts made, where the true impact will not be known for at least another year. This deal is about getting better today, and that means speedy assimilation is essential.
What a break for the Pacers that they have what should be four routine wins over the next week after one game in six days. That has allowed for Turner and Allen to get settled in their new (albeit likely temporary) home, and practice a bit before taking the court.
The next four games against the Lakers (tonight at home), Bucks (Thursday at home), Celtics (Saturday in Boston), and Jazz (Sunday at home) give the Pacers what amounts to a de facto pre-season run of games that should allow Turner, Allen, and new big man Andrew Bynum to get their feet wet without running the risk of costing a potential NBA champion wins it will need to capture home court throughout the playoffs.
Through last night, the Lakers are the worst team in the Western Conference at 19-37, and the Bucks are the worst team in the Eastern Conference at 11-45. Boston is 19-39 and Utah is 20-36, so the next four games come against four of the worst seven in the NBA, and three are at home. Those four teams are a combined 88 games below .500.
Short version of all that record stuff is the next four opponents for the Pacers suck, and coach Frank Vogel should be able to experiment a little bit to immerse Turner, Allen, and Bynum in the Pacers culture in time to meet the challenge that lies ahead during the last 22 games of the regular season.
Beginning March 5, the Pacers will play 22 games in 43 days – 14 of which will be on the road. Two will be played against the Miami Heat, and one each against the San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s a gauntlet that will test the Pacers ability to focus night after night after night. Only three times during that stretch will the Pacers enjoy consecutive days off.
Indiana are a mediocre 9-6 over their last 15 games, while mostly healthy. In fact, the health of the Pacers has been stellar, and one of the big reasons for their success. Of the eight players consistently in the rotation, four have played in all 55 games, two others have missed only one game, Stephenson missed two as the result of a tough fall, and George Hill has missed three.
Turner and Allen have played more than 50 games each themselves. As for Bynum, his ability to stay on the court has been an issue since he played all 82 games in 2006-2007.
On paper, the Pacers have an opportunity to be a dominant team through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. There will be hiccups throughout a regular season for 99% of playoff bound teams, and the Pacers are in the middle of a hiccup. Championship teams know how and when to turn up their energy and focus, and time will tell whether the Pacers have that ability.
Team president Larry Bird has added three pieces to a puzzle that he has relentlessly built to bring the first NBA Champions banner to Indianapolis. If Vogel can mold those pieces, and use them at the right time, the chances are good that May and June will be fun months in Indianapolis.
That process begins in earnest with the four games the Pacers will play tonight through Sunday – all of which are games a championship team will win.