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Pace Miller writes  for the Indiana Pacers blog, Pacers Pulse.

Indiana Pacers Mid-Season Review

Record: 16-26, 10th in Eastern Conference

Overview

It has been another strange season for the Indiana Pacers thus far. They commenced the season expected by experts to be one of the worst teams in the East, but they surprised everyone by establishing themselves as a strong defensive unit, winning big games against elite teams such as Miami and the Lakers on the road, and for a week or two, became the darlings of the NBA. Experts and opponents jumped on the bandwagon, declaring the Pacers to be a lock for the playoffs, and with potential to be even better when they start winning games they had been inexplicably throwing away to lesser teams.

Then the brutal month of December rolled around and everything fell apart. The Pacers went from 9-7 to 14-17 in a heartbeat. Players lost confidence and no one could make a shot. Elite players from opposing teams shredded the Pacers’ once-stellar defense for big numbers while the Pacers’ star players choked in crunch time. Coach Jim O’Brien started pulling players from the end of the bench into the starting line-up, and vice versa. And no matter what they did, the Pacers couldn’t find a way to win consistently.

Now we’re in January and the Pacers continue to be erratic, occasionally playing well enough to beat mediocre teams but also losing their fair share against them — and rarely good enough to beat the elite teams. While other teams with slow starts (such as Miami, Chicago, New York, LA Clippers) have streaked ahead, the Pacers have gone in the complete opposite direction. At this current rate, the Pacers are only track to finish only 34-48 for the season, and if they’re lucky/unlucky, that record is potentially good enough to get them swept in the first round.

Cause for Optimism

After finishing 2009-2010 with a disappointing 32-50 record (their worst since 1988-1989) and missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, the Pacers started 2010-2011 with renewed energy and optimism. And there were plenty of good reasons.

Former All-Star Danny Granger spent his summer with Team USA, winning a gold medal at the World Championships. Even though Granger spent most of his time on the bench, most believed it was an invaluable experience that allowed Granger to learn from other top players in the league, becoming a better leader gaining a stronger defensive mindset upon his return.

Big man Roy Hibbert spent the summer working with all-time great Bill Walton and getting into the best shape of his life alongside promising rookie (10th overall pick) Paul George from Fresno State, setting himself up for a breakout third season.

Energetic power forward Tyler Hansbrough had finally recovered from a bizarre ear infection that kept him out of most of his rookie season, and was expected to give a boost to the team’s rebounding and post offense.

Talented swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr was slowly starting to get his legs back following surgery and was expected to be a much bigger factor than he was the year before, as was the case with rebounding veteran Jeff Foster, who returned from back surgery.

And of course, the biggest cause for optimism was the arrival of point guard Darren Collison and veteran NBA Champion James Posey from the Troy Murphy trade during the offseason. Collison, who had an impressive rookie season filling in for the injured Chris Paul, was considered the future at the point guard position, and Posey, who received relatively little notice, has had a history of hitting big shots.

On the other hand, there were a couple of causes for concern. Brandon Rush, who was expected to have a break out year himself, was suspended five games for breaching the NBA’s drug policy. Second round pick Lance Stephenson was signed quickly, only to then be charged be assaulting his former girlfriend.

In any case, most experts had predicted the Pacers would finish anywhere between 12th and 14th in the Eastern Conference. The consensus was that the Pacers were better off waiting for next season, when expiring contracts would give them flexibility to make significant moves in the free agent market.

Promising Start

The Indiana Pacers got off to a blistering start. They lost a tough one to the San Antonio Spurs on the road in the opener, but a solid outing against a perennial contender showed that the Pacers were probably better than anticipated. In particular, Roy Hibbert set the tone with 28 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks.

The Pacers then won a few and lost a few to remain at around 0.500, but captured national media attention when they blew the Denver Nuggets out of the building with a 144-113 victory, courtesy of a historic third quarter where they scored an insane 54 points while connecting on their first 20 field goal attempts (going 20-21 for the quarter).

That game made the rest of the league take notice of Indiana, and when they lost a close one to the Orlando Magic on November 20th, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy boldly declared the then 5-6 Pacers were going to make the playoffs. While not everyone might have been convinced at the time, the very next game sure made Van Gundy look good — a thorough 93-77 pounding of the new-look Miami Heat team in Miami.

And it didn’t stop there. The Pacers would then go on to win the next three out of four games, with the sole loss coming in overtime against a red hot Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City Thunder team. Most notably, one of those wins came against the two-time defending NBA Champions, the LA Lakers. The 95-92 victory had everyone jumping on the Pacers bandwagon, especially after Kobe Bryant said that the Pacers were definitely a playoff team.

There was no doubting it. Even though they were just 9-7, the Pacers were on a roll. Thanks to slow starts from other teams, the Pacers even had a sniff at one of the top four spots in the East. Roy Hibbert, who at the time was averaging around a double-double and close to leading the league in blocks, was the frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award, with some saying that it was Hibbert’s award to lose. Even Jim O’Brien, a coach that many Pacers fans demanded to be fired for years, was a candidate for Coach of the Year.

The Downward Spiral

As it turned out, things were too good to be true. Perhaps they were simply too hot at the start of the season. Perhaps they caught other teams off guard. Perhaps they lost confidence. Or perhaps, they simply weren’t that good to begin with.

Whatever the reason, things quickly fell apart from the Indiana Pacers in the month of December. They beat teams that were struggling badly, like Cleveland (twice), Toronto and Charlotte, but couldn’t find a way to beat playoff teams or even teams on the playoff fringe. A tough schedule meant piling losses to teams such as Utah, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston (twice) and LA Lakers, but they also lost some games they really should have won if they were as good as they thought they were — against Milwaukee (thanks to a tip at the buzzer from Andrew Bogut), Memphis (game blew open in the third quarter) and Washington (split 1-1 in the home-away series).

Trends were starting to develop. The Pacers would either fall behind early and never recover, open a lead but let other teams come all the way back, or stay close to an opponent only to choke in the fourth.

The confidence they had earlier in the season evaporated, and players started to doubt themselves as the team’s celebrated defense began to crumble. Roy Hibbert went from a lock for Most Improved Player to a candidate for Most Regressed Player. Back-up big man Solomon Jones, who appeared to have a career revival earlier in the season, followed a similar path. Danny Granger fell into a horrible shooting slump and lost his defensive intensity. Darren Collison grew frustrated with the system and splitting time with TJ Ford. Josh McRoberts and Paul George, starter and role player, respectively, were pulled from the line-up and tossed to the end of the bench. Jim O’Brien was publicly calling out his players, which, at least in the case of Roy Hibbert, made things even worse.

The Indiana Pacers entered December with a 9-7 record and ended it 14-17. Few can barely remember being on the Pacers bandwagon in the first place.

The Road Ahead

January has not been kinder to the Pacers. They are currently 2-9 in 2011, with a pair of wins against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Dallas Mavericks (without Dirk Nowikzki and Caron Butler) wedged between a three-game losing streak and a six-game losing streak. And before the month ends, they still have to play Portland, Denver, Orlando and Chicago — teams they might have had the confidence to beat earlier in the season, but will take minor miracles to beat right now.

Nonetheless, despite all of this, the Pacers are currently 16-26 and are a few games out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. Amazingly, they do not have a single three-game winning-streak all season. Given the strong play of the top six teams (Boston, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago and New York), the most the Pacers can really hope for is the 7th seed.

With the team holding several expiring contracts (Dunleavy, Ford, Solomon Jones, McRoberts), it is possible that the Pacers might make a move before the trade deadline in February, though unless they can get something valuable in return, don’t expect any major changes to the roster. Recent reports stipulated that Anthony Randolph of the New York Knicks might be heading to Indiana for a first round pick (to clear room for any potential Carmelo Anthony trade scenarios) but the status of this is unclear at the moment with Randolph returning to practice with his current team.

While things appear grim at the moment, there are signs that the Pacers might be slowly turning the corner. For starters, they are scoring and shooting the ball a lot better, topping 100 points four out of their last five games after doing so just three times all of December. Danny Granger appears to have broken out of his shooting slump and is averaging 26 points over the last five games while shooting almost 50% from the field, over 50% from three-point range and almost 90% from the line. Darren Collison is getting more minutes and starting to find his groove (18.4 points and 7 assists over last five games). Tyler Hansbrough is now starting and getting better every game. Paul George is back and playing great, and AJ Price has been stellar when given the opportunity. Roy Hibbert is currently out with a minor injury but will hopefully return with a brand new attitude after seeing a sports psychologist.

Most of all, the schedule does ease up for the Pacers towards the end of the year, which will give them a great opportunity to make a run if they can regain the confidence they had at the start of the season and don’t fall too far behind in the standings. However, the question is whether making the playoffs is worth all the trouble. After all, as the 7th or 8th seed, the Pacers stand virtually no chance against the likes of Boston, Miami, Orlando or Chicago. Would they be better off trying to get a decent draft pick and completely overhaul the roster with all their expiring contracts in the upcoming offseason?

Player Grades

Danny Granger (21.5ppg, 5.7rpg, 2.9apg, 1.2spg) — Granger is a prime time scorer, but the Pacers need him to be much more than that. His leadership, defense and effort so far all have plenty of room for improvement. Besides, his stats have taken a dip. Don’t forget he averaged 24 points last season.
Grade: C

Roy Hibbert (12.4ppg, 8.0rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.8bpg) — Hibbert started the season so well, but it’s been a nightmare for him lately. When he was shooting and passing with confidence and the team ran its offense through him, the Pacers were a fantastic team. Now he’s almost a liability at both ends of the floor. Still, on the whole he’s been an improved player, even though it’s not as improved as we hoped he’d be.
Grade: B-

Darren Collison (14.0ppg, 3.0rpg, 4.7apg, 1.1spg) — Collison’s arrival in Indiana has been well-documented, but his impact has been underwhelming, especially on the defensive end. His numbers are actually not much better than what they were in New Orleans, but part of that is he’s adjusting to the new system and he’s not getting the minutes he needs. But he’s playing more minutes lately and that has corresponded with a sharp rise in production, so hopefully that trend will continue. In any case, still a big upgrade for the Pacers at PG.
Grade B-

Mike Dunleavy (11.5ppg, 5.3rpg, 1.9apg) — Dunleavy may never get back to the level he was at a couple of years ago, but he’s been solid for the Pacers so far this season. When he’s on, he’s a great asset, but when he’s off, he’s way off. Unfortunately, while he does play hard defensively, he’s still not a very good defender. Nevertheless, I think the Pacers are getting way more out of him than they could have hoped for.
Grade: B

Brandon Rush (11.5ppg, 3.8rpg, 1.1apg) — Rush is a lot better this season, but he can still be so much more. With his ability to drive and shoot the ball, there’s no reason why he can’t be the team’s second primary scoring option behind Granger, but he too often takes himself out of a game by not demanding the ball enough. His defense has been solid though.
Grade: B

Tyler Hansbrough (6.6ppg, 3.9rpg) — Hansbrough went from being on the inactive list at the start of the year to the starting PF thanks to Jim O’Brien’s incomprehensible roster changes. He’s still learning the ropes and is too inconsistent, but he always gives 110%, providing the Pacers with a spark they’ve desperately needed. Once he polishes up his game (especially defensively), Hansbrough will be very valuable. On the whole, he’s been okay so far.
Grade: C+

Josh McRoberts (6.3ppg, 5.3rpg) — McRoberts plays hard and is athletic but is still too raw to be an effective player in the league. After commencing the season as the starting PF, McRoberts has somehow fallen out of the rotation. That said, he still deserves some credit for the way the Pacers played earlier in the season.
Grade: B-

Paul George (5.9ppg, 2.8rpg) — George is going to be a good player in this league if he’s ever given a chance by Jim O’Brien. Whenever I see the long-limbed, athletic rookie play, I wonder why he doesn’t get more than his 14.6 minutes per game. He has also spent a large chunk of the season on the inactive list (only played 18 games so far), which has dampened his impact on the team. Not entirely his fault but I have to go by his contribution.
Grade: C

TJ Ford (5.8ppg, 3.6apg) — Ford should be gone by now, but he’s still sticking around. And as much as I hate to admit it, he hasn’t been too bad. But he’s stealing too many minutes away from Collison and still missing too many point blank shots.
Grade: C+

James Posey (5.6ppg, 3.6rpg) — Posey shoots threes. He makes some and misses some. Plays solid defense against guys he can take (i.e. not Blake Griffin). Helps the team in intangible ways with his experience. Has probably won as many games for the team as he has lost. Still gets too many minutes for my liking.
Grade: C

Solomon Jones (4.0ppg, 2.8rpg) — Jones has been much improved in spurts this season, showing a hustle and determination that was absent from his game before. But he’s still limited in what he can do at both ends of the floor.
Grade: C

Jeff Foster (3.9ppg, 6.6rpg) — Foster is another guy that is limited in what he can do, but he’s an invaluable part of this team with his rebounding, defense and hustle. He does give away the ball on a lot of stupid possessions and fouls, but he still provides a net benefit to the team. He has played well since returning to the rotation but the fact is he has only played in 17 games so far.
Grade: C+

AJ Price (5.1ppg, 1.9apg) — Price has been terrific in the eight games (10.4 minutes per game) he has played this season. But it’s still only eight games.
Grade: D

Dahntay Jones (2.5ppg, 1.4rog) — Jones has gone from highly touted defensive stopper and starter (last season) to the least productive player on the team (this season). You would think with his defense and athleticism he could have a niche on the team.
Grade: F

Lance Stephenson — Stephenson has not played a single minute in the NBA, and will most probably spend more time in a court of law (for his assault charges) than a court of basketball this season.
Grade: N/A

Jim O’Brien (Coach) — O’Brien gets the credit for the team’s early season outburst and its improved defense (4th in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage), but he also cops the blame for the team’s struggles since December, publicly calling out his players and the non-sensical rotations.
Grade: C-