OVERTIME: Pacers in good shape, Stevens looking at a rough year

BEN SIECK | ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

The National Basketball Association regular season tipped off last night. There are two teams the Butler community might have an interest in this season: the hometown Indiana Pacers and Brad Stevens’ Boston Celtics.

After coming within one game of reaching last year’s NBA Finals, the Pacers should have their sights set squarely on taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2014 thanks to a strong group of returning players and some intelligent offseason signings.

The Pacers were a solid regular season team last year, posting a 49-32 record and securing the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

However, the Pacers proved to be much more formidable in the playoffs. The Pacers took down the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks, before falling just short of beating the eventual champions, the Miami Heat.

The 2012-2013 season also saw Paul George make the leap from starter, to all-star, to franchise player by the time the playoffs were over.

Indiana returns all its key players from last season, while upgrading its bench in the process.

David West, Lance Stephenson, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and a relatively healthy Danny Granger all rejoin George, while newcomers Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Chris Copeland give the Pacers much-needed depth.

Indiana will no longer have to cross its fingers and hope D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green and Tyler Hansbrough can string together a couple competent plays while the starters rest. The Pacers made the smart decision to let those players go this offseason and brought in bench players who can actually hold their own.

The Pacers’ bench shot a league-worst 39.3 percent from the field last year, dragging down what was otherwise a terrific starting-unit.

The Pacers five-man unit of Hill, Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert posted the second-highest plus/minus margin in the league last year at plus 288. The plus/minus margin shows how well a unit does while on the court. The margin is determined by adding points a team scores with a certain unit on the floor against how many points are scored against the unit. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting lineup posted a better margin, according to 82games.com.

Watson is capable backup point guard and a threat from deep. Last year, as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Watson shot 41.8 percent from three-point range. Copeland is a deadeye shooter at the wing. He finished 13th in the league in three-point field goal percentage at 42.1 percent.

Scola has slowed down considerably from his peak of 18 points and eight rebounds per game in 2010-2011, but he brings a savvy offensive post game that the Pacers’ bench lacked last year.

The biggest upgrade to Indiana’s team comes in the form of a healthy Danny Granger. Once considered the star of the franchise, Granger missed all but five games last season due to injury.

Whether Granger comes off the bench this season, or gets back in the starting lineup, the Pacers now have two all-star caliber players on the wings with he and George.

However, Granger is already dealing with a calf injury that caused him to miss last night’s opener and the team said he will be out the first three weeks of the season, an ominous start for a player with a worrisome injury history.

Whether or not Granger is 100 percent, the Pacers were a top-three team in the East without him last season, and they should be right in the thick of the race for the top seed in the East this season.

The Pacers, Heat, new-look Nets and Chicago Bulls will top the Eastern Conference in some order.

Even if the Pacers finish fourth in the East, their win total is likely going to improve over last year’s purely based on the amount of teams that will be tanking for a lottery pick. With the 2014 draft class shaping up to be the best in recent memory, NBA teams are going in two directions: win now, or lose big now and have a shot at the next LeBron James.

Although they won’t admit it, one of those teams losing for the future is the Boston Celtics. Over the offseason the Celtics sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for a handful of expiring contracts, Gerald Wallace and three draft picks.

The Celtics also poached Butler’s own Brad Stevens to coach the team after Doc Rivers left for the Los Angeles Clippers. Unfortunately for Stevens, he is in for a rough season. The Celtics best player, Rajon Rondo is recovering from an ACL tear suffered last February and won’t be back until December, at the earliest.

With or without Rondo, the Celtics have a roster destined for the cellar. Even if Stevens can replicate his coaching capability in Boston, there is only so much a coach can do.

Stevens is in no danger of losing his job after this year, and he’ll have a longer leash than most NBA coaches. Stevens’ contract with the Celtics is for six years and $22 million, currently the longest coaching contract in the NBA.

Its clear that Boston’s general manager Danny Ainge sees Stevens as more than just a transitional coach while the team begins to rebuild. Ainge has said that Stevens is the man for the Celtics, and the six-year contract backs that up.

Boston may struggle this year, and the next, but you won’t see Stevens on another sideline for quite awhile.

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