Posted August 28, 2013

Give And Go: Can Pacers, Warriors and Rockets climb the ladder?

Ben Golliver, Give-and-Go, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Rob Mahoney
The return of Danny Granger (right) to complement David West (left), Roy Hibbert (center) and Paul George should boost Indiana. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The return of Danny Granger (right) to complement David West (left), Roy Hibbert (center) and Paul George should boost Indiana. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.

This week: digging into three 2012-13 playoff teams — the Pacers, Warriors and Rockets – looking to take the next step this season. 

1. After pushing the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers re-signed David West, upgraded their bench and expect to get Danny Granger back from a season-long knee injury. Are they now in a position to unseat the Heat?

Ben Golliver: One could see the relief on the faces of the Heat players — from LeBron James on down — after their improbable comeback against the Spurs in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. That was a team that realized it got away with the caper of a lifetime. Miami deserves full credit for that desperate (in the best way) late-game surge and for its poise in slamming the door in Game 7 to secure its second title in a row. But that strong finish didn’t completely erase the memories of the Heat’s teetering over the previous two-plus weeks.

The Heat trailed in overtime of Game 1 and lost Game 2 to Indiana, both at home. They never solved Roy Hibbert, so much as they survived him. In June, Miami endured losses of composure (Chris Andersen), injuries (Dwyane Wade) and bouts of passivity (James). The team that rolled to 27 consecutive regular-season victories was not the same one that crossed the finish line first, exhausted.

Among the group of perceived title contenders, the Pacers had as good an offseason as anyone. Even though Indiana didn’t lose a single starter from last season’s team, there will be times this season when watching the Pacers will feel like a new experience, thanks to Granger’s return and the additions of C.J. Watson, Luis Scola and Chris Copeland. Everything about this group — its star-level leaders, elite defense, balance, depth, continuity and chemistry — says 55-plus wins. (Indiana finished 49-32 last season.) I read this week that the Pacers’ season-ticket sales numbers are up significantly. Good, they should be.

What’s more, Miami’s top rivals have to like their odds a bit more heading into this season simply because most or all should be better than at any point during the Big Three’s run. No matter what order the teams finish, Miami will almost certainly have to get past two teams from the quartet of Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn and New York. In 2011, Miami lost only three games in the East playoffs. In 2012, injuries to Wade and Bosh helped increase that number to six. Last season, it was only four, as the Heat dispatched the Derrick Rose-less Bulls in five games before edging Indiana. Miami added no meaningful reinforcements unless Greg Oden completes his comeback and makes an impact, while Indiana improved, Chicago got Rose back and Brooklyn loaded up. Shouldn’t that lay of the land make the Heat’s path to the 2014 Finals tougher than any of their previous three trips?

Rob Mahoney: In terms of broad estimations of team quality, Indiana is still well behind Miami. The Heat are so flexible and explosive as to overwhelm a greater range of potential opponents, while the Pacers’ offense can still struggle when pressured on the perimeter and fritter away possessions in the disarray that results. It wasn’t by coincidence that Miami won 17 more games than Indiana in the regular season. The Pacers’ bench improvements alone will not threaten Miami’s lead on the rest of the conference.

But the divide between the two teams is meaningless when it comes to their specific matchup. Through both careful construction and a bit of serendipity, Indiana’s roster is now incredibly well suited to challenge Miami’s small-ball tilt and attack its structural weaknesses. All that the Pacers do is predicated on a stout defensive system loaded with solid one-on-one defenders, the combination of which positions Hibbert to take away precious access to the lane without overstretching. To be able to defend the likes of James and Wade while on-balance is a huge advantage, and from that point the Pacers are able to make gains by pounding the ball into the post whenever possible and leveraging their size into a dominant rebounding margin.

If Indiana — which has Granger back and a far better bench — meets Miami in the playoffs again, the series would likely be competitive and possibly even fatal to the Heat’s three-peat hopes. But even getting to that point could be a challenge, as Chicago and Brooklyn are rather considerable roadblocks in the East. The Pacers are among the two or three teams most qualified to topple the defending champs, but that in itself unfortunately doesn’t guarantee a postseason opportunity to continue their rivalry.

Andre Iguodala

Andre Iguodala received a four-year, $48 million deal from the Warriors. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

2. Five teams in the West finished with 56-60 victories last season. Golden State was the best of the rest, with 47. Did the acquisition of Andre Iguodala move the Warriors into the conference’s top tier?

Mahoney: Not quite. What we saw from Golden State in the playoffs was awesome and refined, but I don’t think this team — even with Iguodala’s addition — is capable of sustaining that level of execution over a full regular season. They’ll be a very good team and seem to have a legitimate shot at the title, but the Warriors’ inconsistency still concerns me enough to plant them in the West’s second tier. It was those stretches of seismographic scoring that barely bumped a loaded Golden State team out of the top 10 in offensive efficiency last season, according to Basketball-Reference’s numbers, and the acquisition of Iguodala coupled with a hot playoff run hasn’t resolved the issue.

Plus, regarding Golden State’s regular-season win total, there’s a distinct possibility that Iguodala’s arrival might initially complicate matters for a team that will first be looking to reincorporate David Lee while accounting for the departures of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. The overall talent level here is still outstanding, but let’s not pretend that the Warriors will be drawing from a place of inherent chemistry. Jack was a ball-dominant influence who will now be conspicuously absent; Iguodala’s lack of shooting will make him a strange fit on a team that thrives when spreading the floor; and Lee’s return will at least partially compromise the “four-out” platform that made Golden State’s postseason offense so deadly. Coach Mark Jackson will have a host of kinks to iron out before the Warriors are discussed as a candidate for 55-plus wins.

All the same, I see Golden State as a tough postseason opponent, if still perhaps the preferred draw compared to many of the other contenders in play.