Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 11/30/11

Welcome back, NBA.

And welcome back, Indiana Pacers.

The early-morning agreement Nov. 26 between the league and the players’ union ensures the highest level of professional basketball will be played — albeit under a shortened schedule.

The great news for the Pacers — one of the NBA’s small-market franchises — is that this tentative collective bargaining agreement, which will give players roughly 51.2 percent of basketball-related revenue, will allow teams from any market to be competitive in free agency and, by extension, on the basketball court.

It’s been way too long, folks. Let’s get to examining what the Pacers can do before the condensed season commences and what kind of team they’ll be in 2011-12.

The Pacers’ biggest move for this season was made right as the lockout began in July. The team officially removed the “interim” label from head coach Frank Vogel, ensuring the man who took the reins from the fired Jim O’Brien in the middle of last season would have the full-time gig. Vogel also added valuable experience to the coaching staff, bringing in the highly respected Brian Shaw as associate head coach. Many analysts believed Shaw would succeed Phil Jackson as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, but that franchise instead tabbed Mike Brown as its next head man.

The Lakers’ loss could be a huge gain for the Pacers, who have many young, athletic pieces in need of further development. It’s also possible Shaw could keep the pressure on Vogel to succeed in his first full season at the helm of Indiana’s franchise. President Larry Bird was in no rush this summer in announcing Vogel would keep the job and even insisted that Vogel upgrade his staff. Perhaps this means Bird still wants to see more from Vogel before he’s convinced the league’s youngest head coach is the long-term solution. If he isn’t, the Pacers might have that guy waiting in the wings.

The Pacers also made a big move before the lockout began. The night of the 2011 NBA Draft, the Pacers traded the rights to their No. 15 pick, forward Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State, to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for guard George Hill. It certainly looked like a brilliant move for the up-and-coming Indiana team. Hill is an Indianapolis native, and the trade was immensely popular among the Pacers fan base. I’m rather excited to see what kind of ovation he’ll get when he first takes the floor at Conseco Fieldhouse in a Pacers uniform.

Hill will be a great addition on the court, too. He’s a combo guard who figures to see time at both spots, backing up starting point guard Darren Collison and playing in a defensive role at the two. The Pacers especially will love the defensive intensity he’ll bring off the bench, especially to complement the physical perimeter defense they get from starting shooting guard Paul George.

With those offseason moves already in place, what do the Pacers do now that the lockout has been lifted?

  • Acquire a power forward. Training camps and free agency are slated to begin Dec. 9. Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star estimated the Pacers would be $21 million under the salary cap in 2011, the offseason toward which Bird had been pointing in terms of the franchise’s activity in the open market. Most believe Indiana will use that cap space to acquire a power forward who can defend and make easy buckets in the low post. A plethora of options could be available in free agency, including Tyson Chandler, David West and Nene. The Pacers also could opt to trade for Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap. The Jazz have quite a few power forwards on their roster and can afford to ship one off. Indiana should and probably will come away with a serviceable big man once the free-agent hoopla has subsided.
  • Emphasize some D. We all know how run-and-gun the Pacers were under O’Brien. That resulted in less-than-stellar efforts on the defensive end. While the Pacers scored with the best of the NBA, the team never achieved optimal defense with their former coach at the helm. One could notice a change immediately under Vogel. Toward the end of the 2010-11 season and certainly in the Pacers’ five-game playoff series with the Chicago Bulls, fans saw a grit in the team’s young players, especially up-and-coming George. Indiana needs to feature this second-year man out of Fresno State on both ends of the court. He has star potential. That much was evident while watching his stifling defense of reigning MVP Derrick Rose in April. Hill will add some toughness on the perimeter off the bench, and maybe we can say the same about Brandon Rush if he 1) is still with the Pacers at all and 2) gets his head on straight. Adding that power forward from the outside will be pivotal for low-post defense because center Roy Hibbert and incumbent power forward Tyler Hansbrough are primarily offensive threats. The potential for strong defense is definitely there with this young group. Vogel needs to make that potential become reality.
  • Make a definitive playoff push. The Pacers did make the playoffs last season, but at 37-45, the franchise backed in a bit. Indiana benefited from a plethora of injuries to Milwaukee — notably center Andrew Bogut — who probably would have otherwise made the postseason. Oh yeah, that LeBron James guy bolting Cleveland also tipped the competitive balance in the Central division a bit. Nevertheless, the Pacers proved worthy of their playoff spot, competing late in every game against the top-seeded Bulls except the clinching contest. Now it’s time to take this talented roster to the next level: a winning record and a clear-cut playoff berth. Danny Granger must continue to score at an elite level, and George, Hibbert, Collison, Hansbrough and Hill must continue to establish themselves as the core of a rising force in the East.

I think the Pacers have surged back to relevance in their own city as well as in the NBA. We’ll see if the on-court product is consistent with that opinion.

 

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