The Indiana Pacers are a deep team with no legitimate superstar but with a bevy of very good players on every position who have been on the rise over the past several seasons and were even picked by some GMs as a potential Eastern Conference winner. This came after they took the Miami Heat to 6 games in last year’s Conference Semi-Finals (leading 2-1 at one point) and in the eyes of many pundits cemented their place as the second-best team in the East (at least until Derrick Rose returns from his injury).

The Pacers suffered a setback in training camp after Danny Granger suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for potentially 4-5 months. Still, it was assumed that Indiana have the depth and the talent to survive without Granger.

Danny Granger, an athletic 6-8 wing with unlimited range, has seen his per-game numbers drop every single season after his only All-Star Game appearance in 2009 and that has been the reason people believe he is not irreplaceable for the Pacers. The emergence of another athletic wing with 3-point range in 6-9 Paul George has been another reason Indiana were supposed to stay relevant until Granger returns. The fact that they have talented players at the other positions, including 2012 All-Star center Roy Hibbert, was enough for people to assume Indiana will not miss a beat.

12 games into their 2012-2013 campaign, the Pacers are 5-7, among the worst teams offensively (28th in PPG and Offensive Rating, 29th in FG% in front of the hapless 0-9 Wizards), albeit among the best defensive teams (1st in Defensive Rating and Defensive FG%, 2nd in pts allowed after the soaring Knicks). Their offensive struggles have been highlighted by Roy Hibbert’s abysmal stats so far (9.5 PPG on .407 FG compared to 12.8 on .497 last season). The problems actually go a lot deeper. Paul George is still putting good all-around stats but is nowhere near the go-to guy Granger used to be. The Pacers obviously are a defensive-minded team and putting all that effort on defense makes their offense sputter at times. (Indiana’s season-worst 72 points came against Toronto on Nov. 13 as the Pacers held their opponent to just 5 points in the final quarter, and still lost the game by 2 points.)

Granger had the ability to create his own shot and take shots from anywhere on the floor, off the dribble or as a spot-shooter. Possibly one reason his all-around stats have looked worse over the last two seasons is that opposing teams have been paying more attention on him, thus allowing Paul George and the other perimeter players to have more open looks.

Without Granger, Paul George has been thrust into the spotlight and is the main focus for opposing defenses. His 3-point % has dropped from .385 to .345 and his overall FG% has plummeted from .440 to .381. He is scoring 1.2 points less per 36 minutes, despite a 1.3 point increase per game. George Hill’s struggles have been even more alarming. Shaping out as a good shooter in San Antonio, Indiana-native Hill shot .442 in his first season as a Pacer, including .367 from 3. Those numbers are down to .393 FG (including a worrisome .264 from 3) – both career-worst. His per-36 scoring has gone only 0.2 points up despite taking 1.7 more shots per 36 and assuming a larger role in the offense. Last season, Hill started as a 6th man behind Darren Collison, and managed to supplant him from the starting spot with his solid performances. This season, with Collison gone, Hill is the incumbent starter, and Collison’s replacement D.J. Augustin has struggled more than all of his Indiana teammates: Augustin is scoring just 2.8 PPG (compared to 11.1 last season) on an unthinkable .217 FG (down from .376 which was career-worst last season), .226 from 3 and has not provided the bench play Indiana need from him.

Thus, Indiana’s perceived depth at the guard position has been non-existent. It has to be noted that an important late-season acquisition in 2012 in Leandro Barbosa provided much-needed offense and another player, capable of creating his own shot. Barbosa has effectively not been replaced and the Pacers’ perimeter players include Hill and Augustin (whose struggles have been mentioned), Paul George, Lance Stephenson and newcomers Sam Young and Gerald Green – players unable to create their own shots and depending largely on point-guard play.

The single bright spot for Indiana has been two-time All-Star PF David West. After having his worst scoring season since earning a starting spot with the Hornets in 2005-2006 (but playing in all 66 games after a knee injury), West has been under the radar and has returned to his solid career-averages. He has been showing his offensive arsenal recently and has turned into the Pacers’ leading scorer in the young season.

The Pacers’ biggest problems in the absence of Danny Granger have been not having a go-to guy (especially in late-game situations) and poor floor spacing. Their perimeter players have just not shot the 3-ball well enough with defenses locked in on them. Hibbert’s poor start of the season has exacerbated those problems as opposing defenses do not have to collapse in on him and leave the shooters wide open.

The Pacers need to address those problems as soon as possible if they hope to bounce back and return in the playoff picture in the East. The popular street-talk of the Eastern Conference being ‘easier’ is getting old and the reality is that you will find yourself outside of the top 8 spots if you do not adjust as the league adjusts to you. The Milwaukee Bucks learned that lesson the hard way after missing the playoffs 2 straight seasons on the heels of a playoff appearance that almost saw them upset the Atlanta Hawks in the first round in 2010; now the Bucks appear to be back to their strong play of 3 seasons ago. The Pacers, just like the Bucks, are a solid defensive team but they need to find their scoring back. Hibbert needs to return to his All-Star numbers of last season and role players like Hill, George and Augustin need to improve (some of them significantly). If that doesn’t happen, the Pacers might miss the playoffs despite being a realistic threat to the eventual champions only 6 months ago.

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