Two traditions come with the opening of each new NBA season: fan optimism and boring team previews. DBB writers look to shred both by looking from a different angle at a few teams who are going to be absolutely lousy this year.
One of the interesting things about the Eastern Conference this season is the parity.
There was already a big chunk of teams who were on the fringe of good last season. With a few of those teams taking a step back and some others taking a step forward, this year will see a big glut of .500 teams.
The Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, and Indiana Pacers head into the season looking more or less like .500 teams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, and Detroit Pistons all ought to be well above that .500 mark.
There can't be 13 teams that are average or better in a 15 team conference. That's not how average works. The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers will be reliably terrible, but a couple of those other teams listed above are going to disappoint. There are going to be teams that consider themselves a lock for at least 40 wins who will struggle to get to 30 wins.
One of those teams will be the Pacers.
Larry Bird has been a terrible executive for years. He deserves credit for putting together two strong groups, each of which made a trip to the conference finals. That's not easy to do. But he also deserves equal credit for pissing those teams away.
At the end of the 2007 season, Larry Bird fired Rick Carlisle. The Pacers were in a flash-rebuilding mode in the aftermath of the Malice at the Palace. They gutted their roster, filled with players who struggled with either injuries or effectiveness. They were led by the likes of Jeff Foster, Troy Murphy, and 38 year old Darrell Armstrong.
Even more importantly, they completely changed their identity. At their best, that nutty squad was holding opposing teams to 85 points per game. In the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons knocked the Pacers out with a 69-65 win.
In the rebuilding process, Bird decided to take the Pacers from a tough, defense oriented team to implementing a fast paced team that was going to shoot lots of threes.
The roster wasn't very good so the team lost games so Bird fired Carlisle. They replaced him with the great Jim O'Brien. O'Brien spent three straight years with win totals in the 30s before being fired mid-season en route to another season with win totals in the 30s.
The Pacers weren't good at anything anymore - but at least they did it fast! They went from having the third best defensive rating and finishing 26th in pace during their 61-win season to under O'Brien finishing 19th in defensive rating and the third fastest pace...and 36 wins.
Meanwhile Carlisle went on to win a championship at his next stop with the Dallas Mavericks.
The 2016-17 Pacers are in a nearly identical spot.
Bird tore down another group that made their way to the Eastern Conference Finals, parting ways with every starter except Paul George. As the talent has declined in their rebuild and the roster became an odd assortment, the Pacers haven't been very good.
They made the playoffs last season, but lost to the Toronto Raptors in the first round. So Bird chose not to retain Frank Vogel. And they replaced him with another retread who hasn't had a head coaching job in years.
The Pacers had no business being good last season. They were Paul George and stuff. But under Frank Vogel, they pulled off 45 wins behind a top 5 defense. That's been the consistent theme of the Vogel era - top 5 defenses.
But even after completely changing their style of defense from one where Roy Hibbert controlled the paint to suffocating perimeter defense, Vogel still kept them as a top defensive team.
And that's with Monta freaking Ellis as the starting shooting guard. The undersized, chucking Monta Ellis.
It almost seems like Larry Bird is actively undermining the Pacers.
Like he's tired of Indiana, but would feel bad quitting. So he says "Ok Frank, we're going to give you Monta Ellis, Lavoy Allen, and Ian Mahinmi as starters this season and if you don't finish in the top 3 in the East you're fired. Before you ask, no, I don't know who Lavoy Allen is either."
Maybe he's just having a contest with himself to see how incompetent he can be without getting fired. Then after five years will be all like "LOL JK im actually really good at this" then builds another terrific defensive team and hires another brilliant coach that takes Indiana back to the conference finals again. I dunno.
But once again, Bird has the same goal of going from a tough defensive team to a fast paced, small ball team. He made an offense for defense move in swapping Jeff Teague for George Hill. He added poor defenders in Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson.
It's going to be a repeat of the Jim O'Brien years.
But perhaps with even less talent.
They're going to suck.
They're seriously not going to be good at anything.
Last year they were 25th in the league in offensive rating. The last time when Bird tried this, adding all of that offensive talent for Jim O'Brien, the Pacers offensive rating was still in the bottom half of the league. Only then, the defensive rating was too.
Last year the Pacers were 14th in the league in rebounding percentage. In 2013-14 when they last made the conference finals, they were third in the league in rebounding percentage.
Going to small ball George and Thaddeus Young as small ball power forwards, well, George has averaged 9.3 rebounds per 48 minutes for his career. Young has averaged 9.2 rebounds per 48 minutes for his career. The average big man averages 12.2 rebounds per 48 minutes.
But Al Jefferson! He was Bird's coup for the offseason. He'll take care of the dirty work.
Except Al Jefferson hasn't been good in several years now. Here's Jefferson's wins produced per 48 minutes over the past three years:
What comes next isn't a renaissance. When he's been declining each of the past three years after 12 years in the league, what comes next is falling completely off a damn cliff.
Over the past two years Jefferson has fallen off defensively, he's fallen off with his rebounding, he's not been the go-to post scorer that he's been in the past, and he's had trouble staying healthy. Know what you should do with a player like that? Sign him to a three year deal!
Myles Turner though, he'll save the Pacers. He'll take the next step after his promising rookie season and it'll be the Paul and Myles show.
Turner did have a solid rookie season. But looking for Turner to keep this team from being a shitshow is too much to hope for. He's still only a 20 year old second year player, and he wasn't really that good. He was a net negative on the boards and was below league average for true shooting percentage for big men. Oh, and he missed 22 games due to injury. When one of the red flags about him as a draft prospect was that he could be injury prone.
One of the benefits Jim O'Brien's Pacers had was that this was back when a losing record could still get you a 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Last year the team finishing 10th in the East was .500. It's a better, more competitive conference. Fewer teams are terrible.
So that's going to mean more teams to beat up on shitty teams like the Pacers.
Last season betting the over on the Pistons was the easiest money on the board. This year? Bet the under on 43.5 wins for the Pacers. That'll make watching this occasional lose even more fun.