Pacers' mission: Make the playoffs

The seasonal goal has changed dramatically from last season, when the Pacers had aspirations for winning it all. A reshaped roster just wants to reach the postseason this time around.

These obviously aren’t the Indiana Pacers everyone remembers.

Few give the 2014-15 squad a legitimate shot of finishing .500, let alone making the playoffs. Bovada lists the over/under win total at 33, and the odds of winning an NBA championship at 66/1.

Take heart, 13 teams including the Los Angeles Lakers have longer odds than that.

Most are aware of what transpired last summer after the Pacers were bounced by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in a six-game Eastern Conference Finals series. Where they once seemed on top of the NBA as a No. 1 seed with the conference’s best record at 56-26, the Pacers won’t remotely resemble that team when they open the regular season Wednesday night against Philadelphia at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

All-Star Paul George isn’t expected to play this season after breaking two bones in his right leg on Aug. 1. Lance Stephenson took more money to play in Charlotte. And the Pacers begin anew with forward David West (sprained ankle), point guard George Hill (leg contusion) and backup point guard C.J. Watson (foot) sidelined.

When center Roy Hibbert steps out onto the court to tip off against the 76ers, he’ll have four different starters with him. Forward C.J. Miles brings his 3-point shot to town as one of the Pacers’ key offseason signings. Guard Rodney Stuckey was the other free-agent addition, but a foot injury will relegate him to a back-up role for opening night.

That means head coach Frank Vogel will go with Donald Sloan at point guard, either Solomon Hill or Chris Copeland at shooting guard, then Miles and Luis Scola at forward with Hibbert at center.

“We’ve always trusted our depth,” Vogel said Monday. “We’ve got plenty of guys here to get the job done and that’s the plan.”

Vogel has confidently predicted the Pacers will be the NBA’s surprise team this season. President Larry Bird says the playoffs are possible.

“My goal was to get in the playoffs,” Bird said Tuesday, in video posted on pacers.com. “I think Paul (George) will be out all year. We don’t know yet, but it looks that way. I thought that we have a legitimate shot to get in the playoffs. We’ll see what happens.

“That’s still our goal and we’ll fight towards that goal, and I think it’s important for our franchise to get in the playoffs every year, then we’ll regroup when Paul gets back and go from there.”

If the Pacers are going to surprise, health is still the primary concern. West will miss at least three games. Hill is expected to miss at least three weeks and Watson at least two. So they start out so thin, Hill and others will be counted upon to help out Sloan in the backcourt.

The team’s third point guard will be making his 13th career start in 104 career games. Sloan averaged a team-best 13.3 points in preseason.

Solomon Hill enters his second NBA season with as much to prove as anyone. The former first-round pick played in just 28 games as a rookie and averaged 1.7 points.

Hibbert is still a 7-2 defensive presence as a two-time All-Star rim protector with 388 blocked shots the past two seasons. The Pacers would love to see him score more — his 10.8-point average last season was the second-lowest of his six-year career.

“Roy’s a defensive player, he’s got to be at the rim and protect the rim,” Bird said. “Obviously I’d like to see him score more points, but not a lot. I think it’s important for him to rebound better than he has in the past, but we’re not putting a lot of weight on Roy’s shoulders because that’s not the type of player he is.”

Hibbert averaged 6.6 rebounds last season, his lowest total in four years. His career best was 8.8 in 2011-12.

Miles has averaged 8.9 points in his nine-year career, but that was primarily as a reserve. The Pacers will need him to come out firing as a starter, and he’s not shy about shooting 3-pointers. He’s hit 543-of-1,553 (35 percent) in his career. The subtraction of so many other key cogs should translate to him having a green light from anywhere on the floor.

Scola has started 412 of his 550 career games, so being thrust into the lineup for West won’t be asking too much. He’s averaged 13.2 points, but is coming off a career-low 7.6 average in his first season with the Pacers, when he started just twice. Expect his numbers to bounce back with more playing time.

Copeland is another 3-point threat, hitting at a 42-percent clip in his two seasons with 92 made in 219 attempts. But his defense is suspect, so there’s often a trade-off with giving him extra minutes. Because the Pacers need scoring punch, he’ll play for now. How long he stays on the court, when guys get healthy, likely depends on if he can hit more shots than he gives up.

Rookie Damjan Rudez is a 6-10 Croatian who also knocks down threes. He shot 40.1 percent from beyond the arc with 436 3-pointers in eight seasons overseas. How that translates to the NBA remains to be seen, but it was evident from preseason that he’s got range and his height makes the shot difficult to stop.

Backup center Ian Mahinmi, forward Lavoy Allen and forward/center Shayne Whittington round out the roster. Expect everybody to get minutes early on. The Pacers will have just 10 healthy bodies on opening night.

“These guys are going to get a lot of experience,” Bird said of reserves playing more extensively. “It’s going to help them out. They’re going to get a chance to play, they’re going to get more minutes and they’ll just get better from it.”

Bird was asked about possible deals to bolster the roster, and while he admitted the team is always looking two to three years down the road, he said, “Our goal is to do whatever we can to get in the playoffs.”

Vogel is counting on his veterans, when healthy, to bring the kind of leadership that will give the Pacers a chance at accomplishing the playoff goal. West, Hibbert and George Hill have been through the playoff wars. They know what it takes. If each have solid seasons, and Hill was having a solid preseason as a more aggressive player looking to score, perhaps this team can surprise.

Granted, that’s a big “if.”

“I just think everybody is counting us out,” Vogel said on media day. “I think a lot of the analysts and a lot of the people around the league are looking at us having lost Lance and Paul and (are thinking) maybe (us) not having enough to be a playoff team or a team capable of making a playoff run.

“I think we are capable. I think we do have enough.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.


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