Larry Bird Expects Pacers To Contend In Eastern Conference

Offseason additions of Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson and Jeremy Evans have Pacers poised for stronger 2016-17 season.

The addition of point guard Jeff Teague, forward Thaddeus Young, center Al Jefferson and forward Jeremy Evans has raised expectations for the Indiana Pacers.

In the past two years, Pacers president Larry Bird set the bar at making the playoffs. Now, with a lineup that should be more potent, Bird sees a team capable of accomplishing more in 2016-17.

“We feel that a week or so ago that we added some players that we think are going to help us contend for the East,” Bird said Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

That’s saying a lot, considering the Cleveland Cavaliers are the defending champions.

The Pacers finished 45-37 last season and as a seventh seed pushed the second-seeded Toronto Raptors to seven games before losing in the first round of the playoffs. Head coach Frank Vogel wasn’t given a new contract and assistant Nate McMillan was hired as his replacement.

Teague gives the Pacers a true point guard, probably the best since Mark Jackson in 1999-2000. Young, who like Teague is 28, is a proven inside presence as a scorer, rebounder and capable defender. Jefferson is a throwback, low-post player who gives the Pacers the option of excelling in the half court. Evans has the kind of athleticism the Pacers covet in trying to play more up tempo.

“Bringing in Thaddeus, we feel that he’ll play the power forward spot,” Bird said. “He can defend; he’s long and athletic. … Help on the boards. Then Al Jefferson, right now I don’t know what we’re looking to do with him as far as starting or coming off the bench, but he’s a low-post scorer. You get him the ball and he can score.

“Then Jeff is a true point guard that can play out on the floor and make plays for other guys, score the ball and gives us a lot of speed there, even though George Hill had a lot of speed, but getting in the paint and making things happen, we feel Jeff will be able to do that for us.”

Bird said the “long and athletic” Evans will be shut down for a couple of months while receiving from shoulder surgery.

The Pacers had been relying on mostly Hill at point guard. Hill was traded to Utah as part of the three-team deal that brought Teague from Atlanta to his hometown Indianapolis. Teague is scheduled to be introduced to the Indianapolis media on Monday afternoon.

Bird’s vision for Young is undoubtedly good news for the Pacers’ best player, three-time All-Star Paul George, who began last season playing power forward. George wasn’t happy about playing the “four,” a plan eventually ditched when the Pacers went with a larger lineup later in the season.

McMillan said the new additions enable the Pacers to play either up tempo or the more traditional half-court style.

“This roster allows us, with the versatility that we have, to establish the tempo we want to play,” the coach said. “We definitely should be able to play fast. With the addition of Al Jefferson, you can play in a half-court offense and establish a half-court offense.”

He sees Thaddeus is a “legit” power forward or spread four who can get out in transition, rebound and run, and Teague can push the ball. McMillan said second-year pro Myles Turner has shown he can play power forward or center and that the Pacers could play both Turner and Jefferson at the same time should the need arise for a bigger lineup.

“I think we can match up with any style of play, whether it’s big or small,” McMillan said.

Bird said McMillan has the final say on who plays when and where, but he’s optimistic about the 20-year-old Turner, an All-Rookie Second Team selection, making significant progress in the offseason.

“Myles is working very hard this summer, as hard as anyone we’ve ever had here,” Bird said. “He’s dedicated to getting his body better and getting in the type of shape that when the season starts, you’re going to see a different player.

“It’s hard for me to sit here and tell you the kid is not going to start because he’s probably going to be one of our better players. He’s a lot better now than he was at the end of last year.”

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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