DALLAS — It remains a mutually beneficial trade for both sides, yet it could have been just a bit awkward for Indiana Pacers guard George Hill to watch his old team pulverize the one team his never could, and then see the player he was traded for, Kawhi Leonard, celebrated as the Finals MVP.
Hill, however, said nothing could be further from the truth.
“Kawhi is a good friend of mine,” Hill said Sunday as the Pacers’ preseason trek brought them to Dallas. “I’m happy for his success. I’m happy for the Spurs’ success. If we’re not winning, you know, I root for them. I’m still good friends with everyone in that organization and with everyone on that team. All of them are like my brothers.”
Which is as good a segue as any when talking about these Pacers, because they’re using training camp to try to bond like brothers following a summer — and really starting from the second half of last season — of tumult. Shooting guard and the NBA’s surprising triple-double leader, Lance Stephenson, departed for Charlotte as a free agent. All-Star forward Paul George, the emerging star who allowed the Pacers to deal Leonard for point guard help in 2011, emotionally shook the franchise, and the league, when he broke his leg during the Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas.
And just like that, the Pacers are a much different team, and one that will be asking Hill to bring a much different game than he really ever has, either with the Spurs where he was mostly a reserve surrounded by the Big Three, or in Indiana, where its two no-longer-available wings were so often the point of attack.
“He’s just going to have the ball in his hands more, have his number called a lot more,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve always wanted him to be aggressive, but I think he understands that that’s needed more than ever. Years past he would be aggressive at times, but the ball would be in Lance and Paul’s hands a lot. So a lot of times he was the secondary option; most times he was the secondary option. He’s going to be more of a primary option this year.”
Vogel compared it back to when Hill first arrived.
“Before Danny Granger got hurt and Paul George and Lance Stephenson exploded, our go-to guys were David West and George Hill, and it’s just going to return to that,” Vogel said. “And they did that on a team that in the lockout season won at a 50-win pace as the two late-game go-to guys.”
That team turned a 37-45 record in 2010-11 to 42-24 with Hill backing up Darren Collison before taking over as the starter late in the season. The Pacers advanced to the East semifinals. And maybe they can again this season in an unpredictable Eastern Conference.
The reorganizing Heat and Pacers have been replaced by LeBron James‘ new team, the Cavaliers, and the Bulls as conference favorites. Washington, Toronto, Brooklyn and Stephenson’s Charlotte Hornets could all make some noise.
“Defense wins games, so as long as we continue to play defense the right way, I think we’re going to win a lot of games,” Hill said. “We’re going to have to use our defense as our offense.”
Even so, there’s little doubt that Hill will need to boost his scoring and playmaking for the Pacers not to drop to the lower rungs of the playoff chase. Hill averaged 10.3 points and 3.5 assists while logging 32 minutes a game last season. He shot 44.2 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from beyond the arc. He ranked 96th in the league, according to NBA.com’s player tracking data, in number of drives to the basket. To put that low number in some perspective, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook registered 99 more drives to the basket even though he played in 30 fewer games.
“Obviously he’s going to have to play a bigger role for us. He’s got to be aggressive,” West said. “It’s going to be a different role and adjustment for him, but he’s going to work himself into it, get comfortable with it. The last couple of years we’ve attacked from the wings. He’s going to have to be the point of attack for us, to really look to take his game to another level.”