The Lakers aren't the only team with high expectations that has struggled out of the gate.
After providing the Miami Heat with a credible 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals challenge, the Indiana Pacers were expected to be one of the most dangerous teams in the East. Instead, their follow-up campaign has thus far been brutal. All-Star swingman Danny Granger has yet to suit up because of a knee injury, and the squad has regressed while he's been in street clothes. Things have picked up a bit of late, with three wins in their last five games. But the bottom line is that the Pacers (6-8) have yet to beat an above-.500 team at the time of their meeting -- two victories came against the winless Wizards -- and the Lakers should rise above .500 at Indiana's expense.
For more insight on the Pacers, I conducted an IM conversation with Jared Wade of the True Hoop network's Eight Points, Nine Seconds blog. Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: Things clearly haven't progressed as expected for the Pacers. What's gone wrong, beyond Granger's absence?
Jared Wade: That's a big part of it. The team relied a lot more on Granger offensively than I think anyone realized. We've really seen the lack of movement, spacing and reliable individual play with him out. But it also goes deeper. Roy Hibbert and Paul George were disastrous early in the season; they were turnover machines and ball-stoppers who sucked much of the fluidity out of the offense. Things are improving with both, however, and the team has looked at least passable while trying to score, a huge improvement from the first six or seven games.
AK: Why do you think Hibbert has struggled?
JW: Some of it was pressure put on himself. He is a legitimately nice, responsible guy who feels a burden to live up to his new, $58 million contract. He has also simply struggled in areas that have long been a problem: establishing and holding low position, finishing with power, footwork in the paint, not making his moves quick enough. And the Pacers don't have many players who are good at feeding the post. Granger isn't exactly John Stockton, but he just has a higher basketball IQ than some others mopping up minutes (Gerald Green, Sam Young), so he has a better understanding of when to get Roy the ball and how to get out of his way to give him space.
Why are Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol struggling? I imagine it has little to do with confidence or being melancholy that they aren't "earning" their money.
AK: Like everyone, they've been hurt by a chaotic training camp and early season. There have been signs of stability, but they come in fits, and nothing comes easier with Nash on the shelf.
For Dwight specifically, conditioning is a factor. He was expected by most to return in January, which means he's ahead of schedule, but not truly up to speed. His timing and lift aren't quite there yet, but I think the issues will work themselves out in time.
Pau's problems are a little trickier. His conditioning also isn't up to snuff, and he recently revealed a monthlong battle with tendinitis, which compounds the problem. Plus, like last season, he's in the high post more than he'd like or what's truly ideal. But some blame also lies with Pau. He's often too willing to settle for an elbow jumper -- which hasn't been falling with regularity -- rather than put the ball on the floor, attack and force a defender to actually guard him. Even with tendinitis, he needs to pick more spots to take a defender off the dribble. Ultimately, I think coach Mike D'Antoni will find a way to maximize his versatility, but it'll take some tweaking.
Has David West asserted himself as the Pacers' primary scorer?
JW: He has, although at times it's felt less like something he has actually wanted and more like him saying, "If nobody else is going to do it…"
Still, coach Frank Vogel has encouraged it, saying the Pacers would love to run the offense through West as much as possible. Given Hibbert's struggles to score and George's inability to create off the dribble, there haven't been a ton of other effective options.
I actually am looking forward to watching George guard Kobe Bryant. Like Hibbert, George seems to be playing with his head too much. He's at his best when he doesn't think, but just reacts. If he has to spend 80 percent of his time focused on Bryant, I think it may help him play better on the other end. Somewhat counterintuitive, but defense is George's game and it will do him good to get back to that.
AK: Well, if a tough assignment is what the doctor ordered, consider Kobe a bottle of aspirin. A few scattered games notwithstanding, the guy has performed at an exceptionally high level, balancing scoring and facilitating duties. Judiciously selecting shots to great effect, Bryant has also been asked to be the primary playmaker with Nash and (to a lesser degree) Steve Blake out, and Kobe's pick-and-roll quarterbacking has been downright masterful at times. Generally speaking, the Lakers have looked best this season when incorporating pick-and-roll action with Kobe and/or Gasol and Howard.
Has there been a pleasant surprise this season for Indy?
JW: Lance Stephenson spent most of his first two seasons looking like a boy lost at the zoo: confused, aimless, unsure what to do next. But this season has been a 180. He's blended calling his own number with facilitating the offense and the result has been the Pacers' best player off the bench. Stephenson leads the team in shooting, both from the field and from behind the arc, and is Indiana's most dynamic ball handler. He has also discovered the confidence and ability to grab the ball and break out in transition for easy points.
AK: Along those lines, Darius Morris has been a silver lining for L.A. His feel for the game has steadily improved, and he's much further along defensively than I anticipated, given the inexperience. He's a very big point guard and does a nice job using that frame to his advantage. I'm very much looking forward to the matchup between him and George Hill.
And finally, your prediction?
JW: In Staples -- though I'd pick the same result at Hickory High right now -- it's got to be a Los Angeles win. Lakers 108, Pacers 97.
AK: Sounds about right, and I think that's actually a pretty good call for the score.