The Summer Losses: Rasho Nesterovic

Rasho Nesterovic joined the Pacers for one primary purpose: his contract allowed the Pacers to trade of Jermaine O’Neal for TJ Ford and the draft pick that would become Roy Hibbert. Sure, Larry Bird had to be happy to convince Bryan Colangelo to insert a serviceable, professional veteran like Rasho as the financial piece needed to get the deal done under the CBA, but it’s hard to believe that the 7′ Slovenian was ever seen as anything but a one-year, fill-in center for rent.

And when he struggled with injury in the first week of the season, it started to look like even “serviceable” tag might be in jeopardy. But as he has done throughout his career, Rasho quickly bounced back. And on the court, he impressed.

In 27 games before the New Year, Rasho put up double-digit points 13 times and shot 53.4% from the field overall. There was no mistaking that he was 32-years-old and his days of being even a marginal rebounding presence were clearly behind him, but he surprised many fans who hadn’t seen him play since his Spurs days with his midrange shooting and his overall skill-set. Unfortunately, Rasho’s quick early start combined with a lack of other great options up front probably pushed coach Jim O’Brien to overuse the big fella.

By the time January rolled around, his productivity had dropped noticeably and rookie center Roy Hibbert proved unable to pick up the slack. And once Jeff Foster started struggling with injuries of his own, it became clear that the front court was going to be a problem all year.

Looking back, Rasho was a fine player. He always has been. But at 32, he just can’t bring much of what his younger self offered to the table, aside from his soft jumpers and the occasional nifty bucket in the post. Defensively, he has also regressed. It’s not that he has forgotten the fundamental principles he learned from Coach Popovich in San Antonio; it’s just that his mobility no longer allows him to do much besides serve as a physical barricade. At 7′-tall, sure, that was enough to be effective at times, but he was generally a liability next to any big man with any semblance of quickness. Although, on this team, it’s not like he was the only big man guilty of that charge.

That’s how I saw it anyway.

Still, much like the ball, numbers don’t lie. And the stats say that from an objective, numerical standpoint, Rasho will be more difficult to replace than it may seem. Here’s what Indiana lost when Rasho decided to head back up across the border to Toronto:

Rasho Nesterovic in 2008-09

Traditional
PPG – 9th (6.8)
RPG – 8th (3.4)
FG% – 2nd (.513)
BPG – 9th (0.5)

Advanced*
PER – 6th (14.1)
TS% – 8th (.524)
ORtg – 6th (108)
DRtg – 7th (109)
WS – 6th (2.2)
OWS – 7th (1.1)
DWS – 9th (1.1)

* PER – Player Efficiency Rating | TS% – True Shooting Percentage | ORtg – Offensive Rating | DRtg – Defensive Rating | WS – Win Shares | OWS – Offensive Win Shares | DWS – Defensive Win Shares

It says a lot about the talent and depth in this front court that a guy who struggled mightily throughout the second half of the year can rank so high on a team in the advanced stat categories. After the draft in June, I was disappointed that the Pacers opted to address the front court rather than picking an impact guard. Looking at these figures, however, it makes more sense that the interior would be a priority. The catch-22 is that the back court needs a ton of help as well, but if this team is ever going to improve defensively, it is going to need some guys who can man the paint.

Is Tyler Hansbrough such a guy? Until he puts his current shin problems behind him, it remains somewhat moot. But the front office has to be hoping that whatever a rookie like Tyler may lack in savvy and understanding of the NBA game, he will be able to make up for in effort. Roy, too, will need to prove capable of playing more minutes — with the two main factors against him doing such being his conditioning and his inability to stay out of foul trouble. I’m not one to care about preseason trends, but the fact that Hibbert led the entire league in blocks during fake hoops season without spending too, too much time in foul touble has to be somewhat encouraging.

At this point, I think we know what the team is going to get out of Troy Murphy and Jeff Foster. Aside from Danny Granger — who, as crazy as it sounds, still could improve even more — those two veteran big men are the closest thing this roster has to sure things. Sure, it’s certainly possible that Troy won’t quite match the numbers he put up last year, but we generally know what he will provide. And Jeff? Well, he’s Jeff.

So to replace what Rasho provided last year, Coach O’Brien is going to have to look to Tyler and Roy. One would think that a natural sophomore improvement from Hibbert and a youthful exuberance from Hansbrough would come close to doing exactly that. But people are generally too quick to mistake the solid-if-unremarkable contributions of a guy like Rasho with easily replaceable mediocrity.

If Roy is going to become a player that Indy can rely on as a starting center over the next half decade, and if Tyler is a guy who was worth taking over the likes of high-ceiling guards like Jeff Teague and Ty Lawson, then, yeah, what Rasho did last year shouldn’t be that hard to replace. But if either of those things doesn’t prove true, then the 09-10 Pacer front court might be even more of a problem than the one fans had to watch last season.

And if that’s the case, it might be time to just cross your fingers and hope Solomon Jones can translate some of that athleticism into basketball talent.

Tags: Bryan Colangelo Jeff Foster Jeff Teague Jermaine O'Neal Larry Bird Rasho Nesterovic Roy Hibbert Solomon Jones The Summer Losses/Gains TJ Ford Toronto Raptors Troy Murphy Ty Lawson Tyler Hansbrough

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