Starting Five: PG George Hill, SG Lance Stephenson, SF Paul George, PF David West, C Roy Hibbert
Key Bench Players: SF Danny Granger, PF Luis Scola, PG CJ Watson
Notable offseason additions: Scola, Watson, F Chris Copeland
Notable offseason subtractions: PF Tyler Hansborough, PG DJ Augustin, SF Gerald Green
FACT OR FICTION: The Pacers are the biggest threat to the Miami Heat 3-peat, East OR West.
FACT. In consecutive seasons the Pacers have gone out swinging, pushing the Heat harder than any team not from San Antonio, TX. In 2012 they lost 4-2 in the Conference semifinals and this year the upstarts boxed their way to a 4-3 bloodbath. Those were also Frank Vogel’s first two full years as head coach and he has undoubtedly established one of the most consistent character teams in the league. A ‘character team’ is one that has an identity. Indiana plays a physical, wear-you-out style night in and night out. They don’t waver. Think of the Chicago Bulls on the defensive end, but with legitimate scoring options on the offensive end.
If the Heat square off in the Spring with Indiana for the third year in a row, why do I think Miami is in trouble? Because Indiana is rock fucking solid, all the way around. The defensive is their gasoline. They gave up a league low 96.6 points per possession last year, a full 4 points better than the vaunted Thibodeau Chicago defense. Every position sports a rotweiler with a nasty edge, David West being the pillar of that attitude. I expect them to continue to be a force on that end, with room for improvement from Roy Hibbert who showed glimpses of being a truly dominant rim protector in the 2013 playoffs.
The defense is a given, but what makes me optimistic is the potential of the offense. Losing the turd-duo of DJ Augustin/Tyler Hansborough and gaining Watson/Scola could be the most underrated move of the offseason. Watson provides punch offensively and can keep up the defensive mindset of the man in front of him, George Hill. Scola is a wizard from 18 feet and in and if Granger can embrace the role of streak shooter/energy defender, their bench will be formidable. Now, the most common question applied to the Pacers going into this year? Can Paul George be the alpha dog that a team “needs” to truly compete. My answer to that is: DID YOU WATCH THE PLAYOFFS LAST YEAR? George was very good. Not great, but really good. Sure he vanished in a couple of games against Miami, but this isn’t an individual sport. His team played great and through 6 games was neck and neck with the now 2-time champs. Paul George is the best player on the team, there’s no doubt. And regardless of how good he is individually, the team is good enough to contend with him as their focal point. I see a lot of 2004 Detroit in this team, but with more talent and better coaching (Larry Brown can suck it).
Best case scenario: The Pacers pick up where they left off in last years playoffs and use that experience and sting of losing to fuel them to a 60 win season. Lance Stephenson, aka Born Ready, is in a contract year and people are debating him as a borderline all star. George shoots better (only 41% last year), Hibbert focuses on his status as leader of the defense, and the offseason vision of a better bench manifests itself. It’s very hard to type this…but let’s do it…the Pacers avoid CHI in the playoffs (who MIA has to tangle with) and meet MIA in the conference finals. They get hot, Miami gets cold or is banged up, and the Pacers advance to the finals, but go out to a red, hot, foaming at the mouth KD & Russ.
Absolute Apocalypse: The only thing that derails them is injuries. And they’re so deep only an injury to George or Hibbert would really hurt. Their basement is the 5 seed.
Expected outcome: Their best regular season as a group. 55+ wins. #3 seed behind Miami and Chicago. They’ll fight their asses off, but even within my own “justify Indiana as a contender” piece, I can’t pick them over Miami. In a harsh de-ja-vu, the Pacers lose to the Heat in the conference finals, again, 4-3.
1st in the Central, 2nd in the Eastern Conference
Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series: