The Indiana Pacers won 49 games in 2013, leading to the third seed in the Eastern Conference and an Eastern Conference finals matchup against the Miami Heat. The Pacers gave the Heat all they had, stretching the series to seven games. Indiana was led by young stars Roy Hibbert, a talented center, and Paul George, who won the NBA’s most improved player award last season. After resigning David West and improving their bench, the Pacers are excited for this season, and hope to return to the finals for the first time since 2000. But returning to the Eastern Conference Finals, and getting 5 more wins in the playoffs than they did last year, will not be an easy task.
The Indiana Pacers have quickly become a model franchise for small market teams on how to rebuild without a top ten pick. The team hit lighting in a bottle with three of their past 7 draft picks, taking Paul George in the first round in 2010, Lance Stephenson in Round two in the same year, and Kawhi Leonard 15th overall in 2011. The team then swapped Leonard for George Hill, a rare win win trade in the NBA. Neither the Spurs nor the Pacers make it as far as they did without Hill and Leonard respectively, and each player had better opportunities with their new team. Those three pieces, George, Stephenson, and Hill, set the Pacers up for the run they had this season. Sometimes for small market teams, you have to be very lucky in the draft to make the jump from good team to great team. The Pacers were very lucky, and they were just one major free agent signing away from a contender.
That major signing came in the form of David West, a big power forward who ended up being the perfect fit with center Roy Hibbert. The Pacers traded for Hibbert on draft night back in 2008; Hibbert was the 17th overall pick by the Toronto Raptors coming from Georgetown. Hibbert and West have combined to form a perfect match in the frontcourt, with West having the ability to shoot and operate outside the paint, and Hibbert finishing inside. Hibbert showed his full potential in the playoffs after battling with LeBron in the Eastern Confernce Finals. He evolved into a two way force, blocking two shots per game in the playoffs and revealing a “throwback center-esque” array of post moves. The Pacers starting five, with West and Hibbert dominating down low, combined with the shooting and driving of Hill, Stephenson, and George, may have been the best out of all the NBA teams during the playoffs.
The problems that the Pacers ran into in the Heat series happened when those starting five Pacers weren’t on the court. The Pacers bench unit including DJ Augustine, Sam Young, Tyler Hansborough, and Ian Mahimi was not capable of filling in at all by the end of that series. In Game Seven, those four combined for a pityful plus minus of -39 versus the Heat. Many Pacers fans and experts alike think that if the Pacers had a better bench, they could have beaten the Heat last year.
The Indiana front office realized this issue over the offseason, and worked to fix it. The Pacers signed CJ Watson, Chris Copeland, and traded for Luis Scola while letting DJ Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough, among others, walk. I like the Scola signing a lot, he is the perfect big man to lead your second team on offense. Copeland will offer more shooting for the Pacers, and Watson should at least be able to guard a pick and roll, something that DJ Augustin could not handle in the playoffs. Indiana also gets a healthy Danny Granger for next season, a former All Star who lost his role as team alpha dog after an injury plagued 2012-2013 season. All of these moves combine to make a much improved bench and team, but will it be enough to lift Indy into the Finals?
The Eastern Conference, just like the Pacers, is much improved for 2013. The Pacers have to gun for the 2nd or 3rd seed next season, so they don’t have to face the Heat until the conference finals, assuming Miami gets the number one seed. With that 2nd or 3rd seed, the Pacers would still be facing a tough team in the second round, most likely Brooklyn or Chicago. But the real question is in a seven game series against the Heat, can the Pacers muster enough to win 4 games? The answer relies in the continued growth of Roy Hibbert, Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and the other young Pacers. The Pacers have no where to go but up with this current roster, and there will come a time when they take down the Heat, and the reigns of the Eastern Conference one seeds will be handed off from Miami to Indiana. And because of the improvement of the Eastern Conference, as well as the fact that Miami probably has one more good playoff run in them, Indiana’s reign of the East may not come this season.