Pacers: The New Favorites?

In each of the last two seasons, the Indiana Pacers have come extremely close to playing in the NBA Finals. In 2012, the Pacers had a 2-1 lead over Miami and a Game 4 halftime lead at home before going down in six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. A shock Indiana win in that series would have matched up the Pacers with a hobbled Celtics team being carried by Rajon Rondo.

Last season, Indiana took the Heat to the brink of elimination in the Conference Finals, and frankly should have had a 2-0 series lead early, before falling in a lopsided Game 7.

Yet, as an NBA fan, I have to honestly say that at no time in each of those long series did I truly believe that the Pacers' brand of basketball would end up being victorious over Miami. And I don't think I'm alone in that sentiment.

Sure, there were times when Dwyane Wade looked absent, the Pacers dominated the glass and when Indiana slowed the tempo that the Pacers looked like a threat. But to predict that Frank Vogel's bunch would take down Miami? Absolutely not.

Fast forward to the 2013 offseason, and the beginning of the 2013-14 season and the message the Pacers have sent so far says, "We're coming for the title, and it's our year."

Yes, the NBA is just a couple weeks into the season. No team has even played more than a tenth of its 82 games as of yet. So any outlandish or incredible statistics in this piece can be attached with sample-size caveats.

That being said, in today's small ball and perimeter hand-check foul NBA, it is virtually impossible to play team defense any better than the Pacers have through seven games. Currently, Indiana is giving up 92.3 points per 100 possessions. If maintained through an entire season, that number would make the Pacers the best defense of the 21st century — even better than any totals put up before the hand-check rules were emphasized before the 2005-06 season. Several seasons in those last eight years have seen no team under the 100 points per 100 possessions mark.

Of course, Frank Vogel's Pacers have featured defense as a calling card, ever since the former assistant took over a 17-27 team from Jim O'Brien midway through the 2010-11 season and led them to a playoff berth. The issues for Indiana since that point have been scoring enough points, finding a go-to guy and quality off the bench.

The issue of scoring enough points will remain a criticism for Indiana until it makes the hurdle of beating Miami in the playoffs. Even in outscoring opponents by 9.6 points per game (more than double the next best point differential in the league) during the 7-0 start as of Saturday night, the Pacers have an offensive rating of 102.6 points per 100 possessions, which is slightly below the league average.

However, the other two problems may be things of the past. During last season, George emerged as the Pacers' star player in an all-star and all-NBA campaign. His defense and athleticism shined, but his offense, while explosive at times, left something to be desired. In 2012-13, George shot 42 percent from the field, and had a less-than-desirable turnover percentage. Through this young season, he's shooting about 47 percent, has upped his three-point percentage to nearly 43 percent and turns it over on 5 fewer percent of possessions. Those numbers keep up, and it's George, not LeBron or Durant, who will be the MVP.

The Pacers' bench looks like it's been upgraded, as well. In getting rid of the often-inconsistent duo of Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin, Indiana now has Luis Scola and C.J. Watson. Scola can still score at a nice rate, and gives the Pacers much-needed offense down low when David West has to rest. Watson will never show the flash Augustin good, but he's a decent backup point guard that fits in well with the Pacers' team identity.

The elephant in the room for the Pacers' is clearly what will become of Danny Granger. On the eve of the regular season, it was announced that Granger would miss three weeks with a calf injury. Now, reports are surfacing that Granger is experiencing soreness in the left knee that made him a spectator for essentially the whole season a year ago.

The million-dollar question (or $14 million, in the case of his expiring contract) is whether or not the Pacers will trade him once he returns. Of course, the package Larry Bird can attain depends on how Granger fares once he returns. If he shows anything close to the same kind of ability that he did before the injury, Indiana could be that much more explosive on the perimeter with another quality bench player.

Before the season, the assumption was that Chicago, with the return of Derrick Rose, would be Miami's main competition in the East. But with Rose struggling more than he has at any point in his career this season, Indiana may not just be the main competition for Miami, it may be the team to beat in the East and in the entire NBA.

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