Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Keeping Pace in the East

The Pacers won their first three games.  While victories over the Pistons, Raptors, and Cavaliers aren't exactly worthy of front page news, the manner in which they won these games has me taking notice.  In their first game versus the Pistons, the Pacers were completely dominant in the paint.  Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansborough combined for 27 rebounds and 31 points.  The team had 9 blocked shots and 9 steals.  Against the Cavaliers, Hibbert had another big night (13 boards, 19 points, 3 blocked shots) and wanted the ball on every possession.  The Pacers' newest acquisition David West laid out Anderson Varejao rather than giving him an easy layup.  The two later got into a scuffle and had to be separated.  West ended up hitting a last second shot to send the game into overtime, where the Pacers cruised to a win.  While I don't endorse flagrant fouls or pushing and shoving after the whistle blows, it's nice to see that these Indiana Pacers already have a Playoff-like intensity about them.  This year you can see a noticeable increase in swagger when this team comes out of the tunnel.  They don't back down to anybody, as we saw in last year's  first round matchup with No. 1 seeded Chicago.  Indiana put up more of a fight than anybody expected and that series was much closer than the 4-1 record would suggest.

Could there finally be hope for this franchise floating around the greater Indianapolis area?  If there are any NBA fans that deserve hope, it has to be these Pacers faithful.  Aside from the emergence of Danny Granger, there hasn't been much to get excited about.  Throughout the lockout, the Indiana Pacers were often used as an example of a helpless small market team that will never be able to compete with the Miamis, Bostons, and New Yorks of the world.  After years of salary cap hell and mediocrity following the Rumble at the Palace, it seems like a competitive squad is beginning to take shape.  Give David Morway and Larry Bird some much deserved credit for this development.

This transition began last year when the Pacers acquired Darren Collison from the Hornets.  Collison added some much needed stability at the point guard position.  So far the former backup to Chris Paul has fit in nicely and played well for them.  The Draft day trade that sent Spurs sharpshooter George Hill to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard helps the Pacers in numerous ways.  Hill stretches the floor, is a solid defender and should give the team some valuable minutes when Collison is on the bench.  Landing Fresno State's Paul George in the first round of last year's draft has already paid dividends.  After going 5-5 from behind the arc versus New Jersey last night, we now know that the freakishly athletic swingman has an improved 3-point shot.  While Luis Amundson isn't going to compete with Roy Hibbert for the starting center position, the team needed another big man and got one for a reasonable price.  Speaking of reasonable, how about signing a 2 time All-Star like David West for 2 years/$20 million?  Boston was very interested but in the end, the smaller market team under the salary cap could afford to pay him more.  That, my friends, is capitalism at work.  While we are on the subject of capitalism, this is a contract year for talented big man Roy Hibbert.  So far he looks like a big man playing for that big contract every night.  Perhaps the NBA system isn't as broken as one majority owner of a professional basketball team from Ohio might suggest.

It remains to be seen what first-time head coach Frank Vogel can accomplish with this team.  So far, you have to like what he is doing.  Former head coach Jim O'Brien was not developing the young nucleus of this team.  He was stubborn with his rotations and his play calling and consequently lost the respect of the locker room.  After making Vogel the interim head coach, the team responded by playing hard and making the Playoffs for the first time in 5 years.  Vogel has no problem giving the young guys minutes and letting them learn from their mistakes.  For this team to move forward, guys like Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansborough, Paul George, and Lance Stephenson have to develop sooner rather than later.  By all accounts, Vogel gets it and this team seems to play well together.

Let's not kid ourselves.  Outside of a couple of teams, the Eastern Conference is still weak.  Squads with sub .500 records are going to make the Playoffs this year.  The Pacers could conceivably make the post season for the second straight year while still getting a pretty good draft pick in what some are calling the best draft class since 2003.  Let that marinate for a moment.  They could gain valuable experience this year AND gain a franchise changing talent next year.  With one lucky bounce of the lottery ball and a few more shrewd moves from this underrated front office, we could be seeing those blue and gold unis in a championship game sooner than later.

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