The NBA is notorious for having a small number of teams with realistic championship expectations. While nearly half of the NFL can claim to be in the running, the NBA normally only has a handful of true contenders. The Heat, Thunder and Spurs have all established themselves as frontrunners to be playing into June, but there is another interesting group below them of teams that have shown the capability of playing with the elite.
Currently, Dime is separating the contenders from the pretenders. Today, we look at the Indiana Pacers.
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39-24 (third in Eastern Conference)
2-4 vs Elite (vs Heat 2-1, vs Thunder 0-1, vs Spurs 0-2)
Key players: Paul George, 17.6 ppg; David West, 17.5 ppg; Roy Hibbert, 10.4 ppg
The Pacers case for being contenders includes leading the Heat 2-1 in the playoffs last season and their 29-13 record since a slow start to the season. With Danny Granger still on the mend from knee surgery, Paul George emerged into an All-Star to lead the team. David West and Roy Hibbert are an imposing frontcourt and the Pacers lead the league in rebounding.
George’s emergence in Granger’s absence has been pivotal to the Pacers’ success this season. He has the athleticism to defend multiple positions and spreads the floor by shooting 38.5 percent on three-pointers. George is in the top ten in the league in minutes, steals and three-pointers made. Even LeBron James has experienced George’s strong defense this season. George has held James well below his season averages in three games against the Heat: 21.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 4.0 apg. No one can be expected to stop James, but slowing him down will be key for the Pacers to reach the NBA Finals.
The West-Hibbert frontline takes advantage of the main weakness for the Heat and Knicks: rebounding. While the other Eastern challengers play non-traditional lineups, the Pacers are an inside-outside team that can punish opponents in the paint. If Granger can return — a big if at this point — the Pacers could play a mammoth lineup of Hibbert-West-Granger-George-Hill, which would dominate the boards against either the Heat or Knicks.
Similarly to Amar’e Stoudemire for the Knicks, the Pacers’ playoff hopes are dependent upon Granger’s return from injury (he’s back out again after playing in just five games this year). Whether he comes off the bench or starts, Granger will be taking minutes from lesser players in Lance Stephenson and Gerald Green. With their lack of depth, the Pacers would be wise to have Granger provide scoring and leadership to the second unit.
The Pacers are also an elite defensive team and hold opponents to league-low field goal and three-point percentages. Stephenson, George Hill and Ian Mahinmi are strong defenders in addition to the excellent frontcourt. To get out of the Eastern Conference, the Pacers will need to slow down the three-point shooters from both the Heat and Knicks.
There are holes, however, in the Pacers’ championship aspirations. For all his improvements, George is still a step below superstar. As discussed in the breakdown of the Nuggets’ contender or pretender status, only two teams have won a title with a leading scorer as low as George’s 17.6 points per game. West provides a needed complement to his three-point shooting, but George needs to continue his progression to be an elite player. Elite players simply don’t shoot 42.4 percent from the field.
The elephant in the room of course, literally, has been Hibbert’s regression from last season. He was instrumental in their series against the Heat and has dropped off since. His shooting percentage is a career-low 43 percent, and he’s only scoring 10.4 points a night. With the Heat constantly searching for a reliable center, Hibbert could be the difference maker in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Pacers, he has only averaged 9.7 points on 38.2 percent shooting in three games against the Heat this season.
Offense in general is the biggest concern for the Pacers. If Granger can’t return and contribute, the Pacers will be forced to rely heavily on George and West to carry the offense for entire games.
Verdict: Contenders (by the skin of their teeth)
The Pacers’ strengths outweigh their weaknesses because of how they matchup with the Heat. Three “ifs” will determine how far the Pacers advance in the postseason. If Roy Hibbert regains his form from last season, they will be able to control the paint on both ends. If Paul George takes another step and becomes a 20-plus scorer, they can have an answer to Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, albeit a less-experienced one. If Danny Granger can return, the Pacers will have a sixth man to carry a currently thin bench.
These are three big “ifs,” but if two of the three happen the Pacers can beat any team. Although the Heat are the overwhelming favorites in the East, the Pacers have a legitimate chance to beat them. The Pacers have two consistent advantages that will help their playoff chances: size and defense. Finding more consistent offense, wherever the source, will be the deciding factor in their playoff run.
Will the Pacers threaten the Heat at all in the playoffs?
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