Look Out, Miami; Indiana Is Now The East’s Most Talented Team

This weekend, the Indiana Pacers were able to land Phoenix Suns power forward Luis Scola in a trade, per ESPN’s Marc Stein. Indiana got a steal, sending back only Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a reported lottery-protected 2014 first-round draft pick.

The Pacers didn’t have much use for Plumlee or Green anyway. They selected Plumlee way too high in the 2012 NBA Draft, over-drafting him in the first round. Though he has potential, Indiana already has Ian Mahinmi, David West and Roy Hibbert on the frontline. As for Green, he struggled last season and was overpaid. Indiana needed to dump his contract, and with all the wings the team already has on the roster, someone had to go. And while that draft pick could come back to haunt them with a loaded class next summer, the Pacers badly needed a suitable power forward behind West. With Tyler Hansbrough now in Toronto, Indiana was stuck with the idea of using Plumlee or Chris Copeland as the four-man in the second unit. With Scola, there’s no need to worry about that.

The Pacers have created possibly the most stacked bench in the league… let alone probably the most stacked team overall.

Indiana always needed more scoring off the bench, and Scola brings that. The 33-year-old has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in his career. He had his best performance in the 2010-11 season, producing 18.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Last season with Phoenix, he averaged about 13-7. He’s always been undersized and can’t guard the league’s bigger power forwards. He doesn’t block shots, either, averaging only 0.3 for his career. But this is why he will be paired with Mahinmi, who will be doing all the dirty work when it comes to fouling, defending and rebounding.

With all of this in mind, what does this mean for the Indiana Pacers? The Pacers were just one game short of the 2013 NBA Finals, getting blown out by the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Have they closed the gap? Are they now better?

We can’t go that far, but I will say there is a strong chance Indiana ends up locking in the top seed in the East next season. Why so? Let’s take a look at this team now.

Last season, the Pacers finished as the third seed with Paul George stepping up as the new leader of the franchise. The team played all but five games without Danny Granger, who had been the team’s leading scorer for the past half-decade. Granger is coming back, and it doesn’t look like Indiana plans to trade him until at least the trade deadline — or at all.

George racked up Most Improved Player of the Year honors, and heading into the 2013-14 season, it’s already a given he’s the face of this team. Granger will be taking a step back no matter what, and it looks like he’s fine with that. Granger understands the circumstances. He’s getting older, he knows George is the leader and he’s fine staying with the team with all that in mind.

“I’m not 25 anymore,” Granger told David Aldridge this summer. “Going to get 22, 23 points a game, it’s tough, it’s hard, when you have teams gunning for you. I’m 30 now. I’ll gladly defer to the younger teammates and put more of the burden on them than on myself,” he said. “I can still carry a heavy load, but not as much as I did in the past. And I don’t want to. It’s not even a question.”

Granger is in the last year of his contract, and will be carrying $14 million in salary for the 2013-14 season. Indiana will likely keep him for the rest of the season and let him walk or possibly re-sign him for a cheaper amount. Honestly, the only way I see Granger being moved at the trade deadline is if the return is too good to be true. Otherwise, he’s untouchable.

Keep reading to read about the one major question mark in Indiana’s lineup…

The major question will be whether Granger starts or comes off the bench. Indiana had major success with the starting lineup of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert last season. Many like the idea of Granger off the bench, and I think it’s better if Indiana goes with the longtime in the starting lineup. Though he is still growing into a young star, when you look at how things shape out it would be best if Stephenson is the one on the second unit.

If Granger were to be in the second unit, we’re possibly looking at him or Chris Copeland playing shooting guard, with C.J. Watson, Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi already containing the point guard, power forward and center positions. It just won’t work out that way. There would be too many problems with that. It would look a lot better having a Hill-George-Granger-West-Hibbert starting five with a second unit of Watson-Stephenson-Copeland-Scola-Mahinmi.

Having two great shooters and great defenders in the same lineup gives all the advantages. Having a nearly 6-9 George playing the two gives him a major height and defensive advantage against the majority of the shooting guards in the league. Plus, with Granger playing a lesser role, he can start being more of a catch-and-shoot guy, something he will excel at rather than trying to create his own shot.

But whether it’s Granger or Stephenson coming off the bench, the Pacers have three legit Sixth Man of the Year candidates now with those two and Scola:

PG: George Hill/C.J. Watson/Donald Sloan
SG: Paul George/Lance Stephenson/Orlando Johnson
SF: Danny Granger/Chris Copeland/Solomon Hill
PF: David West/Luis Scola
C: Roy Hibbert/Ian Mahinmi

Now that is one very talented squad right there. But can this team beat the Heat? I strongly believe they can. A big man rotation of Hibbert-West-Hansbrough-Mahinmi gave the Heat trouble last season. With Scola in, I expect to see much of the same come playoff time.

The biggest question will be seeing how Indiana handles LeBron James. Do they use Granger or George? Will George guard Wade while Granger handles LBJ? Along with that, will the Heat sign Greg Oden? If he comes along and somehow stays healthy, Miami may finally have an answer to the Hibbert-West combo by throwing out Oden and Chris Bosh to face them.

Miami doesn’t need the top seed. They can finish second or third and still be the team to beat come postseason. Remember in the 2011-12 lockout year when they finished as the second seed?

However, Miami will be going after a three-peat this time, along with a fourth-straight NBA Finals appearance. Will all that mileage catch up to them this season, especially with more and more teams finding ways to finally crack their code?

Indiana has a great chance of ending South Beach’s dominance, but with the Heat’s strong squad — as well as the best player in the world — it’s always going to be tough. But no doubt, these two teams will likely meet in next year’s postseason. They’ll be the two clear frontrunners in the Eastern Conference. The addition of Scola, and all the other offseason moves made by Indiana, will have them reaching even closer for the Heat’s championship belt.

Have the Pacers closed the gap on Miami?

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