It started out as a whisper, nothing more than hopes and dreams of a select few. With each passing game the noise has grown, more and more people jumping on the bandwagon. It is still unclear just how loud this movement will become, but right now, it is beginning to capture the imagination of a city: the Indiana Pacers are 18-3, and looking to win an NBA championship this season.
Despite the best start in franchise history, plenty of doubters remain out there; countless thousands in fact. For most, the NBA is still LeBron James’ league, and this season will end like the other two, with the Miami Heat once again winning another title. Others see it differently. Smaller in voice and broken down into different sects, their opinion is that it will be the turn of some other team to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy aloft next summer. The Oklahoma City Thunder and their balanced roster is the choice of some, the quiet and efficient San Antonio Spurs the pick for others. Honorable mentions must also go to the Los Angeles Clippers and even the Houston Rockets as well, for they have their believers.
As the wins pile up, so does the belief that this really could be the year the Pacers break through and win a championship. A much scarier and less talked about component of their team is the fact that their window to win a championship has only recently been wrenched open. Should they falter this year, there will be more opportunities to get it right. They might not need another opportunity again though.
The Pacers have the most balanced and effective roster in the entire league, a fact only some people are coming around to now. In Paul George, they have an All-Star, a player who is continuing to improve at a scary rate. Last season, when the Pacers pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, George dueled with LeBron James. Although the team came up short, George won some of those personal battles with James, the best player in the world. George looks better than he did last season already, so having that kind of top ten player league wide will be such an advantage to the team heading into the playoffs.
With Roy Hibbert, Indiana boasts one of the more dominant forces in the league. Standing over seven feet tall, the one knock on Hibbert’s game was an apparent soft underbelly to how he played. A man of his size should be eating up rebounds, and yet before this season there were games, too many of them, in which he would take between five and seven a night. This year however he is averaging a double-double so far, realizing that in order for this team to thrive, he must do the dirty work and be a factor on the glass on both ends of the floor.
With George Hill running the point and CJ Watson off the bench to back him up, Indiana can safely say it has two players that could comfortably start for a variety of teams. Although injury has curtailed Hill’s improvement somewhat, he is still a more than capable facilitator and floor general. Having Watson is a bonus, the kind of high energy player off the bench that ensures that the tempo and quality of play from that position does not drop off significantly when Hill takes to the bench to refuel. It is that balance that could really help this team during crunch time in the playoffs next year.
With this embarrassment of riches, still there are players on the roster who can contribute greatly. Lance Stephenson, at one time a player who looked out of his depth and a bit of a loose cannon with the ball in hand, looks to have matured greatly and is providing a nice scoring bunch that hasn’t always been there for the Pacers. His shot selection has improved and this is a big plus for a side that looks to carry a threat from all sides. His 12.1 points a game are up considerably from the 8.8 he averaged the year before. Although not known for his ability on the defensive end, an improvement can be seen in Stephenson’s game here as well. He is averaging 6.2 rebounds this season, almost double his career best of 3.9 that he achieved last year. A small jump yes, but rebounding and general hustle plays are invaluable to a team with championship aspirations, especially coming from a source that may have been overlooked.
Not too many people sat up and took notice when Luis Scola joined the Pacers, yet he has done exactly what is needed of him for this team to thrive. Easily capable of starting, the Pacers have asked him to be that sixth man, something not a lot of players have the mental attitude to accept, and he has done so graciously and to great effect too. Everybody knows the rugged play and heart David West brings to the team, he is their emotional leader and an important cog in the machine. Danny Granger, at one time this team’s franchise player, which is hard to believe right now, has not even played this season through injury, and yet the Pacers look near flawless without him. But wait, why does that constant feeling of doubt still exist?
For one, this team has a certain Los Angeles Clippers feel about it right now. That is to say, a brilliant regular season team who pile up wins and adulation, but when the pressure is turned up in the playoffs, the team begins to crumble. The Pacers have playoff experience however, quite a bit of it, and so these comparisons may be wide off the mark.
Another knock on the Clippers was the belief they were one quality player shy of being a championship winning team, something more than a few observers have said about the Pacers as well. Of course Danny Granger could yet emerge as that player, so again perhaps the comparisons are founded on jealousy and nothing more. Every team has to grow as a unit and experience true down days before reaching the summit, it has always been this way. The Pacers have had their fair share of disappointments though, and seem to have learned and grown from it. They appear to be continually getting stronger as a team, and have hit on that perfect balance whereby every piece on the roster fits together so well.
Can the Indiana Pacers win an NBA title this year? Absolutely. It is possible, and yet the team is not getting the attention it truly deserves. Fans and ‘people in the know’ continue to predict heartbreak down the road for this team, with others saying they are still a couple of years and one piece away from being NBA champions.
The Pacers don’t care of course, they will continue to play their unique brand of basketball. On any night, any one of their starters can be the key guy down the stretch for the team in a victory, and their defense has been absolutely stifling. Add to that the fact that their defense is actually fun to watch as well, and it is puzzling that more people are not taking this team seriously. Whether their championship aspirations do come true this year or not, one frightening realization has come to light. The Pacers are just getting started as a franchise that is able to compete for titles, and that is something even the most skeptical person of Indiana’s credentials will have to admit.