The Indiana Pacers were the surprise of the Eastern Conference. Maybe not because they reached the Playoffs for the second straight year or because they jumped from eighth to third in the Eastern Conference. It might have been more because they became a top defensive team and pushed the Heat in the second round or because they did it all without a bona fide superstar.
There were a lot of firsts in a long time for Indiana last year. Roy Hibbert was an All Star, just the second the Pacers have had since 2007. But even his stats — 12.8 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game — hardly screamed All Star in the end. The Pacers trip out of the first round was the first for the franchise in seven years.
Indiana had remade its roster as a team committed to defense and willing to share the ball offensively, a formula that may not guarantee championships but when done well can promise Playoff success. The Pacers had that last year.
Undoubtedly after tasting a little bit of that success, Indiana is looking for more.
Danny Granger told Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star that he believes Indiana's time is now to make their presence known in the East:
It’s going to be tough. Brooklyn, they are going to be threat. Obviously Miami is going to be there, but I think we still view ourselves as a top-2 team in the East.
We’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year. We’ve got the most televised games that we’ve had in 7 years.
Granger went on to say that he believes Indiana is in the driver's seat in the Central Division with Derrick Rose likely to be sidelined until January for the Bulls. There may not be much argument after Indiana's surprise season. A lot more is expected from them and so the Pacers should expect more from themselves.
Indiana had a relatively quiet summer though.
The Pacers matched the Trail Blazers offer sheet to retain Roy Hibbert. They added D.J. Augustin to replace Darren Collison, traded to the Mavericks, as their backup point guard.
But are the Pacers really the second best team in the East?
The mantle might be available to take. The Heat are the unquestioned leaders of the East. But every one of the other contenders have questions to answer:
Chicago has to handle questions about Derrick Rose's health for the first half of the season. Boston lost Ray Allen and is another year older. Orlando has Dwight Howard issues. Atlanta traded away its All Star and most consistent offensive player in Joe Johnson. Philadelphia has a similar strategy to Indiana, but does not have the same size as Indiana to mimic the team's success.
These are all major issues from some of the East's best. The door might be open for Indiana to fill that vacuum. The Nets and Knicks might have something to say about that, but they have their own question marks and uncertainties to answer.
Indiana does too. The Pacers averaged only 94.5 points per game, but were eighth in offensive rating with 103.5 points per 100 possessions. Indiana relies heavily on its defense, the 10th best in the NBA last year giving up 100.4 points per 100 possessions, and rebounding especially to generate offensive opportunities. The question is whether it is sustainable for a second year.
If it is, the Pacers certainly can fulfill Granger's expectation for the team. The opportunity is certainly there.