The Indiana Pacers are where no team likes to be -- right in the middle of the conference. Not good enough to compete for a championship, but just good enough to compete for a playoff spot. The Pacers have been there for a while, finishing with a record lower than .400 just once since 2006. That was the last time the Pacers went to the Playoffs.
That is, before last year.
Even after firing head coach Jim O'Brien following a 17-27 start, the Pacers put themselves together under then-interim head coach Frank Vogel and rallied for a Playoff berth. The Pacers had a nice young core that featured borderline All-Star Danny Granger, solid center Roy Hibbert and explosive point guard Darren Collison. The trio, surrounded by hard-working players like Jeff Foster, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Tyler Hansbrough, gave Chicago all it could handle in a five-game first round series.
For the Pacers franchise, which has struggled to fill Conseco Fieldhouse (the team was last in attendance according to Basketball-Reference) and even faced a partisan Bulls crowd in Game Four of the Playoffs at Indianapolis, getting back to the Playoffs for the first time since 2006 was a big step. Indiana has had to work hard to rebuild after trying to erase the horrible memories of the brawl against the Pistons.
But nobody likes being in that NBA middle class though. Going to the Playoffs is nice, but consistently hitting the first round is not a great long-term strategy. Being good enough to make the Playoffs and not do much does not bring in the high lottery picks necessary to more assuredly build a team. To really build on the successful 2011 campaign on the court and begin re-filling Conseco Fieldhouse, the Pacers have to take the next step.
"I fully expect this team to take the next step. We made some strides in making the playoffs last year and fell short against Chicago. We're all a little bit bitter about that. We felt we coulda beat the Bulls and what we learned is that we can play with the best team in the NBA. We're expecting to pick up right where we left off and we feel like we're only scratching the surface of what we can accomplish."
Certainly, that is the kind of coach speak you would expect before a season begins. Optimism is pretty easy to spread around when everyone is 0-0. But are the Pacers ready to take that next step and launch into the East's upper echelon?
Granger averaged 20.5 points per game last year in a down year for him. When he was an All-Star in 2009, he averaged 25.8 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting. His number have dipped since then, especially his field goal shooting. If Granger can shoot it more efficiently and return to that All-Star level, he could give a boost to the Pacers level of play.
Hibbert surprised with a decent year, averaging 12.7 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game, connecting with the fans with his Area-55 ticket program at Conseco Fieldhouse. Obviously, though, the Pacers need the fourth-year center to continue his improvement and become a more aggressive and confident post player. Darren Collison was also strong in his first year as a full-time starter with 13.2 points per game and 5.1 assists per game.
What makes the Pacers unique though are their role players. Jeff Foster, Mike Dunleavy, Tyler Hansbrough and Brandon Rush provide a certain amount of energy and grit off the bench to help fill the holes on the team.
But the one thing you notice is a lot of "ifs." If Hibbert continues his upward progression. If Granger returns to an All-Star form. If Collison can copy his success in his first year as a starter.
The Pacers are a team that lacks any true elite players. Granger has been forced to become the team's high-usage player and primary scorer. But he may be more like an Andre Iguodala, a player that might be better suited as a second option rather than the primary scorer.
Likely the Pacers are not quite ready to take the next step that Vogel envisions. This is a team that will remain competing for a Playoff spot, but a lower playoff spot. Trapped in the NBA's purgatory of mediocrity.
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