Two years ago, if you said that the Pacers would contend this season, even the diehard Indy fans would have probably laughed at you.
Roy Hibbert was still raw, the point guard position was still unsettled, the Pacers had little depth, and Danny Granger was basically required to do everything.
Yet, after several smart draft picks, fortuitous trades and the remarkable progress of both Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers look primed to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference.
Here are five reasons the Pacers can finish among the Top 3 in the East.
Last year, Roy Hibbert took significant strides, but faded down the stretch. Questions about Tyler Hansbrough abounded, with many (me included) saying he was at best a competent reserve. And Paul George seemed out of place at shooting guard.
Even though the season is only two games in, so far, all three players have shown marked improvements.
Hibbert has been absolutely dominant, averaging 14 PPG to go along with 12 RPG.
George is shooting .600 from deep and looks far more comfortable at guard.
And Hansbrough has been a rebounding machine, hauling in 13 boards in the season opener against Detroit and another eight against Toronto. He too is averaging a double-double at 11.5 PPG and 10.5 RPG.
Another of the Pacers' young guns, Darren Collison, has also been playing superb basketball, deftly running the offense and dishing out 8.5 assists per game.
If these four guys can continue their early production night in and night out, the Pacers will be nearly impossible to beat.
Is there a deeper bench in the East right now?
Just when teams think they are catching a breather as David West heads to the bench, Tyler Hansbrough comes in and picks right up where the Pacers' All-Star forward left off.
It's only been two games, but for a sixth man to average a double-double is an incredible luxury. Better yet, the Pacers' depth doesn't end with Hansbrough.
George Hill and Dahntay Jones have, so far, been deserving of the big minutes they've seen off the bench, and highly-touted Lance Stephenson has finally started to crack the lineup.
The best news for the Pacers is that the bench has been productive and able to withstand an injury to longtime Pacer Jeff Foster and second-year pro Jeff Pendergraph (a player with strong upside).
When they both come back, the Pacers will be able to rely on and get quality minutes out of a bench that can go nine or even 10 deep.
Danny Granger stepped into a miserable situation in Indiana. He arrived in Indy just as the Pacers were on the precipice of decline. No matter Granger's effort, the Pacers fell hard.
For his entire career with the Pacers, Granger has been relied on and forced to do everything. Granger responded admirably, but it was clear that he isn't in the same category as Lebron James, Chris Paul or Derrick Rose. If the Pacers were to contend, Granger would need help.
Finally, the cavalry has arrived.
In both of the Pacers' first two games, five players have scored in double figures. Against Detroit, Granger and Roy Hibbert tied for the team lead with 16 points apiece. Against the Raptors, Granger led the team with 21 points, but Paul George added 18, and David West chipped in with a timely 14, including a key late bucket down the stretch.
If the Pacers can continually get double-figure scoring from a myriad of players, not only will it make them more difficult to guard as a whole, but it will take the pressure off Granger, open up the court for him and allow him to be even more dangerous and productive.
For opposing teams, that is definitely a scary thought.
It's amazing what one guy can do. David West has added a new scoring threat, solidified their inside presence and, most importantly, provided a go-to guy the Pacers can turn to down the stretch.
Only two games into the season, and West's presence has already been felt. Up just three points and needing a basket to close out the Raptors, the Pacers looked to West on a pick-and-pop. Collison delivered the ball, and West delivered the game.
In past years, the Pacers didn't have that option. Granger was the only guy capable of coming through in the clutch. Opposing defenses were well aware of this and shut him down, leaving the Pacers hopelessly ill-equiped to win the game.
Timely scoring is not only a matter of talent, but veteran leadership as well. Last year, the Pacers were raw and inexperienced. This year, with the acquisitions of West and George Hill from the Spurs and with Hibbert entering his fifth season in the league, the Pacers have a variety of players with experience (especially playoff experience) under their belts.
Don't expect the Pacers to choke in the playoffs this season like they did last year in the first round against the Bulls.
In this lockout-shortened season, two factors become increasingly more critical:
1.Fresh legs (a combination of youth and depth)
2. The ability to avoid injuries
No team can control injuries, but if they do occur, the Pacers are well-equipped to handle them.
If LeBron James was to go down, that stretch of the Heat's season would be lost. If Danny Granger—the Pacer's best player—was to go down, George would shift to the small forward spot, and Hill would come in off the bench. They wouldn't be as potent offensively, but they could survive.
In terms of fresh legs, even with the signing of West, the Pacers are still incredibly young. Seven guys on the Pacers are 25 years or younger, including three starters—Collison, George and Hibbert.
As the season wears on, back-to-back games will wear down veteran teams like the Celtics, Mavericks, Lakers etc. The combination of depth and youth will serve the Pacers well and keep them fresh for the postseason.