NBA Predictions: Can Pacers Overcome the Bulls for the Central Crown?

Avi Wolfman-Arent@@awolfmancomethCorrespondent IIJanuary 11, 2012

NBA Predictions: Can Pacers Overcome the Bulls for the Central Crown?

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    Whenever upstarts start upping—in basketball and in life—comparisons to the establishment always follow.

    In the NBA's Central Division, that means a side-by-side appraisal of the surging Indiana Pacers and the favored Chicago Bulls as they fight for position in the Eastern Conference.

    At 6-3, the Pacers sit two games back of the Bulls and with early displays of stellar play have folks wondering if they could catch Chicago before season's end.

    It sounds hard to believe, unimaginable, amazing.

    But I've been told that the NBA is where amazing happens—or something along those lines.

    Read on for pros, cons and a gavel-to-wood verdict.

Reason They Can: Their Balance

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    After three years of running their offense through Danny Granger, the Pacers have stumbled upon the obvious: You don't run your offense through Danny Granger.

    Granger can score, sure, but as an everything-revolves-around-me player, he was inefficient and overused. The fact that he only once posted a PER above 20 is evidence enough of that.

    This year Granger is the team's leading scorer by a much smaller margin, and by scaling back Granger's role, coach Frank Vogel has been able to get more of his talented roster involved.

    So far in 2012, Indiana has seven players averaging in double figures and Granger's usage percentage is at a four-year low.

    As a result, opponents can't key on Granger and Indiana's offense doesn't ebb and flow with the star shooting guard's field goal percentage.

    Compare that to Derrick Rose and the star-centered Bulls, whose offense requires max effort every night from their best player in order to keep pace.

Reason They Can: Compressed Schedule

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    The Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets—two teams that have played above expectations so far this year—provide a window into why the Pacers should thrive in a world of back-to-back-to-backs and quick home-away turnarounds.

    Both the Sixers and Nuggets feature balanced scoring attacks, deep benches and young legs, allowing them to stay fresh through grueling schedules and withstand off nights from any one player.

    The Pacers profile much the same way. David West is the only one of the aforementioned seven players averaging double figures aged 30 or over.

    Meanwhile, the Bulls have only four players averaging 10 or more points a game and two of them—Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton—have hit 30.

    The Bulls also lean hard on Derrick Rose and can't compete with the top teams when the MVP isn't energetic enough to drive their offense.

    In a shortened campaign, the Pacers set up better to withstand the grinding side effects.

Reason They Can: Roy Hibbert

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    Going through each of the five starting spots, the Pacers only clear-cut advantage is at center.

    No disrespect to Joakim Noah—a good defender and rebounder down low—but there are few big men in the Eastern Conference playing the two-way game as well as Roy Hibbert.

    Hibbert gives the Pacers a back-to-the-basket post presence few other teams have, and causes matchup nightmares for undersized opposition.

    His continued improvement, from spindly stiff to potential All-Star, gives Indiana a chance to lap their 37-win performance from a year ago.

Reason They Can: Last Year's Playoff Series

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    When Indiana and Chicago met in the first round of the playoffs last year, pundits expected the top-seeded Bulls to run the Pacers off the floor.

    And though the 4-1 series result might suggest the Bulls dominated their division brethren, the series was much harder fought than the wins and losses indicate.

    Only one of the games was decided by more than five points, and the series showcased the budding talent Indiana had in core players like Roy Hibbert, Paul George and even Tyler Hansbrough.

    More than that it lent some credence to the notion that Indiana had the talent to compete with Chicago at the highest level.

    Map some of that confidence onto this year's regular season, and Indiana might do just that.

Reason They Can't: Precedent

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    A new NBA season might feel like a fresh start, but these things don't happen in a vacuum.

    In other words, the Pacers finished 25 games behind the Bulls last year and not enough has changed since then to suggest they've completely closed the gap.

    Even if we assume the Pacers are getting better and that a compressed schedule will hurt the Bulls a bit—and both are fair assumptions—those factors alone don't account for a 25-game swing in the NBA.

    In many ways the Pacers situation this year is similar to the Bulls' position in 2007-08, when Chicago was the last NBA team before Indiana to finish in second place and also finish 25 games out of first.

    That year the Bulls were chasing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and, not surprisingly, couldn't keep pace.

    Next season the Cavs regressed a bit and the Bulls narrowed the gap to 20 games.

    The Pacers should fare better than that, but it gives you an idea of how hard it is to make up a 25-game difference in the NBA without major shifts in personnel.

Reason They Can't: Results so Far This Year

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    Indiana's been a nice story so far this year, a feel-good tale, a rising tide.

    What haven't they been?

    As a good as the Chicago Bulls.

    The Bulls are 9-2, rate third in John Hollinger's efficiency ratings, own the third best average margin of victory in basketball and have the league's second best scoring defense.

    By most any measure, they've been the league's second best team and at times challenged the Miami Heat for NBA supremacy.

    That's a good deal better than a Pacers team rated 12th in Hollinger's book with just a 2.2 point average margin of victory to their name.

    Even with Indiana playing well, the Bulls have proven a good deal better over the season's first few weeks.

Reason They Can't: Derrick Rose

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    Derrick Rose: the MVP, the best player in the Eastern Conference outside Miami, the argument ender of all argument enders.

    For the Indiana Pacers to pass the Chicago Bulls this season it will take a major regression from Derrick Rose, and I don't see that happening.

    Do you?

    Even though his scoring is down early this year, Rose continues to improve his game. He's become more of a true point, deciding to distribute more and save his scoring prowess for the game's vital moments.

    Last year Rose was a great player. This year Rose is a great player that knows how to use his greatness.

    Indiana doesn't have a player capable of controlling the game the way Rose does. If they did, they'd be the Chicago Bulls already. 

The Verdict: They Can't

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    The Chicago Bulls were the better team last year, the better team this year and they have the best player.

    As much as the Pacers have improved, I expect Chicago to repeat as division champions and challenge Miami for the Conference's No. 1 seed. At worst, Chicago finishes second overall in the East.

    Don't despair, Indiana fans. The Pacers have enviable growth potential and a great chance at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

    And the very fact that we're discussing the playoffs as an inevitability should be the first sign of progress.