“It’s going to be tough," Granger said. "Brooklyn, they are going to be a threat. Obviously Miami is going to be there, but I think we still view ourselves as a top-two team in the East.”
Granger is right about the Pacers being second-best. They are easily the second-best squad in the NBA Central Division.
But in the Eastern Conference? Not quite. The Pacers will have their hands full trying to catch the Chicago Bulls at the top of the division standings. Granger didn't even acknowledge the two-time defending division champs.
The Bulls have proved during the last two seasons that they are the best team during the regular season. Tom Thibodeau's one-game-at-a-time approach and Chicago's air-tight defense make the team competitive every night against any opponent. The Bulls just can't figure out how to win in the postseason.
Even without Derrick Rose, the team had enough depth to continue to play as the top team in the NBA. The new-look bench has similar, if not better, overall talent than the previous reserve unit.
Don't be so quick to predict that the Bulls will fall off the top of the NBA Central mountain. Most critics remember how badly they played in the playoffs without Rose (and Joakim Noah for the final three games).
Are the Indiana Pacers the second-best team in the East?
Those same critics seem to forget that the NBA regular season and playoffs are totally different ball games. The Bulls were more than capable of winning without their superstar before the postseason.
Indiana made some noise in the playoffs by taking a 2-1 lead over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals before bowing out in six. But not much has changed on the Pacers roster. They added depth with D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green, and the core of Granger, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and David West remains.
Indiana finished third in the East during the regular season with a record of 42-24, a winning percentage of .636. A comparable record over the course of a full 82-game season is 52-30, which yields a winning percentage of .634.
The Bulls, on the other hand, finished atop the East at 50-16, which is a winning percentage of .758. A comparable record over a full 82-game slate is 62-20, which yields a percentage of .756. That is the same record that Chicago had in 2010-11, and they would have won the division by 10 games instead of eight.
The Bulls went 18-9 without Rose last season, which yields a winning percentage of .667. That is still better than the Pacers record.
The Bulls added Kirk Hinrich to serve as floor general in Rose's absence, and there's no reason to expect that Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson will allow much of a setback without the former MVP in the lineup.
Even if the Pacers improve by four games this season to finish at 56-26, and the Bulls win four less games to finish 58-24, Chicago still wins the division. With not much changing in the cores of both teams, this is a realistic prediction.
Those records would probably land each team in the No. 2-4 range in the Eastern Conference standings. Hopefully by the end of the year, the Bulls will have a healthy Rose heading into the playoffs.
That alone makes Chicago more dangerous. The Pacers are 3-9 against the Bulls over the past two seasons (including the playoffs). With the Bulls not changing much, what have the Pacers done to make themselves more of a threat to Chicago?
The Pacers have to wrestle the division title away from Chicago before becoming No. 2 in the East. They have to put the Bulls away early in order to hold them off at the end of the season when Rose returns.
Easier said than done.
The playoffs are clearly more important than the regular season. The Pacers were by far the more impressive team of the two in the 2012 postseason. That makes them the sexy pick to take the division crown from Chicago.
But the Bulls have proven to be king of the hill during the regular season. Until someone knocks them off in the Central, they have to be considered the favorite.
Fans should have nothing but respect for Granger's confidence. He should believe that his team is the second-best in the conference, and he should be aiming to defeat the Heat because any team that has title aspirations has to go through Miami.
But before Indiana gets a shot at LeBron James, they have to deal with the Bulls in the regular season.
Winning a division is the first step to being considered the No. 2 team in the conference. Until the Pacers do that, they are still on the cusp of becoming elite.