Two years ago the Indiana Pacers turned some heads with their scrappy first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. Last year they took another step, losing in the second round to the eventual champions, the Miami Heat, after holding a 2-1 series lead.
The question heading into this season is: What do they need to do to have continued success? The answer lies with third-year player Paul George.
Coming out of Fresno State, George was a long, athletic player who didn't really do one thing exceptionally well. He was an okay shooter, a decent rebounder and an average defender. Since coming into the league, he has made strides in every aspect of his game.
He has come a long way in just two short years. His ability to play outside of his natural position and guard smaller, quicker defenders is something this team relies on. Most people took notice of this in his rookie year when he was assigned to defend MVP Derrick Rose in the playoffs.
While George is one of Indiana's best players, there shouldn't be any pressure put on him to carry the team on his shoulders. This team has already tried that strategy with Danny Granger, and it never worked.
Even during the Reggie Miller era, there were so many role players responsible for the team's success. Guys like Rik Smits, Mark Jackson and the Davis boys knew that as great as Reggie was, he couldn't win without them. While Reggie had a knack for performing in the spotlight on the biggest stage, it was all about the team.
This team is all about the collection of talent, not just one or two individuals. It may be going against the trend of the NBA today, but it works for Coach Vogel. Not having to heavily rely on the play of one person makes this team dangerous, especially late in games, and late in the season. All five starters have the confidence and the ability to make a game-winning shot, and most of them have done so.
With veteran players like Granger and David West, we know what we're getting. George Hill and Roy Hibbert just received enormous paychecks that should solidify their places for years to come.
What most fans are waiting for now is for Paul to take over as the leader of this team. He isn't close to being that guy yet, but he is getting there. After a couple more seasons of honing his skills, developing his body and becoming more mature, he should be ready to be the face of this franchise. He is definitely on the right path, and that's all you can ask for at this point.
Every player on this roster has something they need to improve on, and Paul is no exception. It's not easy for a 6'10" player to play the shooting guard position, but he does. It's no secret he needs to work on his ball-handling, as well as his jump shot in traffic.
The more he realizes his advantages on offense (like his height and length), the more efficient he can become. He might not get to the level that Kevin Durant is at now, but the potential is there. Granger and West have reached the prime of their careers, so now it is up to Hibbert, Hill and George to help get this team to the top.
Nobody is going to say that the Heat are beatable come playoff time, but don't tell the Pacers that. The players on this team know they can hang with Miami, and they know they match up well against them. They realize they missed a golden opportunity last year at home in Game 4 of their playoff series, but that loss should motivate them to have another successful season.