The Indiana Pacers have the typical misfortune of having their weaknesses woefully mischaracterized. Indy's lineup (and bench, and coaching staff) is bereft of big names and star power—a team that was held dear by its local fanbase for a working class mentality without much Hollywood appeal.
Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert are about as flashy as the Pacers get these days, keeping the team's national TV appearances at a minimum and their national appeal to an understated buzz.
Can these Pacers contend without a true superstar? Absolutely. Can these Pacers contend as currently constructed? Well, that's another question entirely.
Glancing down the depth chart
Those harping on the Pacers' starting lineup for Indiana's competitive limitations are missing the point a bit; even a quick trip through Indiana's lineup data from last season shows the high-minute starting five to be an incredibly effective group, all while reserve-driven lineups sunk the Pacers' overall efficiency.
Therein lies the problem. Indiana's starting lineup meshes well and performs well enough in virtually every phase of the game, but really struggles when the reserves are forced to create for themselves. Frank Vogel is surely hoping that changes in the season to come, but until a remodeled Pacers bench proves itself capable of producing points without substantial assistance, Indy will remain a second-tier team with mere dreams of championship contention.
They're a respectable outfit nonetheless, but the Pacers are still waiting for the bench to develop into the kind of asset that their balanced style of play demands.
Shot creation by committee and specific advantage
Let's talk about that balance. Most teams thrive by feeding off of one or two (or three, in this superstar era of ours) players, but the Pacers do well by leaning fairly equally on their core five. Granger, Hibbert, David West, George Hill and Paul George can all create in the right circumstances, and it's up to the players on the floor to seek out specific advantages wherever they may emerge.
In some games, Hibbert's ability to back down opponents in the low post may be a crucial source of offense. In others, he may be more useful orchestrating from the high post while West goes to work on the low block.
Granger can be an asset in the pick and roll, but he's also a great slasher and a spot-up shooter.
Each member of the starting five has a wide variety of applications and the flexibility to fit into any number of roles. That makes this team uniquely capable of exploiting their opponent's weaknesses, and a great petri dish for exploring the implications of shot creation by committee.
Many basketball coaches, players and fans still aren't sold on the fact that a team can thrive without ball-dominant players. Every team is said to belong to someone, and players themselves are lambasted when they don't appear capable of being "The Man."
But under the right circumstances, stardom becomes irrelevant. So long as a perfect balance of skills and creative ability are aligned, a team can produce efficiently on offense without a single player traditionally defined as a superstar.
That's what these Pacers are striving for, and in truth: they're damn close. They may seem far removed from the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, but with development, continuity and a more productive bench, they could very well shock the world. It's just going to take time and legitimate improvement, and for now, it's far too early yet.