Injuries, departures, poor play of the new additions, and zero help from the draft have all been issues for the Indiana Pacers in the first two months of the NBA season, but heading into 2013, the Pacers have weathered the storm.
The Pacers are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with five days left in 2012, which is where teams want to be to obtain home court in the first round of the playoffs.
If you only read online blogs and Twitter, you would probably think the Pacers were 10 games under .500, when in fact they are 16-12 and seemingly improving every game.
How has this happened? It has been a variety of factors that has led to the Pacers finding an identity and looking like the Pacers from the second half of last year.
First, it obviously took some time to adjust to the loss of Danny Granger. They started the year 3-6. Four of those losses came by three points or less, while two were blowouts. The new additions, DJ Augustin, Gerald Green, and Ian Mahinmi were huge disappointments. The rookies, Orlando Johnson and Miles Plumlee were nowhere to be found, Roy Hibbert looked lost, and Paul George looked overmatched and overwhelmed without Danny Granger as a security blanket.
Then, they started to put some things together. They clawed their way back to .500, helped in large part to a 3-1 road trip, which included wins in L.A. over the Lakers and in Chicago against the Bulls. They have now won six of their last seven. Yes, the competition has been weak over the last seven games, but wins are wins, and for a young team, confidence breeds victories, which is what we have seen with the Pacers.
David West, who was the lone consistent player on the Pacers for the first 10-15 games, has continued to be a rock. He shouldered the load in New Orleans in the Pacers last game, and continues to be a handful inside.
George Hill has gotten better at picking his spots and looks every bit like he could be the point guard on a really good team. His floater game has taken a step up this season and is almost unguardable when he has it going. He also has shown the fearlessness to take the big shot, just ask Toronto, or Pau Gasol.
Roy Hibbert has become one of the premier interior defenders in the league. He still is having trouble finishing around the rim at times, which apparently may have something to do with a wrist problem, but has stepped up his defense and passing to make up for his lack of scoring.
Lance Stephenson has become an actual NBA player as opposed to purely an energy guy who can get hot. Stephenson has figured out to how push the tempo and use his athleticism to get to the rim.
The new players have improved as well. Gerald Green is still not what many hoped he would be, but he has looked more comfortable of late. DJ Augustin was a disaster early in the season, even losing his job to Ben Hansbrough, but will be back as George Hill's backup tomorrow night. Ian Mahinmi has been a better backup to Roy Hibbert in the last two weeks than the Pacers have seen in a couple years. And, of course, Tyler Hansbrough continues to be, well, Tyler Hansbrough.
Perhaps the most important revelation to the future of the Pacers is that Paul George has gained some confidence and swagger over the last three weeks. His scoring average is now at 16.3 ppg on the season, which is five points higher than his career average. His perimeter defense has been fantastic, and he is rebounding at a 7.1 rpg clip.
The Pacers do not look like a title contender. Not yet. But they have weathered the early season storm, and are sitting in playoff contention. They will have to beat some better competition (Atlanta and Memphis in their next three games), and continue to get some production from the bench.
They will also have to figure out how to integrate Danny Granger in a little over a month. A lot of trade talk has included Granger's name, but it is likely he will have to play for the Pacers before they can get good value for him anyway, which means Frank Vogel will have to include him in the Pacers future plans.
The next month will be crucial to the Pacers future. Will they fall out of the Central lead? Will they continue to improve, fueling the fire to Granger trade talks? A lot remains to be seen with this team, but one thing is certain: despite the early disappointment, the Pacers are back to being a team to keep an eye on.