The Indiana Pacers aren't going anywhere.
Few envisioned the blue-collar Pacers exuding enough gold swagger to contend with the Miami Heat—or a handful of other title hopefuls in the Eastern Conference, for that matter.
Sans Danny Granger and having overpaid (or so we thought) George Hill and Roy Hibbert over the offseason, this team wasn't supposed to garner championship consideration. They weren't some vaunted contender that would push the Heat or New York Knicks or Boston Celtics or Brooklyn Nets to the brink. They were who they were—a proletarian defensive outfit void of enough fire power to take the next step.
Yet, here Indy sits, to the dismay of pretty much everyone, one Game 7 victory away from an NBA Finals berth.
Simply incredible, though not for much longer.
Win or lose, these Pacers aren't fooling anyone moving forward. They've flown—existed really—under the radar for the entire season, but no more.
When they compete for the championship over the next few seasons, their relevance won't be portrayed as a surprise or fleeting miracle—it will just be the Pacers doing what they do.
To be sure, the Heat are still the favorites to come out of the East now. Falling to the Pacers won't change much leading into next season, either. Barring a premature dismantling of Miami's Big Three, the Heat will remain the favorites next year as well. And that's how it should be.
Any team LeBron James calls his own isn't merely a threat, it's the standard. Even if Dwyane Wade continues to toil in statistical obscurity and Chris Bosh plays like South Beach is compensating him with the mid-level exemption, the Heat are the ultimate (Eastern Conference) contenders.
There's also the Pacers.
The East isn't on the precipice of undergoing a structural makeover, unless you still feel the need to classify Indiana's rise to prominence as "change." Aside from Derrick Rose returning to the Chicago Bulls next season (we think), there's not a clear threat to the Pacers' reign as "No. 2."
Carmelo Anthony has newfound visions of grandeur for the New York Knicks, though we must operate on the assumption that this is only because he has no concrete understanding of what it means to be capped out, old and just generally screwed.
Those who envision Rajon Rondo as a savior for the Boston Celtics as presently constructed are sorely mistaken. They couldn't win this past season with him. As currently assembled, that's not going to change. Continuing to chase Paul Millsap isn't the answer, either.
Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets would fancy themselves contenders—the rest of us know better.
Who else is there? The Milwaukee Bucks? Funny. The Philadelphia 76ers? Not so much funny as tragic. The Toronto Raptors? So long as they're built around Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, Masai Ujiri himself wouldn't even commit to that.
Looking ahead, the East is wide open. Nearly every team is facing some degree of potentially crippling ambiguity. Even the Heat—especially the Heat.
The Pacers, though? Their biggest problems consist of getting Hill to refrain from pursuing a career in the music industry, re-signing David West (or finding his replacement) and re-integrating a former All-Star into the lineup (in that order).
To believe that the Pacers have peaked would be a joke. It's inanity at its worst.
Indiana won 49 games during the regular season without Granger and without a strong bench (second-to-last in bench points per game), as well as an inconsistent Roy Hibbert and a budding superstar in Paul George, who battled efficiency (41.9 percent shooting) and turnover (2.9 a night) woes while also adjusting to life as an organizational pillar.
The 23-year-old George gets better. Hibbert continues to play like he has in these playoffs, averaging 16.9 points, 10 rebounds and 2.1 blocks on 50.4 percent shooting. And Hill continues to make me look like the jerkiest of jerks for conveying previous disdain for his $40 million contract.
Like I said, it's a joke.
What will it take for people to take the Pacers seriously as a recurring contender?
The Pacers have come this far facing every type of adversity imaginable and are (still) operating without resources plenty of other teams have always had. It's only going to get better from here, which is scary.
Indiana has less than $49 million on the books leading into next season. Even after the Pacers address the West situation, they'll have the financial means to get better. And I could rattle off a bevy of franchises that would be willing to take on Granger if they didn't want him.
This isn't the end of something; this isn't the Pacers hitting their ceiling. It's the start of something special—something stunning.
Something a Game 7 loss won't taint, ruin or marginalize.
*All stats and salary information for this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com or hoopshype.com unless otherwise noted.