5 Reasons Indiana Pacers Are Legit Title Favorites

Poch de la RosaContributor IIIDecember 14, 2013

5 Reasons Indiana Pacers Are Legit Title Favorites

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    At 20-3, the Indiana Pacers are serving notice to the entire league they are legit title favorites.  

    At the rate Indy is going, it is "on pace to win 71 games," per Pacers.com's Mark Montieth. Even if his assessment proves to be accurate in the end, the Pacers aren't going to settle for anything less than the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 

    Heading into its five-game West Coast road trip, Indiana was out to prove its 15-1 start was no fluke. It wound up 3-2, including statement wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs.

    The Pacers' 90-84 victory on Dec. 10 against the reigning NBA champions, the Miami Heat, proved they are the best in what has been a disappointing Eastern Conference. 

    Of course, another victory over Miami on Dec. 18 would further solidify the Pacers' status as early-season title favorites. 

    From Frank Vogel to Paul George, there are five reasons why Indiana is the cream of the crop in the NBA. 

Frank Vogel

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    True, Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel hasn't won NBA Coach of the Year honors. 

    Not yet, anyway.

    Vogel's Eastern Conference Coach of the Month Award in November is definitely a good start, and there's no denying he's one main reason why the Indiana Pacers have never looked so good this early in the season in a long time.

    Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix wrote on Dec. 11 what Vogel means to the Pacers: 

    In Indiana, his influence is everywhere, from the rise to stardom of Paul George to the rapid development of Roy Hibbert

    In Vogel, the Pacers have a coach who shares their relentless work ethic, who hasn't gift wrapped his opportunity because of a storied playing career or glitzy resume in the college ranks. He is one of them. He is them. 

    Consider also how far Vogel has gone ever since he took over from Jim O'Brien in 2011:

    • 2010-11 (37-45): 4-1 loss to the Chicago Bulls in the first round
    • 2011-12 (42-24): 4-2 loss to the Miami Heat in the second round
    • 2012-13 (49-32): 4-3 loss to the Miami Heat in the third round

    It wasn't an easy, overnight process. Vogel inherited an underachieving bunch, made some tweaks in the lineup and transformed it into the defensive juggernaut that it is today.

    Notice a trend in Vogel's playoff resume? 

    He's taken Indy further every year, and the 2013-14 season could very well be the year when the team wins it all. 


Improved Bench

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    Larry Bird's offseason handiwork has paid good dividends for the Indiana Pacers. 

    The bench, particularly C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, has given the team a big lift. Through the team's first 22 games, Watson has been averaging 6.7 points and two assists per game. 

    Granted, he's shooting just 39 percent from the field, but he has shown more end-game poise and savvy than D.J. Augustin did.  

    On the other hand, Scola has adjusted nicely to his new role off the bench. Even though he's scoring a career-low 8.3 points per contest, he gives the Pacers an added scoring dimension which Tyler Hansbrough couldn't when he was around. 

    No less than Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade praised the Pacers for overhauling their bench when he spoke with Pacers.com's Wheat Hotchkiss on Dec. 11:

    Getting Scola, Scola's hugehis IQ of the game, his ability to pass and also to score. Obviously, bringing C.J. Watson onthey did a good job. As I said before the game, they did a good job of making their team better this year. 

    Chris Copeland, the other offseason acquisition, has yet to hit his stride.

    However, looking at the best-case scenario, if he and Danny Granger (upon his return) can produce off the bench, Indiana will be an even deadlier title contender to be reckoned with. 

Stifling Defense

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    When 2013 training camp kicked off, Indiana head coach Frank Vogel told his squad, as reported by Pacers.com's Scott Agness,"We want to be the nastiest, most physical team in the league." 

    Vogel turned out to be a clairvoyant. 

    The Pacers have allowed an average of just 89.3 points per game through their first 22 games, best in the NBA. No other team limits its opponents to fewer than 90 points. 

    At the center of it all is Roy Hibbert, the league's second-leading shot blocker with an average of three. 

    When ESPN's Henry Abbott did some research on NBA.com on Dec. 11 to figure out who is the best two-player combination "in terms of holding opponents to the fewest points per possession," he discovered it's Hibbert and power forward David West

    Digging deeper, Abbott made some more startling discoveries.

    The second-best combination out of the whole league? Hibbert and Paul George. Fourth-best is Hibbert and George Hill. 

    Amazingly, Pacers account for nine of the league's dozen most effective two-player combinations and Hibbert is part of most of 'em. 

    It's not just about Hibbert, however. 

    Abbott gives credit to "almost everybody" in the Pacers' roster (with Chris Copeland being the lone and current exception) for playing great defense. 

    That kind of team effort is what has made the Indiana Pacers a legitimate title contender. 


Players Rising to the Occasion

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    For the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers, it's all about different players rising to the occasion. 

    Case No. 1: George Hill, who is shooting just 40.3 percent from the field, has upped his blocks and steals averages to career highs of 0.5 and 1.2, respectively.

    Case No. 2: Luis Scola, as previously mentioned, has adjusted well to his new role off the bench after being a starter during his first six pro seasons. He is currently shooting a respectable 51 percent. 

    Case No. 3: David West focuses on other aspects of his game if he can't get it going on offense. When he shot 4-of-13 against the New York Knicks on Nov. 20, he snagged 10 rebounds. 

    When he produced a 35.7 percent shooting clip against the Utah Jazz on Dec. 4, he dished out eight assists. 

    Both of those games ended up in the win column for Indiana. 

    A bigger case can stated for Lance Stephenson, who has all but made Danny Granger an afterthought. Stephenson continues to display an impressive all-around game that is made even better by his much-improved passing skills. 

    As a matter of fact, "Born Ready" came up big yet again on Dec. 13 against the Charlotte Bobcats when Paul George struggled on 2-of-12 shooting. 

    Stephenson's stat line for that game: 20 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. 

    All in all, this is an Indiana Pacers squad that is deep, versatile, disciplined and hungry. Any player can rise to the occasion on any given night.  

    That is why Indy is the NBA's best team. 

Paul George

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    Every title contender has a franchise player who sets the tone.

    The Miami Heat have LeBron James while the Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant

    For the Indiana Pacers, it's Paul George.

    This season, George has proven to everybody that he is deserving to be the new face of the franchise. He has been averaging 24.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game through Dec. 13. 

    Reggie Miller-esque numbers, indeed.

    Not only is George the franchise player of the NBA's best team, he is also in the discussion for 2014 NBA MVP.

    Consider some of the findings of ESPN's Sunny Saini on Dec. 11: 

    George scores 25 percent of the Pacers' points and leads the NBA in defensive win shares for the second straight season. He is tied for second with Durant with 4.4 win shares overall, behind LeBron's 4.5. 

    Win shares are an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player on offense and defense.

    Saini also emphasizes the connection between an MVP candidate and the number of wins his team has.

    The NBA MVP award has been given to a player on a team that finished with the best record 58 percent of the time since 1990 and in four of the past five seasons. 

    If George continues to lead the Pacers to a No. 1 seed, he could become the first Pacers player to win the NBA MVP award.

    Make no mistake about it, MVP candidate Paul George is one of the main reasons why the Indiana Pacers are legitimate title contenders. 

    Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are accurate as of Dec. 12 and are courtesy of ESPN.com.