How good are the Indiana Pacers?
Yes, they have the best record in the Eastern Conference at 35-9. Yes, they just cruised past the Los Angeles Lakers by a final score of 104-92, despite their leading scorer hitting just 4-of-21 shots from the field. And yes, their league-best defensive rating of 93.8 is much better than the 98.1 of the second-place Chicago Bulls.
But who among you can step forward and declare without any hesitation that the Pacers will beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals? Who's confident enough in this team to predict an NBA title?
As good as Indiana is, the lurking threat of the Heat (and more specifically LeBron James) is very real. In last season's seven-game series between Miami and Indiana, LeBron averaged 29 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from three-point range.
Paul George and Lance Stephenson are great defenders, and no one can fault their effort last year, but those numbers don't exactly suggest they were able to slow LeBron down. In fact, it was his highest scoring series of the entire playoff run, and the only team that allowed him to shoot a higher percentage from the field was the Milwaukee Bucks.
And while George and Stephenson have certainly been better this season (especially Stephenson), neither is a perfect counter for LeBron. That's not a knock on them, because with the possible exception of Kevin Durant, no one is.
So the strategy would have to be: Throw as many different bodies at LeBron as you can and hope that he at least flinches. Last summer, that didn't work. But now, Indiana has a few more guys on the wing and could potentially add another.
Take for example, Memphis' Tony Allen, who's been out with a hand injury since Jan. 7. Since he went down, the Memphis Grizzlies have been surging. They're 8-1 over that period as Courtney Lee has started in place of Allen.
That's led some to speculate on the potential availability of the Grindfather on the trade market. SB Nation's Joe Mullinax proposed as much last week. And during Tuesday night's NBA action, Bleacher Report's Joel Cordes threw out the possibility of Indiana offering Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill and a draft pick for Memphis' defensive ace who a few years back had the assignment of covering LeBron as a member of the Boston Celtics.
Allen would give Indiana a third quality option (along with Stephenson and George) to throw at Miami's best player over the course of a playoff series, with Danny Granger and David West as possible last resorts.
The only problem with the deal is that it's a bit of an "all-in" move. Allen is on the books for three more seasons after this one, at an average of over $5 million a year. With Stephenson's contract expiring this summer, Indiana is likely looking to preserve as much cap space as possible in order to re-sign him.
For that reason, any deal that ties up funds beyond this summer is tricky.
If the Pacers want to avoid that, they could look at making a "rental" for the stretch run. Trading for someone who's on an expiring deal, knowing they may not be able to retain that player in the summer.
The Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry could that fit that billing. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, he's still on the market despite Toronto's surprising playoff push:
Trade rumble: Sense around league remains Toronto more likely to trade Kyle Lowry than keep him to prevent losing asset for nothing. But ...— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 27, 2014
Issue here hasn't changed: No team out there willing YET to meet Raps' asking price for PG who, nice as he's playin, can bolt in free agency— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 27, 2014
That asking price may be high now, but teams often scramble at the trade deadline and become a little easier to reason with in negotiations.
If Toronto's Masai Ujiri finds that the haul for his point guard won't be as rich as he thought, a deal of Lowry and Landry Fields for Danny Granger, Solomon Hill and a draft pick might look enticing.
For the Raptors, they get a couple more prospects in Hill and whomever the draft pick winds up being, plus they shed the contract of Fields and can let Granger walk this summer.
Indy would shore up its point guard situation (a one-two punch of George Hill and Lowry would be one of the best point guard tandems in the league). And though Lowry isn't a wing that can be thrown at LeBron, he'd still be a huge offensive spark on the second unit.
With Fields, they'd run into a similar problem as the one detailed regarding Allen. But Fields' deal only goes one more season beyond this one. So if they took a hit and went into the luxury tax to re-sign Stephenson, it would be for just one year.
Really, that pending free-agency situation is what will make doing any kind of deal difficult for Indiana, but there will be options in February.
If Orlando really wants to go full-bore on tanking and the 2014 draft, it might look to move Arron Afflalo. In combination with Jameer Nelson, Afflalo's deal could be swapped for Danny Granger's and a draft pick.
That would offer tons of financial flexibility for Orlando and beef up Indiana's backcourt rotation. The problem here again is Stephenson. If they added Afflalo (whose deal pays more per year than Allen's) they'd essentially be conceding the loss of their current starting shooting guard in a couple months. Who knows what that might do to upset chemistry?
Another swing for the fences could be a three-team deal with the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz—again, suggested by Cordes.
This one would have Indiana receiving Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy and Ian Clark, Utah receiving Danny Granger, Erik Murphy and a draft pick from the Pacers and Chicago receiving Marvin Williams and Jeremy Evans.
For Indiana, Hinrich can defend both guard positions, and Dunleavy would provide spacing. Utah gets another crack at the 2014 draft without losing their current financial flexibility. And Chicago saves a few million dollars to put toward a potential max free agent in the summer.
None of this is to suggest Indiana has to make a deal to compete with or beat Miami. And obviously, all of the ideas here are drastic—or like I said earlier, "all-in."
Indiana is already very deep and playing with a great deal of chemistry. It's very evident in performances like Tuesday's, when they're taking care of the ball and playing solid defense within their scheme:
And while there are definitely arguments to be made that the Pacers are already the best team in the NBA, you can't help but wonder about that not-so-little threat in South Beach. You know, the team that won the last two titles and knocked out the Pacers along the way both times.