Paul George (L) and Roy Hibbert have helped the Indiana Pacers establish an Eastern Conference-best 40-12 record before the 2014 All-Star break.
In spite of the Indiana Pacers having an Eastern Conference-best 41-13 win-loss record through Feb. 19, making post-NBA All-Star break predictions for the team can be a tricky issue.
For one, Indy has lost three of its last five games.
Second, Paul George has to be more consistent. Prior to averaging almost 31 points against the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves, shooting bricks was the trend for the Pacers' franchise player before the All-Star break.
A team that was projected to win 70 games or so at the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign has tailed off somewhat, already losing its 13th game.
That being said, the Pacers should be ready to establish themselves as the league's best team once the season's second half kicks off.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.
Indiana Pacers backup center Andrew Bynum hasn't seen action since Dec. 26.
It seems like eons ago when Andrew Bynum was at his best as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 2011-12 NBA season was his best, averaging 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He was a shell of his old self with the Cleveland Cavaliers as he was hampered by knee and weight issues.
The bigger issue remains: Will Andrew Bynum actually resuscitate his once-promising NBA career in Indy?
Yes—if his banged-up knees manage to hold up.
For a player with so much potential that has gone down the drain, Bynum finds himself in an ideal situation. Pacers president Larry Bird and veteran David West, among others, won't tolerate any lackadaisical behavior from their new backup center.
With these guys around, you can be sure Bynum will have to work harder than he ever did before, or else he's gone.
Indiana head coach Frank Vogel told Scott Agness of Pacers.com on Feb. 13 how he envisions Bynum fitting in with his team:
The plan with Andrew Bynum is to use the end of the season to get him acclimated and up to speed and to have him be a force for us in the playoffs. That's the goal. Everything is with that in mind.
Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel
Frank Vogel for 2013-14 NBA Coach of the Year.
Pacers forward Paul George explained why when he spoke with USA Today's Sam Amick on Feb. 11:
To be honest he should be hands down Coach of the Year with what he did with us. A lot of coaches are just blessed with guys coming to their team and being blessed with their talents off that.
But what coach Vogel did is he really highlighted every player's strengths into the offense and allowed us to just play our game and play at our tempo and gave us that freedom to be us.
He has put a lot of work into us, put a lot of time into us. He really just changed the whole culture of this locker room. He takes most of the credit for why we're so good this year.
Vogel has made a statement by winning Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors for games played in October and November and being named the head coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars.
By doing so, Cooper stresses Vogel now ranks fourth on the Pacers' all-time coaching victories behind Bobby "Slick" Leonard (529), Larry Brown (190) and Rick Carlisle (181).
In addition, Vogel also owns the highest winning percentage among Pacers coaches (.640) and is one of the reasons why Indiana has progressed steadily in the playoffs the past three seasons.
But make no mistake about it, Vogel should be in the conversation for that accolade.
Lance Stephenson of Indiana (L) has displayed his full arsenal this season.
There are several worthy candidates for 2014 NBA Most Improved Player.
Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans is one.
Arron Afflalo of the Orlando Magic is another.
Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee of the Phoenix Suns should also be in the conversation.
But why not Lance Stephenson?
With Paul George taking on more of the scoring load this year, Stephenson has displayed his full arsenal. He has improved his field-goal (.460 to .501), three-point (.330 to .336) and free-throw shooting (.652 to .697) accuracy while almost doubling his rebounding numbers (3.9 to 7.2).
In 51 games this year, he has been averaging 14.1 points per game, according to ESPN. This represents an increase of 5.3 points from last season.
For good measure, ESPN's Forecast Panel posted a Jan. 22 update which indicates Stephenson as the front-runner for the accolade.
Part of it reads, "Our ESPN Forecast panel has Indiana's Lance Stephenson leading the way with 20 first-place votes and teammate Paul George, who won the MIP award last season, rounding out the top five."
Stephenson would be a nice addition to a list of NBA Most Improved Player of the Year winners which features several Pacers—Jalen Rose (2000), Jermaine O'Neal (2002), Danny Granger (2009) and Paul George (2013).
This also serves as a perfect vindication for his recent All-Star snub.
The Great Wall of Hibbert (R) continues to impose his will in the lane for the Indiana Pacers.
All season long, the battle for league supremacy in defense has involved the Oklahoma City Thunder's Serge Ibaka, the New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis, the Indiana Pacers' Roy Hibbert and the Los Angeles Clippers' DeAndre Jordan.
In fact, they are currently ranked in that particular order in terms of defensive rating, per NBA.com.
Hibbert, in particular, started the season strong, recording seven and eight blocks in two separate games last November.
He tailed off in December before recovering nicely to average 2.5 blocks per contest through Feb. 19.
However, among the four, Davis is the most versatile defender, averaging 1.6 steals while allowing an average of just 2.8 made field goals at the rim, according to the NBA.com stat sheet.
Davis is certainly serving notice he should be Defensive Player of the Year. However, his Pelicans (23-29) are not expected to make the postseason with the way things are going.
This whittles the field down to Ibaka, Hibbert and Jordan.
All three men are imposing defenders and great intimidators in their own right. However, Hibbert anchors a Pacers team defense that allows an average of just 90.5 points—currently best in the entire league.
Additionally, Hibbert ranks second in defensive win shares (3.9), per Basketball-Reference.com.
The Great Wall of Hibbert for 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
In spite of his recent struggles, Paul George has lived up to the hype as the Pacers' franchise player.
Paul George has definitely arrived.
The versatile George, who is averaging 22.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists through Feb. 19, is the best player of the Eastern Conference's best team.
However, with reigning MVP LeBron James and probable MVP Kevin Durant in the way, it would be unrealistic for the 23-year-old George to crack the 2014 All-NBA First Team.
He has a more realistic shot at making the Second Team.
After making the All-NBA Third Team in 2012-13, there's no reason to believe George will not be able to move up. He, just like do-it-all teammate Lance Stephenson, has taken his game to new heights this year.
This is what franchise players do.
Granted, PG has struggled as of late, shooting just 38 percent this month. January wasn't any better, as he shot a paltry 41 percent from the floor.
The issue with him is he has a tendency to force his shots, especially when opposing defenses are clamping down on him.
However, if his 26-point and 35-point outbursts against the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves are any indication, he should have a better second half of the season.
Take it from Pacers president Larry Bird, who told Pablo S. Torre of ESPN The Magazine on Feb. 19 George has what it takes to be mentioned in the same breath as Scottie Pippen.
Bird said,"There are a lot of similarities to Scottie. He's got a good chance to do a lot of things that Scottie's done."
C.J. Watson (R) and the Pacers lost to the Denver Nuggets 109-96 on Jan. 25, the second of back-to-back West Coast road games.
Six of the Pacers' 13 losses are from the second of back-to-back games.
Quite frankly, it's one disturbing trend this season that Indiana has failed to remedy.
With a team of the Pacers' caliber, they should have beaten the likes of the Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets in the second of back-to-back games.
But they didn't.
In their latest debacle, they let Kevin Love score 42 points in a 104-91 road loss to a mediocre Minnesota Timberwolves team.
Even if the Pacers don't play back-to-back games, they have a penchant for being unpredictable. How about their horrid offense in a home loss to the Dallas Mavericks?
Those five teams are a combined 136-134 (.504) as of Feb. 19. One of them, the Pistons (who are 10 games below .500), dealt Indy its first home loss.
If the Pacers are to be title contenders, they should stop losing to teams they should not lose to.
We definitely don't want this to keep up. However, unless the Pacers dig deeper and try to figure out why losing the second of back-to-back games has been their kryptonite, it will continue.
On the other hand, don't expect a team this talented to falter come playoff time.
The Indiana Pacers are primed to win their first NBA title in 2013-14.
The Indiana Pacers' biggest stumbling block the past two seasons has been the Miami Heat, losing 4-2 in the 2012 semifinals and 4-3 in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.
Third time should be the charm for Indy.
In what has been practically a two-team dominance in the Eastern Conference this season, it should boil down to another Indiana-Miami showdown for the right to move on to the NBA Finals.
Last year, it was obvious Indiana's bench was the main detriment in the loss to Miami. Now, Bird and Co. have plugged the necessary holes with Luis Scola and C.J. Watson.
Count on Danny Granger and even Andrew Bynum and Rasual Butler to contribute off the bench.
It took Reggie Miller three attempts to get past the rival New York Knicks in the postseason.
This year's Indiana Pacers will find themselves in that same situation against the Heat.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert said so himself in a Feb. 17 interview with ESPN and Grantland's Bill Simmons (via the Indianapolis Star):
I have nothing against Chris (Bosh), LeBron (James), D-Wade. I love Birdman. Whenever he checks in the game, I'm always like,'Birdman! Birdman!'
I have nothing against those guys. It's competition. I don't hate them. I want to beat those guys so bad. They're talking about three-peating. Nah, we're going to stop that.