It's the perfect storm for the Indiana Pacers.
With the best record in the Eastern Conference, a starting lineup that has no weak links, the league's best defensive scheme (and top results), the pole position in the race for home-court advantage and chemistry oozing out of everyone's pores, a title feels like a realistic possibility.
There's no time like the present for this squad.
If the franchise is going to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy anytime soon, it'll be at the conclusion of the 2014 playoffs, which means there will need to be a victory over the Miami Heat and then an ensuing NBA Finals series win over the representative from the Western Conference.
Could the Pacers falter this season and then make the leap in the future?
Sure, but it's highly unlikely. At least it's not so probable when compared to the potential for greatness this season has ushered into Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Between the promise of the current roster and the ensuing frustration of the upcoming offseason, it sure feels like now or never for the Pacers.
In Position to Earn Home-Court Advantage
It's a narrative that has lasted throughout the 2013-14 campaign, and it's no less important now. The Pacers are doing everything in their power to earn home-court advantage during the first few rounds of the playoffs, and it's all with one game in mind.
Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals belonged to the Miami Heat, who took down Indiana in front of the fans at AmericanAirlines Arena. Home-court advantage may not have been the only factor in the heartbreaking defeat, but it certainly had a hand in it.
Accordingly, it's been a goal of the Pacers throughout the season.
David West, among others, spoke about the advantage of playing in Indiana before the season:
"Our focus is to be getting Game 7s on our home court," West said. #pacers— Michael Pointer (@michaelpointer) September 27, 2013
"We just know how big home-court advantage is when it comes down to postseason," the rising star told the Showtime host. "That’s one of our main goals this year is to lock up the first seed so we can have the opportunity to play at home throughout the whole playoffs."
Fast forward to February, and the narrative still hasn't shifted.
"It’s not everything," Frank Vogel told Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune, speaking about the importance of that No. 1 seed. "We always make sure we’re understanding that. But we do feel like it can be one of the factors that helps us get over the hill. It is important."
We can't fast forward to the end of the regular season quite yet, but something tells me Vogel and the Pacers will still be preaching about the necessity of earning that top seed in the Eastern Conference. Especially because they have a great chance to lay claim to it in wire-to-wire fashion.
As of March 6, the Pacers are the only team that has clinched a playoff seed, but that's not all they've done. They're also sitting pretty at No. 1 in the Eastern Conference standings, boasting a multiple-game lead over the Miami Heat.
It's not easy to get in a position like this, and the Pacers can't count on getting another chance.
Even if all the pieces are brought back in 2014-15, where's the guarantee? So many things could go wrong, whether it's a major injury to a starter, a spell of bad luck or even the emergence of a new contender.
Maybe the mix of personalities won't create the same sort of stellar chemistry that currently fills the locker room in Indiana.
Forming a great team is hard enough. Building a dynastic one, a franchise that can not only stay elite but also finish No. 1 for consecutive years, is tougher still.
If there's one reason that the Pacers are operating on a one-year title window, though, it's money. This is an organization that isn't willing to spend much when it can avoid doing so, and that will make it awfully difficult to keep the current roster together in the future.
According to ShamSports.com, Indiana already has $65.8 million committed for the 2014-15 season, which is only slightly under the projected luxury-tax line of $75.7 million. Now, fortunately, that's a slightly misleading first figure.
Luis Scola and Donald Sloan are operating under non-guaranteed contracts, so the Pacers could choose to let those backups go, which would free up a little more financial flexibility. Paying only the guaranteed portions would drop the commitment to just under $60 million.
However, that's a mixed blessing.
On one hand, Indiana would have more money to spend. Remember, Indiana team president Larry Bird is on the record as saying the organization will not go into the luxury tax for any reason.
"Would he (team owner Herb Simon pay the luxury tax)? I don't know," Bird told The Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz earlier this season. "I do what he tells me to do. Right now, his thing is we can't pay the luxury tax. It's like Oklahoma City; we're in the same position. If Herbie came to me, sure, we'd definitely talk about it."
But as Kravitz postulates, "The Pacers aren't going to pay the luxury tax, unless team owner Herb Simon has an epiphany, and there's the not-so-small matter of re-signing free agent-to-be Lance Stephenson next summer."
And that's a perfect segue to the proverbial other hand, because the Pacers would have even more holes to fill should they get rid of the non-guaranteed deals, and it's not like the bench is already in tip-top shape.
If the salary dropped to just under $60 million, Indiana would have the following players under contract: Roy Hibbert, David West, George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Paul George, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson and Solomon Hill.
That's it. The group no longer includes a number of players, including Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, two unknown commodities who have a chance at helping out this season before they hit the open market once again.
You're looking at a starting lineup that's missing Lance Stephenson and a bench led by Mahinmi, Copeland and Watson. Not a very promising bunch, and one that could easily be looked at as a group capable of preventing the Pacers from earning a title.
Now the Pacers are almost certainly going to look at bringing Stephenson back, but he'll be expensive.
Rival execs predicting Lance Stephenson will be worth between $7 and $9 million per season in a multi year deal this summer— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) December 29, 2013
"Try telling yourself Stephenson couldn't easily negotiate a contract worth more than $6.9 million in its first year. You'll fail," writes B/R's Dan Favale. "Because it's going to happen. Stephenson, at worst, is going to be priced near $10 million annually, well outside Indy's present financial means."
Sure, the Pacers could afford to bring him back, but that's preventing them from adding any pieces of value to the bench. They'd be looking at veteran minimums and rookie-scale deals to patch up a worse-than-lackluster second unit.
Oh, and you can forget about Indiana bringing in a high-upside player from the first round of the much-ballyhooed 2014 draft class. That selection is going to the Phoenix Suns as part of the deal that brought Scola into town.
Essentially, the Pacers are dealing with the dreaded lose-lose situation in 2014-15.
Will the Pacers be in position to compete for the 2015 title?
Behind door No. 1 is an identical starting lineup with no bench to speak of. Behind door No. 2 is a starting lineup without Stephenson—who can be credited with much of the team's success, particularly on offense—but a slightly upgraded core of backups.
While either situation leaves enough stellar players for Indiana to have a shot at holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy, the odds are inevitably going to be worse. Neither choice would make them anything close to the favorites, assuming the Heat stick together or another team takes a big step in the right direction.
That, more so than anything else, is why there's no time like the present.