With the NBA lockout in full swing, if games can't be played then predictions must be made.
A year after surprising the Chicago Bulls with their determination and toughness during a hard-fought, five-game opening series (a series which they really should have won), the Indiana Pacers are once again on the rise and a dark horse to challenge in the East.
Here is a position-by-position projected look at how the Pacers match up in the Eastern Conference:
After averaging 13.2 points and 5.1 assists per game, Collison has a chance to take his game to the next level with a full year under his belt in the Indiana offense. One of the best young point guards in the game, Collison could conceivably pass former UCLA teammate Jrue Holliday and move into the top five with a breakout campaign.
1. Chicago: Derrick Rose
2. New Jersey: Deron Williams
3. Boston: Rajon Rondo
5. Philadelphia: Jrue Holliday
6. Indiana: Darren Collison
7. New York: Chauncey Billups
8. Toronto: Jose Calderon
9. Orlando: Jameer Nelson
10. Cleveland: Kyrie Irving
11. Milwaukee: Brandon Jennings
12. Charlotte D.J. Augustin
13. Detroit: Will Bynum/Rodney Stuckey
14. Miami: Mike Bibby/Mario Chalmers
Paul George is a potential big-time star. Playing out of position at shooting guard, the Pacers will try and get the most out of both George and All-Star forward Danny Granger. Whether that hurts George's production remains to be seen.
However, expect a big leap and even bigger numbers for the second-year star as he continues to get more comfortable and develop his scoring repertoire.
1. Miami: Dwyane Wade
2. Boston: Ray Allen
3. Atlanta: Joe Johnson
4: Toronto: DeMar DeRozan
5. New Jersey: Anthony Morrow
6. Indiana: Paul George
7. Orlando: Jason Richardson
8. New York: Landry Fields
9. Philadelphia: Jodie Meeks/Evan Turner
10. Milwaukee Bucks: Steven Jackson
11. Detroit: Rip Hamilton/Ben Gordon
12. Charlotte: Gerald Henderson
13. Chicago: Keith Bogans
14. Cleveland: Anthony Parker
Small forward is where the battles in the Eastern Conference will be decided. It's the position with all the firepower and fortunately for the Pacers, Danny Granger can more than hold his own.
An All-Star talent, Danny Granger—with the help of Big Roy—will have to carry the Pacers if they hope to go far. The Pacers have plenty of supporting cast members but few stars. It's time for Granger to take his game to the next level and take the lead in closing out games in the fourth quarter.
1. Miami: LeBron James
2. New York: Carmelo Anthony
3. Boston: Paul Pierce
4. Indiana: Danny Granger
5. Chicago: Luol Deng
6. Philadelphia: Andre Iguodala
7. Atlanta: Marvin Williams
8. Cleveland: Tristan Thompson
9. Orlando: Hedo Turkoglu
10. Charlotte: Corey Maggette
11. New Jersey: Travis Outlaw
12. Milwaukee: Carlos Delfino
13. Washington: Jan Vesely (if he comes)/Chris Singleton
14. James Johnson/Sonny Weems
As much as Pacer fans love Tyler Hansbrough's intensity, effort and heart, he shouldn't be starting. A perfect role player, putting Hansbrough in the starting lineup limits the spark and impact he can have coming off the bench.
There is a lot of speculation that when the lockout ends, the Pacers will go after a starting-caliber power forward such as Utah's Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap through a trade or try to sign New Orleans' David West in free agency. If they can, the Pacers should shoot up this list. For now though, power forward looks to be the Pacers' main position of weakness.
1. New York: Amar'e Stoudemire
2. Miami: Chris Bosh
3. Chicago: Carlos Boozer
4. Atlanta: Josh Smith
5. Washington: Andray Blatche
6. Philadelphia: Thaddeus Young/Elton Brand
7. Boston: Kevin Garnett
8. Cleveland: Antawn Jamison
9. Charlotte: Boris Diaw
10. Indiana: Tyler Hansbrough (Pacers move into top five if they land David West through FA)
11. New Jersey: Kris Kardashian—er, Humphries (I almost put him last just because he is such a disgrace)
12. Toronto: Amir Johnson
13. Detroit: Charlie Villanueva
13. Milwaukee: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute/Tobias Harris
This will be Roy Hibbert's breakout year. Look out Eastern Conference—the former beast of the Big East will finally be unleashed in the NBA and put up monster numbers.
Don't be surprised to see 20 and 12 from Hibbert as he takes his game to a whole other level, solidifying himself as the conference's second-best big man behind Dwight Howard. If and when he does, the Pacers should challenge the elite of the conference.
1. Orlando: Dwight Howard
2. Indiana: Roy Hibbert
3. Toronto: Andrea Bargnani
4. Milwaukee: Andrew Bogut
5. New Jersey: Brook Lopez
6. Atlanta: Al Horford
7. Chicago: Joakim Noah
8. Detroit: Greg Monroe
9. Washington: JaVale McGee
10. Philadelphia: Spencer Hawes
10. Cleveland: Anderson Varejao/Ryan Hollins
11. Boston: Jermaine O'Neal
12. New York: Ronny Turiaf
13. Miami: Center by Committee
14. Charlotte: Kwame Brown/Bismack Biyombo
Because of the lockout, I've held off on addressing the bench and coaching staff, figuring there will be too much change and turnover to give an accurate portrayal.
However, with a (very) unofficial average of 5.6 points per starter (28 total points divided by five) the Pacers look to be in good position.
If Granger can come through more often in the clutch and Hibbert has the monster season Pacer fans are hoping for and predicting, expect the Pacers to push for a No. 4 or 5 ranking in the Eastern Conference.