Are the Indiana Pacers Ready to Contend for the Eastern Conference?

David DietzContributor IIIFebruary 1, 2012

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 06: Danny Granger #33 of the Indiana Pacers is congratulated by teammate Darren Collison #3 after Granger drew the foul in the second half against the Boston Celtics on January 6, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Indiana Pacers defeated the Boston Celtics 87-74. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

We might as well go ahead and pencil in the Chicago and Miami for the Conference Finals. Clearly they are the two best teams with three of the NBA's top five players on the court. 

Nobody in the East stands a chance, right?

In a normal year maybe, although such a proclamation is still a bit reckless and unfair. But this season is far from ordinary, and predicting the playoff outcomes even for teams like Chicago and Miami is uncertain.

If you are a Bulls or Heat fan, your teams still might get through for what would be an epic conference showdown, but if not, blame David Stern and Billy Hunter.

The decision and agreement to play 66 games over the course of 120 days was driven purely by money, because from a basketball standpoint it's crazy. Already pinched for cash, owners pushed for games to salvage what they could and ultimately prevailed.

The final agreement and the season's schedule however, was irresponsible.

There is no way that players should be forced to subject themselves to such an incessant and overwhelming physical grind. So far, the results are proving the owner's folly. Play has and will continue to be undoubtedly sloppy and marquee players will continue to sit or be forced to miss time with injury.  

Yet while the on-court product might be a lesser standard than we've become accustom to, in some ways the unpredictable toll of fatigue and constant injuries has already taken makes the season fun, exciting and even more compelling.

A shortened and compact schedule flips the script on what has been a superstar-driven league of late. Suddenly, veteran teams (Boston, San Antonio, L.A. Lakers, Dallas), and teams relying on one star player (L.A. Lakers, Orlando, Chicago, New York, New Jersey), are at a relative disadvantage.

Top heavy, big market teams that invested wildly in a few top players are suddenly finding themselves struggling to keep up with less affluent small market teams that give regular minutes to 10 guys a night.

Rising to the top are teams that rely on youth, depth and a very consistent and balanced starting five. 

The Indiana Pacers fit that mold perfectly. Even better news for Indiana is that they will only continue to improve as the season wears on. Unlike teams like the Lakers, Mavericks and Celtics, which are comprised of established veterans and experienced relatively little turnover to key members of their roster, the Pacers were forced to develop their young talent and integrate George Hill and David West on the fly. 

As the team works out its kinks and develops the necessary chemistry, the offense will become more potent, the defense tighter and overall the Pacers will be a tougher opponent come April and May. 

Already, though, Indiana seems to have all the ingredients in place. They have the size, length, balance in scoring, commitment to defense and energy off the bench that would make them a team few opponents would be excited to see in the playoffs. 

In fact, they have a very similar makeup to another Larry Bird-guided team: The 2000 Pacers team.

Today's group is looking and playing a lot like a younger version of the celebrated Indiana squad that reached the Finals before losing to the Kobe and Shaq-led Lakers.

Let's take a look. The Pacers team of 2000 was:

Center: Rik Smits 

Power forward: Dale Davis

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 23: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls goes up for a shot against Roy Hibbert #55, Danny Granger #33 and Dahntay Jones #1 of the Indiana Pacers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Con
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Small forward: Jalen Rose

Shooting Guard: Reggie Miller

Point Guard: Mark Jackson

Like Smits, Hibbert is becoming a dominant big man down low. What Hibbert lacks in scoring he more than makes up in rebounding and his defensive presence. Meanwhile, what West lacks in interior toughness (Dale Davis's strength), he more than compensates for in scoring (Davis' weakness).

Basically, the scoring to rebounding/toughness ratio remains the same.

Looking at small forward spot, Granger is a better version of Jalen Rose, while Reggie Miller was a more potent shooter and obviously more clutch than Paul George. At the point guard spot is UCLA product Darren Collison.

Though Collison sadly hasn't mastered the Jackson Jiggle, he is proving to be more than a competent floor general in the mold of Mark Jackson, who understands and directs the offense.

The benches, too, are quite comparable. Both relied on high-energy players able to pick up the intensity and provide quality minutes in reserve. 

Taking the comparison further, both Pacer squads never had a star player. Winning required a total team effort.

Ultimately, the Indiana team that dominated the late 90s never did raise a championship banner because, Reggie Miller's heroics aside, they never had a superstar player who could single-handedly take over and dominate a game from start to finish the likes of a Lebron, Shaq, Kobe or Rose.

This year's Pacer team doesn't have that, either. Usually such a deficiency signals an accomplished fact that will end a playoff run before it can begin. But this isn't an ordinary season, and the Pacers are proving to be no ordinary team.

A far inferior Pacers nearly stole the show last year against the Bulls in their first round matchup and have already taken a game in Chicago earlier is month. They are proving that last year's heated battles were no fluke; their 14-6 start is further proof that the Pacers shouldn't be discounted. 

Are Miami and Chicago still the favorites? Yes.

But don't sleep on the Pacers just yet because they are just getting started. Come playoff time, if Chicago isn't completely healthy and Derrick Rose isn't at the pinnacle of his game, the Pacers might just have enough to flip last year's playoff script.