After surprising the basketball world last season by establishing themselves as Eastern Conference contenders after trading away All-Star Paul George in the offseason, there will be no sneaking up on anyone this year for the Indiana Pacers.
Led by the league's reigning Most Improved Player in Victor Oladipo, Indiana (48-34) pushed the eventual East champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to seven games in the first round of the playoffs last season. And while they suffered an early exit, last season was a successful one nonetheless.
Now that James' eight-year reign over the conference has come to an end following his move west, the East is up for grabs—and the Pacers are among the teams looking to stake their claim.
Season Opener: Wednesday, Oct. 17 vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7 p.m. ET)
Championship Odds: 100-1 (via Odds Shark)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Philadelphia 76ers: First Home Matchup (Nov. 7)
If Indiana is going to take the next step and challenge for the conference crown, going up against the Philadelphia 76ers during the regular season will provide a nice litmus test.
The Boston Celtics enter the season as the favorites in the East after coming within one game of the NBA Finals...without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Toronto Raptors (59-23) finished with the best record in the East during the regular season and arguably only got better by acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Those two squads appear to be, on paper at least, the best in the East, but the Sixers aren't far behind.
Philadelphia snapped a five-year playoff drought last season with a 52-30 record, good enough for the No. 3 seed. The 76ers were ultimately ousted in the second round in five games by the Celtics, but they announced their presence to the basketball world.
With All-Star Joel Embiid, reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and last year's No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, the Sixers have a good young core—if they can stay healthy.
Last season, the Pacers won two of its three regular-season meetings against the Sixers, winning each of the final two. Of note, Indiana also went 2-2 against Boston and 1-3 against Toronto.
Regular-season games between playoff teams don't necessarily provide a preview of what may happen when the stakes are raised, but if everyone is healthy, they can let a team know how it may stack up against top competition.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Home Matchup (March 14)
Sure, George has already made his return to Indianapolis, a 100-95 Thunder victory last December. However, this will be the first time back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse since he spurned his hometown Los Angeles Lakers to stay in OKC.
When the star forward let the Pacers know he would not sign a long-term extension with them last year, it was no secret he wanted to play for his hometown Lakers. However, the Thunder took a chance and traded for him as he entered his walk year and were ultimately rewarded when he re-signed as free agency began.
Indiana fans likely could have accepted a player leaving town in order to fulfill his dream of playing at home. However, signing a multi-year deal with a different small-market team may be tough to swallow.
Regardless, it doesn't change all of the good George did in Indiana, on and off the court.
It will also give the Pacers a chance to see how they fare against a tough competitor from the Western Conference. Even without Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder are still expected to be one of the best teams in basketball, thanks to the dynamic duo of George and former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook.
Indiana and Oklahoma City both finished with records of 48-34 last season and were both eliminated in the first round, something that would have been hard to fathom before the year began. Now, the Pacers are looking to show they are just fine without George.
There's no denying expectations are high in Indiana. The team is coming off its best performance since 2013-14, and the opponent that has eliminated it in each of the past two seasons (Cleveland) is likely taking a big step back.
The Pacers missed out on J.J. Redick in free agency, but they did add Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O'Quinn in free agency and Aaron Holiday through the draft. Those pieces should be nice complements to a roster already featuring Oladipo, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic.
Boston and Toronto are likely going to battle for the top seed in the East. After that, Philadelphia and Indiana are among the teams that will be looking to get home-court advantage in the first round. If they had had home-court advantage over the Cavs this past season, maybe they would have advanced.
Indiana will have to work some new pieces into the mix this upcoming season, but expect steady improvement from one of the NBA's up-and-coming teams.