By Jim Brighters
Sports Network NBA Editor
For a few fleeting moments this past summer, the Indiana Pacers looked like they were going to turn the NBA on its ear.
In the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Pacers captured Game 2 in Miami. Then, they trounced the Heat, 94-75 in Game 3, and everyone was asking, “Could the Indiana Pacers really eliminate the Miami Heat?”
They could not.
The Heat took the next three games, including a 32-point demolishing in Game 5. The Pacers, who were scrappy and tough and took nothing from the Heat, would have to try again in 2012-13.
The goal for this season is a simple one. It’s a lofty one, but it’s simple – an NBA championship.
“We finished the season last year feeling like we were good enough to win the championship,” said head coach Frank Vogel. “We’re a team that sets our sights high, we shoot for the moon and then we work our butts off to try and get those goals. We’re dreaming big here.”
That’s a tough chore with the trio residing in South Beach, but the Pacers are a quality team with the emphasis on team.
The Pacers played as a unit last season and have a lot of desirable pieces for a championship contender.
They have a bona fide scorer in small forward Danny Granger. He’s averaged at least 18 PPG the last six seasons.
The Pacers have one of the few natural, effective centers in the game in Roy Hibbert. After his first All-Star appearance, Hibbert signed a four-year, $58 million contract in the offseason.
David West is still a great leader and contributor. The backcourt may not be household names, but they’re potentially exciting.
Paul George and George Hill are both big for their positions and could be the best rebounding backcourt in the league. They can both be exceptional defenders.
The bench is a little deeper and the team believes in its coach and in its prospect for a deep run.
“Honestly, I definitely think that’s our goal right now,” Granger insisted. “I really think we have the pieces to do it and it’s just a matter of putting them all together.”
2011-12 Results: 42-24, second in Central; lost in East semifinals to Miami.
ADDITIONS: G D.J. Augustin, G Gerald Green, C Ian Mahinmi, F/C Miles Plumlee.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: PG – George Hill SG – Paul George SF – Danny Granger PF – David West C – Roy Hibbert
KEY RESERVES: F Tyler Hansbrough, G D.J. Augustin, G Gerald Green, C Ian Mahinmi, F Miles Plumlee.
FRONTCOURT: West infused this team with a work ethic and professionalism last season. He’s only 32, but it’s an old 32 with a lot of wear and tear on his knees.
Granger is a special offensive talent. He’s got legitimate 3-point range now and is still a handful as a 6-foot-8 driving machine. Granger also has appeared to embrace more of a leadership role in recent seasons.
That leadership bump can also be seen on the defensive end. Granger improved his effort and the results showed as he is now comfortable covering a range of different players.
It’s easy to become a better defensive player with Hibbert anchored behind you. He averaged two blocks per game last season and three in the playoffs. When Hibbert is on the floor, which isn’t much considering he averaged less than 30 MPG in the regular season, he can police the paint.
Hibbert isn’t the world’s best rebounder, but he’s extremely skilled offensively. He can score on the post and is a better-than-average jump- shooter.
In fact, this may be the best shooting starting frontcourt in the league. All are dangerous in pick-n-roll situations.
BACKCOURT: The single biggest key to the Pacers’ plan for a title run is George.
At a staggering 6-10, George improved on all of his statistics last season, except for field-goal percentage. This is only his third NBA campaign, so it’s downright chilling to think if George can continue to make strides.
He can shoot, handle, drive, defend and score. The All-Star game is not totally out of reach for George.
Hill took the starter’s job from Darren Collison in April of last season and played well. Like almost every other impact guy on the Pacers, he’s extremely long and can be a really tough defender.
Hill is definitely a natural shooting guard, but he can line up at the point. He may not lead the NBA in assists this season. However, when the offense sputters, Hill will be able to score on his own.
BENCH: The Pacers thought they had one of the league’s deepest benches last season, but the production just didn’t come.
With Collison in Dallas, the backup point guard job belongs to Augustin. He improved on the lowly Charlotte Bobcats last season and should do fine in this role in Indiana.
Green was a D-League hit who latched on with the then New Jersey Nets last season. He can knock down 3s and explode to the basket, but commitment is an issue.
Hansbrough is still all energy and can spell any of the two bigs. Mahinmi is greener than Kermit the Frog in Ireland. It seems the Pacers are high on Plumlee, although that is something of a mystery.
“I think the next step was improving on our second unit,” said George. “And we took a huge step in that direction. So, I think with that, we still have to grow chemistry with the new guys, but I think that was the big step we needed.”
If you say so.
COACHING: Vogel got this team playing hard every night after he took over for Jim O’Brien in late 2011. He loves his team and they love him back. Vogel may not get the respect guys like Erik Spoelstra, or either Van Gundy might get, but Indiana wouldn’t trade Vogel for any of them.
OUTLOOK: In a Derrick Rose free world, the Pacers are the class of the Central Division. This starting group is so tough to defend with its length, jump-shooting ability and tenacity.
They won’t be slouches on defense either, but the bench is a concern. It’ll be hard to imagine Vogel showing a lot of faith in anyone other than Hansbrough, Augustin and Green early in the season.
If championships are their goal, that is a little too lofty. The No. 2 seed in the East and consistently being in the top five in winning percentage in the NBA? That should occur.
A long-term injury to Granger, George or Hibbert is Doomsday. All assembled, this is one of the NBA’s best teams and should finish second to the Heat in the East.