brunos_blog_400You remember the Indiana Pacers, that team with an injured star, a slumping center, an ailing bench and nebulous expectations.

They faded from the local consciousness in November when they did alarming things like losing to Charlotte and Toronto, the fan base ready to write off this season as it barely had begun.

It may come as a surprise, then, to glance at the NBA standings and note that those same Indiana Pacers now stand first in the Central Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference.

While the Colts deservedly dominated the local spotlight, the Pacers worked in the shadows and quietly started to form up as a team.

Paul George has emerged as a consistently productive player in every phase of the game. David West and George Hill have been bastions upon which everything else has stood. Roy Hibbert is still struggling but at least we think we know why – a recently revealed wrist injury – and he appears to be struggling a little less these days.

The bench is still ailing and expectations are still nebulous, at least in comparison to the times before Danny Granger was ruled out until mid-February with a knee injury. But, all in all, the Pacers have done some nice things, winning six of seven to improve to 16-12, one-half game ahead of both the Bulls and the Bucks.

Which raises the new question: now that they’ve reached first place, can they remain?

Let’s look first within the Central. The Pacers have played far more road games (17) than either the Bucks (13) or Bulls (12), so the travel schedule turns in the their favor.

A common method for measuring a team’s true standing during the course of the season is to subtract home losses from road wins. By that standard, the Pacers are plus-5 (eight road wins, three home losses), compared to plus-1 for the Bucks and dead-even for the Bulls.

While that bodes well, their inability to win in Milwaukee in two tries this season is a troubling trend. They do have a victory in Chicago, but lost a chance for a showcase game against the Bulls when the blizzard wiped out that meeting Wednesday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

There’s also the issue of credibility to their current record. They have very few quality wins. In fact, of the four that rank at the top of the list in terms of overall performance (Lakers, Bulls, Mavericks and Jazz), three came against teams currently out of the playoffs.

Taking it a step further, the Pacers have just two victories against top-eight teams in either conference (the Bulls and Blazers), compared to nine losses. Fully 14 of their 16 victories have come against teams that currently stand to be in the lottery.

They soon will have the opportunity to better gauge where they truly stand. After the Suns visit BLF Friday, five of the next six games are against quality opponents (at Atlanta, Memphis, at Boston, Milwaukee, Miami). If they legitimately are a contender, they should win at least two of those games.

As for the East, everything remains up for grabs other than first place. The only two things that can derail Miami are chronic boredom or a major injury to one of their key players.

Beyond that, however, nothing is out of reach. New York has started brilliantly but has lost point guard Raymond Felton for 4-6 weeks, further stressing an old team with a thin backcourt. Look for the Knicks to come back to the pack fairly quickly.

As for Atlanta, does anyone really believe a team built around Josh Smith can be taken seriously?

The Bulls will muddle along until Derrick Rose returns, at which point they instantly become the second-best team in the conference.

A nice team with an excellent coach, the Bucks should stick around all year. Much depends on how much they can get out of young big men Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders, but their perimeter potency is among the best in the conference.

The Nets already have gotten one coach fired. If Phil Jackson is lured out of retirement, they could jump a level. If not, they won’t.

We’re assuming Andrew Bynum will be back at some point, which would push the Sixers up the ladder.

The Celtics are a curious mix of undersized shooting guards and undersized power forwards. There’s talent on hand but the lack of size will prove Boston’s undoing.

Beyond ninth-place Philadelphia, there appears no other team that harbors legitimate expectations of playoff contention, so it is a thin crop of contenders.

So where, exactly, do the Pacers fit in?

Second place in the conference isn’t out of the question; neither is the lottery.
Whether they climb, fall, or settle in the middle will depend on Hibbert finding himself and the bench becoming something other than a nightly liability.

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