I think it's pretty clear where this year's Pacers team is at, after their fourth consecutive loss, a 107-94 drubbing at the hands of the Magic in Orlando. This team is good enough to beat the crap teams but struggle to beat the good ones. Occasionally, if all cylinders are clicking, if guys are playing up to their potential or if Vogel works his motivation magic, the Pacers can top those good teams, but you, me and everyone knows they won't be able to do it four times in a seven game series.
That's actually not a bad place to be. We keep forgetting that last year, while the team could still occasionally beat a giant, they struggled against the crap teams too, losing stacks of games they shouldn't have lost. That has been cut to a minimum this season, and I think it's a positive step.
At the moment, the Pacers, like everyone else in the East, is a few steps behind the Heat and the Bulls. They are also a step or two behind the Magic. Teams like Atlanta and Philly are roughly on their level, but with the way the Pacers are playing now I would say they are slightly behind those guys, even though the Pacers are ahead of the Hawks on the standings.
That would make the Pacers a likely 6th seed, which would match them up against the Magic -- provided the Magic keep Dwight Howard for the rest of the season. If not, the Magic could slip, giving the Pacers a good chance to grab a top four spot if they can get their act together and keep up with Philly and the Hawks. At this stage, it's hard to envision the Celtics or the Knicks overtaking the Pacers, but I think they are teams that could make the Pacers sweat a little.
So where is the problem? Where do we even begin? Obviously, the lack of a superstar hurts, but the team now has three former All-Stars in Granger, West and Hibbert, and a potential future one in Paul George. That should be good enough. Not every team can get their hands on a Lebron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh...
Nevertheless, Granger still shoots too much at too low a percentage (though in his defense he is trying); Hibbert is up and down -- and right now he is about as low as he has been all year; and West is still getting used to his post-surgery body and new team. It looks like a great nucleus on paper but it's actually a very fragile one.
A lot of people complain about the undersized Darren Collison at the point, saying that the team needs an elite PG. Those are hard to come by as well, and Collison should be serviceable with a lineup like this. He had great assist numbers for Chris Paul in the pick and roll setting but on the Pacers his passing has struggled. George Hill could fill in as the starter but he's not a natural passer.
Is the bench the problem? Er...yes. George Hill has shown he can produce in spurts, but he's been unlucky with injuries this season. Same as Jeff Foster, who seems to always be injured. Tyler Hansbrough, who tore up the preseason, has been "figured out" by the defense, so to speak. He's been so awful it's hard to watch sometimes. So that leaves...Dahntay Jones as the number one bench player? Holy crap. Lance Stephenson? Too young and too much of a headcase still. Second rounder AJ Price? Serviceable...at times...for a second rounder. The shit sandwich of Amundson and Pendergraph? Hard workers but not enough talent or ability. Now that I think about it, it's actually a miracle the Pacers are doing so well!
The team has talent and cap space. Are they happy to keep being in the middle of the pack or will they make a move that will make them contenders? It might still take a couple of years but it'll be interesting to see if Bird can pull a rabbit out of his hat.