The Indiana Pacers are a relatively young team on the rise, going from a .451 winning percentage and the No. 8 seed in 2010-11 to a .636 winning percentage and the No. 3 seed in 2011-12. But unlike most relatively young teams on the rise, the Pacers' front office -- now ruled by Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard -- mixed things up.
Now we find out if the moves worked.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Pacers have three excellent core players: Roy Hibbert (an All-Star last season and Entertainment 720's July 2012 Employee of the Month), Danny Granger (owner of a bat cave, big in southeast Asia) and Paul George (so good he shares his name with two Beatles). Those three each bring a little something different to the table. As he showed in the playoffs against the Heat, Hibbert is all trouble in the post -- his size and skill allow him to dominate the common smaller opponent. Granger is a firebolt scorer who can draw fouls, sink threes and get up some shots in between. George is athleticism to its logical end, and a surprisingly effective long-range shooter. That's a nasty combination.
But the really interesting thing about the Pacers is their depth of talent. David West is the legitimate fourth option ... and David West is still pretty good. The team retained George Hill at a fairly steep price, and brought in D.J. Augustin to help replace Darren Collison in the backcourt. (That's about a wash.) But Indiana was able to get some for Collison: still-young big man Ian Mahinmi in a sign-and-trade deal with Dallas. Mahinmi finally broke the 1,000-minute barrier under Rick Carlisle last season, and served as a role-playing defender primarily. Early in his career he showed a propensity to beast under the rim; you do wonder if that time was wasted on the bench in San Antonio, because he was far more controlled with the Mavericks (and not necessarily in a good way). Still, he adds something Indiana doesn't otherwise have up front: spring galore.
Maybe the most important pick-up for Indiana was Gerald Green, snatched from the Nets months after the former dunk champ made a glorious NBA return. He averaged 18 points per 36 minutes with New Jersey and shot extremely well (48 percent from the floor, 39 percent on threes). He'll be, perhaps, the second-best scorer on the team behind Granger. That's something Indiana could use to climb even further up the rankings.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
You won't hear the typical gripes about the lack of a singular star from me. Other teams in the East have LeBron, Derrick Rose, Rondo ... even 'Melo. But I'll take Indiana's cadre of talent over most of those teams. (Not LeBron's team.) There are a couple of concerns here, though. One is Indiana's lack of plus passers. Hill is a true San Antonio-style combo guard, and Augustin is only marginally more pure as a point. Of course, point guard purity is overrated as a trope. But teams do typically benefit from some easy shots, and the easiest shots are typically created by a pass. Last season, Indiana was No. 28 in percentage of made field goals assisted. The Pacers still managed to finish No. 7 in overall offense, and the No. 30 team in assist percentage, Oklahoma City, finished No. 2 in offense overall. So ... again, this isn't a major problem. Just something to keep in mind. Like OKC, Indiana has good creators on its team. But when they need an easy score, chances are it won't come off the pass.
The other issue I see is one of defending athletic forwards. David West is tough as nails but isn't very quick these days. Granger is quick enough, but not particularly effective on defense. LeBron's a problem for everyone, but opponents like Josh Smith, 'Melo, Gerald Wallace and Thaddeus Young could pose issues in the playoffs. If there's a weakness in Indiana's No. 9 defense, it's there.
It will be miraculous if ...
Anyone picks Indiana to win the East.
There isn't some particularly angst-y anti-Dolan sentiment in a New York paper or two when Indiana and Walsh visit Madison Square Garden.
Kevin Pritchard signs Darius Miles to a 10-day.
We don't hear Greg Oden-to-Pacers rumors the second that the big man gets cleared to participate in something or other.
Tyler Hansbrough avoids getting a bizarre injury.
Anyone makes the right call and starts calling Roy Hibbert the "black Rik Smits."
Frank Vogel gives us a "Larry Bird isn't walking through that door!" speech.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Roy Hibbert
Team X-Factor: George Hill
Team Finish: 1st in Central | 3rd in East
Best Championship Hopes: Infectious disease in Miami
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.