When the 2011-12 NBA season began, everyone thought the Eastern Conference would come down to a showdown between the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. A fifth of the way through the season, both teams have fulfilled that projection.
Both teams are in the East's middle tier, along with the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks. For the Magic and Hawks, the ultimate question is specific. Orlando has the Dwight Howard question looming with everything they do, while the Hawks have to figure out how to continue overcoming the devastating injury to Al Horford, which could keep the All-Star big man out for the rest of the regular season. For the Pacers and 76ers, though, the next move is unclear. Hell, even the question of whether there should even be a next move is unclear.
Nobody can deny that these teams are good. The Pacers are 11-4 after a gritty road win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, while the 76ers are 12-5 after a blowout win over the lowly Washington Wizards on Monday. Both teams have played easy schedules, but have still been impressive due to winning on the road (in the Pacers' case) or blowing out those bad teams (in the 76ers' case). Both teams are succeeding without easily-recognizable stars (the two teams have combined for two All-Star appearances in the last three years), compensating due to strong defense, good coaching and excellent all-around team play.
And yet, as Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated drove home on Monday, both teams are still pretty short of elite.
The Pacers and Sixers have been phenomenal and sport two of the league’s stingiest defenses, but each has faced a relatively easy schedule. Indiana’s offense is an issue — just 17th in points per possession — and the Pacers entered play Sunday night with the lowest collective opponents’ winning percentage in the league. The Sixers have been better on both ends, but the Heat outclassed them on Saturday, and the schedule will catch up to them when they start a brutal stretch of games a week from Monday. Let’s see how they handle it.
Poor offense is indeed something to worry about for Pacers fans. They're currently below-average, and quasi-star Danny Granger is off to a horrendous shooting start. Center Roy Hibbert is playing well, but newcomer David West hasn't quite given the Pacers the kind of on-court impact that was expected and point guard Darren Collison remains inconsistent. The Pacers can't be expected to shoot this badly all year, but points are always going to be a premium for them with this mix.
The same could be said of the 76ers, though at least they have some good individual scorers in their tight eight-man rotation. However, the 76ers' potential Achilles heel seems a little larger. They entered the year with the same player rotation they had last year, and that continuity helped them race off to a fast start. But as the rest of the league begins to find its legs, how much will that continuity matter? The 76ers can't expect to outwork elite teams consistently all year. The Miami Heat, playing without Dwayne Wade, proved that in breaking open a close game on Saturday and pulling away for a 21-point victory.
Those appear to be the obvious problems with both teams, but is now the time to fix them? The Pacers and 76ers both have young cores. For Indiana, West is the elder statesman at 31. Granger is 28. Hibbert is 25. Collison, despite already being on his second team, is 24. Rangy wing Paul George is 21, rugged backup big man Tyler Hansbrough is 26 and newcomer George Hill, despite gaining valuable experience with the Spurs, is still just 25. The 76ers are even younger -- Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala are 32 and 28, respectively, but Jrue Holiday is just 21, Thaddeus Young is somehow only 23, Spencer Hawes (now injured) is 23, Lou Williams is 25 and Evan Turner is 23. On the surface, there's no immediate need to make a move when those cores have plenty of internal development left in them.
Or is there? The 76ers are already pretty capped out, thanks to Young's new extension and Iguodala's long-term deal. They could use the amnesty clause on Brand next summer or just hope he opts out with his $18 million early termination option, but they also need to bank some money for Holiday's eventual extension. The Pacers' cap situation is more friendly, but a good chunk of that money needs to go to pay Hibbert and potentially Hill, both restricted free agents in 2012 if they don't reach extension agreements by Wednesday. More fundamentally, West didn't sign a two-year contract with the Pacers to sit around as they bide their time and keep their cap flexibility. He signed a two-year contract because he believed their time was now.
The point here is that it'd be a mistake for the 76ers and Pacers to sit idly. They don't have to do anything, sure, but they should be exploring. If you're Philadelphia, why not call Orlando and see if a package centered around Young and Turner for Dwight Howard entices them? If you're Indiana, why not try to pitch the Nets on taking back Granger, Collison and other assets instead of losing Deron Williams for nothing this summer? Why not at least consider taking the plunge and hoping the winning programs that have been established will convince both players to stay?
Let's be very clear about this: I'd understand the reservations both teams had for making these moves, so no decision should be made rashly. I'm just saying both teams should make the phone call. Windows to contend in this league are never as open as they seem. The Bulls and Heat look great now, but with Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade both likely to battle nagging injuries all year, they're vulnerable. The Pacers and 76ers have to at least consider any move that could take their good, young rosters to another level.
Because as it stands, for all the good feeling emanating from both cities, neither of these teams are touching Miami or Chicago in a seven-game series.