The Indiana Pacers entered the weekend in the thick of the battle for the third seed in the Eastern Conference, which is a little bit like being the fourth Stooge, the fifth Beatle or the sixth man on the Fab Five. Nevertheless, the Pacers have been one of the league's most improved teams, and their coach, Frank Vogel, has risen from being Rick Pitino's video coordinator in Boston to a coach of the year candidate in his first full season as the head honcho in Indianapolis.
The Pacers have established themselves as rising powers in the East, but they have a lot at stake over the last four weeks of the regular season. Indiana has a slightly better point differential than Orlando, the current 3-seed, but the Magic has faced a tougher schedule. Indiana also has to worry about the cluster of teams behind it, a mixed bag of squads including Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia. The Pacers could finish anywhere from third to seventh in the final playoff standings.
Still, the Pacers are winning at a rate that equates to 49-33 over a full season, quite a step up from the 37-45 mark that squeezed them into the postseason last year. While the playoff berth was mostly a function of a shallow conference -- of 532 playoff teams since the ABA merger, only nine posted a lower winning percentage -- Indiana did put up a spirited battled against the top-seeded Bulls in the first round.
Pacers president Larry Bird seemingly has his club in an enviable position. Despite the additions of veterans David West, George Hill, Louis Amundson and Leandro Barbosa since the end of last season, Indiana is still about $7 million under this season's salary cap figure. Bird has constructed one of the league's deepest rosters and has a solid core of players who should just be entering their prime seasons. During the offseason, Bird will have to make decisions on restricted free-agents-to-be Hill and Roy Hibbert, but the recently acquired Barbosa comes off the books and there should be plenty of cash on hand.
However, as promising as the outlook in Indiana may appear right now, the Pacers do run the risk of getting trapped in the NBA's upper-middle class -- close to contender status, but not quite on the level of the league's elite -- if they can't add a star talent.
Indiana's rebuilding project has been different from those of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls. After the Ron Artest-Reggie Miller-Jermaine O'Neal Pacers topped out at 61 wins in 2003-04, Indiana went on a seven-year run of mediocrity. The Pacers won between 32 and 44 games each season, made the postseason three times and won just one playoff series. There was plenty of bad payroll, with the team locked into long-term contracts to middling players like Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. The team was thoroughly mired in the league's no-man's-land -- the middle -- and attendance waned accordingly.
While wrestling with a difficult cap position, Bird managed to draft well even though the Pacers haven't had a single-digit draft pick in 23 years. (The last was George McCloud, taken seventh in 1989.) Bird added Paul George (10th in 2010), Tyler Hansbrough (13th, 2009) and Danny Granger (17th, 2005) from uninviting draft slots, and sent O'Neal in a 2008 post-draft trade to Toronto for Hibbert. Darren Collison was brought in from New Orleans in a four-team deal that got Murphy off his books. Bird built this young base while avoiding further bad investments, setting up the current cap windfall.
Bird followed more of a Chicago model of rebuilding than the OKC version, albeit with one key difference. Before their current ascension, the Bulls waited out some iffy contracts while building a young base of talent that included Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Ben Gordon, Thabo Sefolosha and Chris Duhon. As the young chips were moved around, a careful eye was kept on the free agent-rich summer of 2010. While Chicago missed a chance at the big guns from that class, its Plan B fell into place nicely as team architects John Paxson and Gar Forman built the team's deepest and most versatile roster.
Of course, in both the cases of Indiana and Chicago, the depth-over-stars approach was a product of necessity. The Pacers had to take this path because of their consistently middle-of-the-road draft position and the fact that top free agents haven't conspired to play in Indianapolis. If either club had been able to add a Kevin Durant through the draft or LeBron James through free agency, they would have leaped at the opportunity.
You might think we've overlooked a key facet of the Bulls' rebuilding efforts. We haven't. When you compare the Bulls and Pacers, the biggest difference is that Derrick Rose plays for the Bulls. Chicago parlayed an injury-riddled and underachieving 33-49 record in 2007-08 season into the top pick of the next draft. The Pacers were just three games better that season, yet selected 11th and took Jerryd Bayless.
That's why, even though the Pacers are enjoying their best season in years, you have to wonder whether they are in danger of settling into the league's upper-middle class. That might be better than lower-middle class, but it's still the middle, and in the NBA, it's easy to get lulled into acceptance of a second-round upside. Indiana looks exceptionally strong at roster spots 3-10, perhaps even 2-10 depending on how you view Danny Granger. It's that centerpiece, that ornament atop the tree that is lacking, and it's awfully hard to acquire it once you've improved beyond a certain point.
The Bulls got lucky, but they still managed to construct a roster not only perfectly suited to work with Rose, but one that has proved it can win consistently even when their reigning MVP is injured. The Thunder may have been the smartest guys in the room as their dynamic roster was built, but it still started with the No. 2 pick that yielded Durant. That's the step that Indiana skipped while wallowing in the middle all those years.
[+] EnlargePaul George
Glenn James/NBAE/Getty ImagesPaul George, 22, has tremendous potential, but some of the Pacers' other big-time contributors are getting older.
The Pacers aren't as young as you think. Their weighted-minutes age places them firmly in the middle of the league pack. George leads the team in WARP and is just 22 years old, while Hibbert is right behind him at 25. However, Granger turns 29 next month and his career trajectory has leveled out at a tier or two below All-Star level. Fourth in team WARP is David West, who is nearly 32.
In interviews, Vogel has insisted that his roster "has no ceiling." George has plenty of room to grow, but he's likely on an Andre Iguodala path where he dominates in most categories but isn't an offensive centerpiece. Hibbert is a solid player at a position of scarcity, but may be nearing the upper limits of what he can produce. Beyond these players, you have solid role contributors, but no one who is going to push the team into the elite.
While the Pacers aren't generally considered to be a likely landing point for franchise-type free agents, there may be a couple of opportunities to leverage hometown ties to bring back available players who were once won the coveted Indiana "Mr. Basketball" award: Eric Gordon and Greg Oden.
After Gordon rejected New Orleans' offer of a contract extension in January, rumors ran rampant that the Pacers would pursue the Indianapolis native this summer. That may be true, but it's difficult to pry a top-notch restricted free agent from a club that really wants to keep him. (Remember DeAndre Jordan?) The Hornets are likely to match any offer Gordon gets.
However, while complicated, it's possible to work a sign-and-trade deal with a restricted free agent. If you assume that Gordon is the centerpiece player you want -- and it's far from given that he's that kind of player -- then perhaps the Hornets would take Granger and some sweetener in return. Then you could move George back to small forward. But would the Hornets want a 29-year-old to head up a rebuilding effort? In seems likely that the Pacers would have to give up George, which makes the whole much less palatable.
The second player the Pacers might look at is Oden, who was released recently by Portland and has been said to be interested in returning to Indiana. If he's interested in doing so under a team-friendly deal, it's a no-brainer. While the odds of Oden becoming the game-changing defender and rebounder he once seemed destined to become are long, there is absolutely no downside to bringing him on as a 15th man to rehabilitate from his latest pair of surgeries. The potential gain is immense, and at the very least it would be a popular move with the fan base.
The Pacers won't be an easy out in the postseason this year, but it would be shocking to see them beat either Miami or Chicago in a seven-game series. Then what? How does Bird take the next step? Franchise players don't grow on trees, and unless Larry Legend can somehow pluck one from the ether, Pacers fans might as well get used to this season. Because it's exactly like the one they'll enjoy for the next three to four years.
Bradford Doolittle is an author for Basketball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter @bbdoolittle.