Indianapolis might not be one of the NBA’s biggest markets, but the Pacers ownership hasn’t been shy about handing out big contracts. After giving Roy Hibbert a $58 million deal last summer, Indiana re-signed David West and Paul George to huge paydays this offseason, George getting a max deal similar to the contract Derrick Rose received from the Bulls, which could exceed $90 million over five years if George triggers an escalator clause.
Pacers President Larry Bird admitted the obvious during Wednesday morning’s news conference saying, “We’re all in this year.”
And this from head coach Frank Vogel, "Since I took over here, we've been talking about having a similar era to what the Colts had the last seven or eight years, where they had a chance to win it all basically every year. We're a couple of years into this thing, and to have this guy [George] under contract for five more years gives us that type of confidence, that we can win a championship, our first [NBA] championship.”
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There’s no doubt George is one of the league’s rising stars. In his first full season as a starter, the 6'8 small forward averaged 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, and played even better in the postseason, leading Indiana to a Game 7 against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. George has also bought in to Vogel’s defense-first philosophy, accepting the challenge of guarding some of the league’s best players, including LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. George has just scratched the surface of his potential, and that’s a scary thought for the other teams in the league.
But re-signing George wasn’t the only move the Pacers made this summer. They strengthened their bench with the addition of Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and former Bulls guard C.J. Watson, and don’t forget they’ll have former All-Star Danny Granger back after a lost season due to knee problems. Vogel will have to decide whether to put Granger in the starting lineup and shift George to shooting guard where he played for much of the 2011-12 season, or stick with defensive ace Lance Stephenson at the “2”, and bring Granger’s instant offense off the bench. No matter which way Vogel decides to go, he’ll have a much stronger second unit than the one that did basically nothing in their playoff loss to Miami.
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Now the big question for Bulls fans is: Can Chicago regain the Central Division title they lost to the Pacers last season with Rose in rehab mode? Tom Thibodeau’s teams led the NBA in regular season wins in each of his first two years on the job, but the Eastern Conference looks a lot different this season. It’s extremely top heavy with the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Nets leading the way, but don’t discount the improvements made by Central Division doormats' Cleveland and Detroit. Racking up 60 wins might not be so easy anymore, and both the Bulls and Pacers figure to be in that 55-58 win range this season.
Looking at the two rosters, it’s almost dead even. Rose gives the Bulls a huge advantage at point guard over George Hill, but if George moves to shooting guard, he gets the edge over the improving Jimmy Butler. The frontlines are a draw with Hibbert, West and Granger comparing very favorably with Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. The benches are also close with Indiana’s second unit of Scola, Watson, Copeland, Stephenson (or Granger), and Ian Mahinmi right there with the Bulls' Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, Marquis Teague and Nazr Mohammed.
The coaches are also very similar with Thibodeau and Vogel both preaching defense, rebounding, inside-out play and limiting turnovers. Any way you look at it, we should have a great battle for the Central Division title this season. The Bulls and Pacers will also meet two times during the preseason, so this rivalry should be hot and heavy by the time the playoffs roll around in April.
Getting the No. 1 seed in the East figures to be more valuable than ever, and knowing the personalities of the coaches involved, you can count on the Bulls and Pacers being "all-in."