Quietly the Pacers appear to have become a legit contender. Or at least knocking on the door with the best of the East.
After finishing third in the East last year, while taking advantage of good health and several key injuries among other contenders, the Pacers remain among a group of about six teams that will be battling for playoff seeding. The Pacers may very well play better this season, but with a more teams in the mix could finish worse than third. So a goal for this team should be to shoot for the second seed in the East, an improvement over last season and a spot in the standings the Pacers are capable of attaining, if they play up to their potential.
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.
This is to say that the Pacers really had no choice but to match the Portland Trail Blazers' four-year, $58 million offer to Hibbert. Hibbert can be taken out of games with aggressive fronting. and he can still occasionally be exploited by smaller centers in pick and roll coverage. But if you take him away from the Pacers, they're a significantly worse team. He's their advantage against teams like the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics that lack size, so without him, the Pacers become a much more ordinary team. He's also still relatively young, especially for a big man, and the improvements he made as a post scorer, passer, rebounder and defender demonstrate that he's still developing his game. Even if he settles in as this kind of player, he's still valuable.