One of ESPN.com writers, John Hollinger, does a regularly-occurring column called "PER Diem". He typically uses his PER statistics to point out trends, developing statistics, and oddities around the NBA.
In his column today titled, Up-and-coming teams to watch, (alert: this is an INsider article and can only be viewed by paying customers). he highlighted four teams who are "young teams on the rise that are playing better basketball of late and have yet to grab much national attention."
Before he got too far into the article, he made it very clear that the true "up-and-coming" teams in the NBA were the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls. He didn't side-step the idea that these two teams are much closer to being elite than the four mentioned in his article. But, the four teams he pointed out definitely deserve some attention for how close they are to being placed in the same orbit as the Thunder and Bulls.
With all due respect to the Grizzlies, Sixers, and Warriors, and for what they've been able to accomplish this season, I didn't really pay much attention to what Hollinger said about them. For obvious reasons, this post focuses on only what he had to say about the Pacers. Let's see if you agree with his assessment of the Blue and Gold:
The story: The Pacers have won seven of eight since Frank Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien as head coach and now project as a strong bet to make the playoffs -- today's playoff odds gives them a 76.5 percent probability. The theme under Vogel has been younger and more offensive-minded -- Josh McRoberts, Dahntay Jones and Paul George are in the rotation; James Posey and Solomon Jones are out. Notably, Vogel has been more consistent, too. O'Brien would change his rotation from game to game and at times from quarter to quarter depending on matchups; Vogel has kept the same 10-man mix thus far.
The biggest difference has been Roy Hibbert's resurrection. He had a great first month but was awful the next two, triggering Indy's slide and O'Brien's exit. Hibbert scored 24 points in the first game under Vogel, the first time he'd had more than 20 in two months, and 29 in a crucial win over Charlotte that gave the Pacers breathing room in the standings.
The good: Those of you who follow the Future Power Rankings of Professor Ford and me know that Indiana is in pretty decent shape going forward. It's as deep as any team in the league, it'll have a bunch of cap space after this season, and it has a lot of solid, young players who should keep improving: Hibbert, McRoberts, George, Tyler Hansbrough, Brandon Rush, Darren Collison and A.J. Price all are 25 or younger, and go-to guy Danny Granger isn't exactly a fossil at 27.
Additionally, Indy's precipitous slide -- a 6-17 stretch in December and January after a solid start -- was largely due to an offensive meltdown. The Pacers have the size and talent to defend; they just need a headliner who can carry the mail offensively.
The bad: Only one of the seven teams that Indy has beaten in the Vogel era had a winning record; the list includes four of the six worst records in basketball. And of course, we don't want to get too giddy about a short-term bounce under a new coach.
But the biggest question mark with the Pacers is the simplest one: Who's the star here? Granger is a nice No. 2 but out of his depth as a leading man. Otherwise, the Pacers have a lot of decent young players who would form very good complementary pieces around a superstar. Unfortunately, this isn't New York or Miami, so although the Pacers have cap space, it's not clear how they can lure a difference-maker to the Heartland. Without such a player, this team's ceiling is a first-round speed bump for the East's elite.