1. Throw objectivity to the wayside. Tell us why the Pacers will overtake the Heat in the East.
Tom Lewis: The Pacers will over take the Heat in the East by the sheer will of numbers. Once again the Pacers will be able to manage their way through the regular season with a 10-man rotation that will help keep the boys in blue and gold as fresh as possible over an 82-game season. Once the playoffs start, they will be able to keep the pressure on for 48 minutes to once again give the Heat fits. In the playoffs last year the Pacers' starters beat the Heat overall but the bench was unable to sustain that effort. This year the Pacers bench has improved and with Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi the Pacers have quality size to throw at the Heat for the whole game. I haven't even mentioned the weary bodies of Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh coming into play again. That would also help.
Nathan S.: While the moves the Pacers made didn't make them distinctively better, they seem tailor made to matching up better against the Heat. The Heat themselves, while adding more shooting weapons, will not be improving much from where they are, so for the Pacers to get size and athleticism off of the bench from Ian Mahinmi, a playmaking point guard in D.J. Augustin, and hopefully no Leandro Barbosa series from Gerald Green, it gives the Pacers everything they need in an already interesting matchup.
Ian Levy: Objectivity is in my bones, so shaking it off is no easy feat. It pains me to say it, but I think the only things that could help the Pacers catch the Heat would be lethargy and serious injury in Miami. The Pacers played terrific basketball last season, but were aided by an incredible stretch of good health. The second-unit is stronger, although how much stronger remains to be seen, but I think it's also likely that some things that broke the Pacers' way last season may not this year. Miami's roster may not be hugely different but I think having the mental weight of winning a championship lifted for LeBron James will make them that much tougher to catch.
Matt Andreason: Depth, continuity, size, chemistry, balance, energy, smash-mouth, swagger, toughness. Is all of it enough to offset the elitism of the Big Three? Throw objectivity to the wayside, yes. One major injury could potentially ruin the Heat's title hopes, especially if it involves Mr. MVP. A major injury to the Pacers is more likely to be masked because more replaceable options are available. Now, if Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, or Paul George decided to suddenly go superstar, that'd help too.
2. With a likely off year in the offering for the Bulls, which Eastern Conference teams emerges as a fill-in rival for the Blue and Gold?
TL: As much as I'd like to say the Heat, let's go with the Celtics. Boston is the assumed No. 2 contender in the East and if all goes well, the Pacers are the team capable of grabbing that spot or at least making the C's work for it. Boston, Chicago, New York...those are some fun big-market teams to develop as rivals.
NS: Watch out for Boston. While I only really feel Brooklyn will be with Indiana and Boston in the 2-3 range, the battle for the second seed will ultimately come down to the Pacers and Celtics. The Celtics' moves this offseason were quietly impressive. I doubt they'll run away in the regular season, but it's not impossible to imagine them turning it up for the postseason yet again despite a fairly standard record.
Of course, I'm not ruling out the Bulls sneaking into the playoffs at a lower seed, which could directly affect the Pacers come postseason to keep the rivalry growing assuming Rose is back and ready to go on schedule.
IL: I would think Miami, although with so many teams gunning for the defending champs it may feel like more of a rivalry for the Pacers than the Heat. However, last year's playoff series was physical, competitive and at times ultra-chippy. There is certainly enough left-over animosity to fuel a rivalry. For things to really take off, it will all come down to how close the Pacers can play them in the first matchup of the season.
MA: I think there are some intriguing possibilities here. New York is a past rival that's looking to take the next step in playoff competition. Brooklyn is a franchise trying to reinvent itself by hoarding the overpay market, but has managed to put together a seemingly competent roster that will likely be in the mix for a top-4 seed in the East. Thinking outside of the box, though, I'm going with the 76ers. Indy and Philly have built similar rosters with a focus on a skilled big man, depth, and defensive intensity. Much of it will hinge on Andrew Bynum's ability to stay healthy, but he and Hibbert have a genuine opportunity to develop something truly lacking in the NBA game nowadays: a legit big man scrap.
3. Which Pacer are we not talking about now, but will be by the end of the season?
TL: Looking outside the normal playing rotation, I'll say Sam Young is the player we may be talking about more by the end of the season. Young could play a key role as a spot-matchup specialist (*cough* LeBron *cough*) against teams that are playing small. If the Pacers can find an advantage with their size and need to change things up and go small, Young is a versatile option to add to the mix.
NS: Gerald Green. The Pacers were 11-0 last season, including playoffs, when Leandro Barbosa scored double figures. Given Green in that role, with some more electric playmaking abilities, he could be a true difference maker off the bench and there's little reason to believe the Pacers won't have a similar stretch of success if Green can himself be successful.
IL: This may be personal fantasy, but I'm hoping it's Ian Mahinmi. The second-unit just couldn't control the interior last season the way the starters could. Every time Hibbert went to the bench everything changed, especially in the playoffs. Additional offense from Gerald Green and D.J. Augustin will be nice, but it will be so important for Mahinmi to help corral penetration and clean up the defensive glass. If he can't help with those two things, I think there is a real cap on how far the Pacers can go.
MA: We're talking about him, but in a mostly negative light: Tyler Hansbrough. Efficiency seems to elude him like a consistent JOB rotation, however, Hansbrough's a prideful fellow who's made a career out of silencing doubters through truly awkward gusto. I expect nothing less come 2012-2013. It helps he's in a contract year of sorts, money is often the ultimate motivator. Beyond the contract, Hansbrough clearly loves to play the game and compete. The risk of that being taken away from him could prod him to do the unthinkable: become an all-around threat playing within the framework of a team game. Hansbrough's the type of player who sneaks up on you when you've given up on him much like many Pacer fans did after his injury-riddled rookie season. He'll be back. Awkward and bull-rushing it will be, but he'll be back.
4. What movie clip should be next on Coach Vogel's motivational-speech list?
TL: Not a normal movie clip, but the video of Felix Baumgartner stepping out into the wild blue yonder to free fall and parachute back safely to terra firma. Time to let it all out and take this current team beyond expected limits for all of the world to see.
NS: Babe Ruth's speech from The Sandlot. For a team that's becoming the hunted instead of the hunter, it's time for the Pacers to start looking at this as their "big chance," to go from heroes to legends.
IL: I'd put together a highlight reel of the Heat putting the hammer down on them while strutting and preening through the final three games of their playoff series from last season. If that doesn't get the Pacers fired up, then I don't know what will.
MA: I've got two options. The first is of the obvious variety from Rudy:
"...Prove What? ...You are so full crap. You're 5-feet nothin', a hundred and nothin' and you've got hardly a speck of athletic ability. And you hung in with the best college football team in the land for two years!...In this lifetime you don't have to prove nothin' to nobody except yourself. And after what you've gone through, if you haven't done that by now...it ain't never gonna happen."
The second comes from a more subtle, yet inspirational performance from the movie Antwone Fisher. When confronting so-called family members from his tormented past, Antwone finally gets to throw some verbal fisticuffs back:
"...You listen to me! This is my time, you understand me? It don't matter what you tried to do, you couldn't destroy me! I'm still standing! I'm still strong! And I always will be...
5. Boring, meaningless prediction alert: What will be the Pacers' regular-season record be? Where do they finish in the East?
TL: Feeling a bit optimistic but I'll stick with 53 wins for the Pacers this season. That should be good for at least fourth place in the East and hopefully third.
NS: 53-29, which I believe will be good enough for the second seed in the East.
IL: I think they run into some challenges with injuries that they didn't see last year. I'll go on the record with 50 wins and the third-seed in the East.
MA: 50-32 (4th in the East) as they won't have the luxuries of essentially an injury-free roster and a wacked-out shortened season where they could pound other teams with their depth. My solace trump, though, is I think the Blue and Gold will be a genuine force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. They're battle-tested, hungry, deep, and confident. If they can go into the playoffs healthy and with an improved second unit, watch out South Beach.