For as long as the Pacers have been out of the league's spotlight, they've been met with quick and frequent reminders that recent play will lead perception to outweigh ten years of being one of the Eastern Conference's premier teams. The struggles on the court, as well as the feelings of Indiana's roster in recent years, has led to eternal discourse among fans about the best interest of the franchise moving forward. Essentially, to tank or not to tank.
The Pacers did a great job setting themselves up for high draft picks from 2008 to 2010, but late season pushes took them from potential Derrick Rose level talent and pushed them into the eternal 9th seed in the Eastern Conference. As Larry Bird slowly built his roster, making sure to hit on his late lottery picks, he also recognized that postseason experience can be the difference between where the Pacers have been and where the Pacers are now.
While it may be a bit of a stretch to suggest the Pacers with Earl Watson, Troy Murphy, and Mike Dunleavy could lead Indiana to a surprising 16-7 record with 10 wins on the road and wins against top level teams consistently, the idea remains a valid one; playoff experience can go a long way in helping a young team grow, and while fans were well within their right to groan at late season playoff pushes from Brandon Rush and Co., the concept remains a valid one.
For a young team like the Pacers, who with the Paul George and Darren Collison additions last year seemed to have their core in place, it was important to get a taste of what postseason basketball was, what it took to win, and what kind of toughness it took to compete night in and night out to go from an 8th seed to a potential 4th and then make a run once there.
You can see it in the Pacers, that they learned from their 5-game series against the Bulls. They learned the value of smart play, defensive stops, and stretch baskets. You can see when veterans like Dunleavy and Murphy were unable to get the team over the hump at times, it was partially because they hadn't experienced the level of play postseason teams were used to showing. You can see it in the play of David West and George Hill that veteran play isn't just about the number of years of service, but how battle tested you are as a player.
Now the Pacers have a roster full of players who've been through the postseason fire, and the level of play they've shown this season is a direct result of that experience. For years, the argument was, "Why make the playoffs as an 8 seed just to lose when you can jump five or six spots in the draft by tanking?" Even with the same roster, without the experience this team had last April, there are a lot of games they simply don't win. The Pacers certainly aren't 9 games above .500, are they even two? The level of play of the Indiana Pacers through the first third of the 2011-12 NBA season is showing that there is value in "getting there" that a higher draft pick can't bring.