Marty Burns recently ranked the Eastern Conference teams for SI.com and surprisingly, the Indiana Pacers were 8th.
8. Pacers: Last year they finished just one game out of the playoffs -- even with O'Neal sidelined for most of the season. Ford, if he stays healthy, is an upgrade at the point over Jamaal Tinsley. The Pacers also added a quality combo guard in Jarrett Jack and a reliable true center in the 7-foot Nesterovic, who averaged 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in the second half of last season. With Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy, the pieces are there for coach Jim O'Brien to run his type of fast-breaking, three-point-shooting system.
Maybe I'm just trying to manage my expectations, but I think this is a pretty generous ranking. If everything comes together perfectly, sure, let's talk playoffs. But there may be a few other teams that jump up into the fray, also.
After watching Dwyane Wade in the Olympics, the Miami Heat should be dabbling in playoff contention, if not better, all season. Plus, the Bulls still have a lot of talent. Yes, there are many questions, but they're still a strong threat.
As for the Pacers, they were strong last year early with J.O. and Tinsley playing a strong role. Then they ended up finishing well without either player at full strength. Yes, now they have improved talent, but many of those late wins were aided by a weak spot in the schedule.
I hope it all comes together for the current roster. I can certainly imagine a plausible scenario that has the Pacers well into playoff contention. But considering the usual struggles a team faces throughout a season, I'm hesitant to get too excited and start talking playoffs before this team has played a game.