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Can the Pacers win fewer games and still improve?

The Pacers should be a stronger playoff team even if they don’t win as many regular season games.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the best NBA total wins projections are out and both expect the Pacers to win much more than they projected at this time last year. Obviously, the Pacers blasted the 2017 preseason projections by roughly 17 wins (depending on your favorite source) so expectations have increased accordingly.

However, these projections don’t have the Pacers improving on their actual 48 win total from last season.

The Westgate Superbook released their initial NBA wins totals yesterday with the Pacers’ number set at 47.5 wins. Kevin Pelton, who uses his own statistical methodology for projecting wins, has the Pacers at 45.7 (Insider) which, same as the Superbook, would put the Pacers fourth in the Eastern Conference behind Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.

These are my two go-to projections each year and both have the Pacers treading water as far as number of wins goes. After revamping their bench, most NBA observers gave Kevin Pritchard high marks for his offseason work without changing the starting lineup. On paper, the team should be better equipped to handle more diverse situations and in better shape for the playoffs with the additional shooting and play-making options available. Not to mention the development of young bigs, Myles Turner and Domas Sabonis making an impact.

Does that mean they will win more regular season games? Not necessarily. Let’s not forget, the Pacers ambushed much of the league, starting with Victor Oladipo’s spread-eagle game winner against the Spurs and didn’t stop grinding for wins throughout the season. Their toughness showed by going 14-2 (oh, the home Celtics loss...) in games decided by three points or less or overtime. That’s some great stuff, but also something that will be hard to rely on going forward.

The collective chip on last season’s team (actually throughout the whole organization) provided plenty of motivation, as well. Oladipo referred his chip as a brick and he played like it, posting career-best numbers by a mile. More publicity and higher expectations will be added variables this season along with the usual injury risks and regression.

Fortunately, it appears the consensus around the NBA is that the Pacers don’t merit mention with the Celtics, Sixers and Raptors at the top of the East. That should provide the chip this team needs to have on their shoulder for the season.

Let’s also not forget that Pacers played well against the Celtics and Sixers last year (Toronto with Kawhi is a different comp now). They lost to the C’s in November without Oladipo and then had the aforementioned Bogey blunder loss, but also won both games in Boston.

The Pacers went 2-1 against Philly, losing the first matchup in early November under a hail of three-balls by J.J. Redick (8!) and friends. The Pacers won the remaining two (against a healthy Philly lineup), including the final matchup in Philly which was quite impressive in retrospect.

The Sixers won the final 16 games of the regular season, which would have been 18 if not for the 101-98 loss to the Pacers. The Pacers held on to win despite a triple-double from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid putting up 29 points and 12 rebounds. Oh, and Victor Oladipo had one of his worst offensive games, scoring 11 points on 4 of 21 shots from the field.

The Pacers leaned on a relentless defensive attack, leading to 21 turnovers by Philly, and 44 points from Myles Turner and Thad Young. Arguably the most impressive win of the season considering the circumstances for both teams.

So yes, it is rather easy to overlook the Pacers and realize they may have to endure more issues this season which may result not improving their win total. But they are a playoff team and with LeBron James finally out of the conference, a team that will be eager to take on any contenders getting more respect in the East.