2013-2014 NBA Preview: Central Division

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Oct 19, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Indiana Pacers forward David West (21) grabs a rebound and runs from Cleveland Cavaliers forward Anthony Bennett (15) and forward Anderson Varejo (17) during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. The Pacers beat the Cavaliers 102-79. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers (53-29)

Remember who took the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals? That’s right, it was the Indiana Pacers. Indy is back and, by most accounts, they are even improved from what was a 49-win team last season.

The “core” of Roy Hibbert, Paul George, David West, and George Hill is back together, and they even have their former “franchise” player in Danny Granger attempting a comeback. George is the new “superstar” in the league, having made a bit of a leap during the playoffs after a very solid season where he averaged 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game from the wing spot. He hasn’t made the full-fledged step to the elite of the elite, but the 23-year-old earned his huge contract extension with suffocating defense and a developing offensive game. I’d expect him to grab the mantle as the undisputed #1 option this season.

The Hibbert/West duo in the frontcourt is unconventional in today’s NBA, but it is extremely effective. West has the definition of an “old man” game, but his mid-range game is absolutely deadly, and his toughness is unquestioned. The spacing that he provides with Hibbert makes the duo come together, and 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game only scratches the surface of his value. As far as Hibbert is concerned, his major value (at 7-foot-2) is being an elite defender. At 26 years old, he is still athletic enough to move laterally even with his frame, and Hibbert is a big-time rim protector as evidenced by his 2.6 blocks per game last year. Together, the Hibbert/West duo anchor what was the best rebounding team in the entire league last year, and they are showing no signs of decline from that in the preseason.

That brings us to George Hill and Danny Granger, who would make up the other two-fifths of Indy’s “best five”. I’ve loved Hill’s game going back to San Antonio, and he’s a guy who doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, but doesn’t take anything off the table, either. Hill is an above-average and versatile defender, who doesn’t mount a ton of assists (less than 5 per game), but still engineers a quality offense. Obviously, the lack of dimes is a concern, but Indy’s offense isn’t run through him in the same way that other teams use their point guard, and he’s solid everywhere. Granger is recovering from ongoing knee issues, and he even sat out at the end of the preseason. Before the problems, he was once a 24+ point-per-game scorer in back-to-back seasons, and if he has been relegated to a 6th man/secondary option role, there would be no one better when healthy. It remains to be seen how he’ll adjust to George’s ascending role, but it would be crazy to bury a guy with an 18-point per game career scoring average, even if he’s a bit limited.

The Indy bench should be significantly better this year. For all intensive purposes, Granger looks to be a bench option, but the incumbent “starter” alongside George, Lance Stephenson, is a solid player in a certain role. The former NYC legend plays good defense and attacks the rim well, which makes up for his complete inability to shoot from the outside. He’s a strong role player, and if Granger is there, that makes him even better. In addition, Indy brought in CJ Watson and Luis Scola to help them, and each is a marked upgrade from what the Pacers had last year. Watson can score and defend, but he isn’t a pure point guard by any stretch, making him a bit of an odd pairing, with starter George Hill having the same issue. As for Scola, I’ve always loved his offense, and pairing him with Hibbert (or backup center Ian Mahinmi) in certain sets should hide his woeful defense and allow him to function as a primary scorer for the 2nd-unit.

I love Indiana, and if there were no injury concerns for Granger, they’d probably be higher. We need to see a full year dominance from Paul George, but if he continues on the trajectory he flashed during the playoffs, he’s a monster in the making.