It’s been a tough five years in Indiana.

At the start of the 2005 season, they had a young, stacked roster featuring star players Jermaine O’neal, Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest, and were the consensus team to beat in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league.

And  thnen, in as much time as it takes to run into the stands, it was all over…

When the dust settled, Artest was suspended for the year, the team
was broken up, and a steady succession of players ran into trouble with the law, got injured or were just plain lousy, all adding up to an average of 34 wins over the last 4 seasons and no playoff appearances in that span.

On the heels of the dismantling of a team of thugs, head cases and ruffnecks, Team president Larry Bird has been on a two part mission: build a roster full of men of character (and clean arrest records) and put together another winning team. 
So far, step one is complete. Well, almost.

Step 2? Well, let’s just say it’s a work in progress, but Indiana is starting to build something promising, piece by piece.

It’s no secret that the drafting of Danny Granger with the 17th pick in 2005 was a major coup, as Granger quickly blossomed into an all-star performer and elite scorer within 3 years. True, injuries has slowed him a bit the past two seasons and he looked rather sluggish this summer in the World Championships, but a healthy Granger is a monster offensively. 

Coincidentally, they used the same 17th pick in 2008 to take 7’2 Georgetown project Roy HIbbert, and you’d be hard to pressed to find anyone who could have predicted Hibbert would adjust so smoothly to the Pro game, as he’s played better and better with more opportunity and is currently putting up 18 and 10 a game in the pre-season.

Now, the Pacers have added piece number three by fleecing the New Orleans Hornets for rookie point guard sensation Darren Collison, who stepped in for the injured Chris Paul last season and went berserk, averaging 20 points and 8 assists while shooting 50% from the field in the last three months. Granted, Collison is a not yet a proven commodity, but he’s hiccup-quick and clearly better suited to play the up-tempo game Indiana has empnloyed the last few years than the regimented, hatch-the-ball style that hancuffed him for 4 years at UCLA. Best part is, Indiana only had to give up veteran Troy Murphy to snag DC and veteran swingman James Posey. Sure, they’ll miss Murphy’s manical rebounding and long-range shooting, but trust me, it was a small price to pay for a kid who could be the teams future at point guard.

After that it gets dicey, but like I said, it’s a work in progress.

I mean lets be real here, surely Dahntay Jones is not the long term-answer at shooting guard (although he can play some D), and the downside of trading Murphy is the fact that the Pacers will be deploying the palefaced platoon of Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough at Power Forward. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Psycho T, but it’s hard to intimidated by that duo.

Of course, I do like the bench depth, especially if they can get something out of the multi-talented (sadly, his #1 talent lately is getting hurt) Mike Dunleavy Jr., who was dynamite for them in 2008 before the injuries hit. Hopefully, little Mike can put together a decent season in his contract year, giving them flexability at the swing positions or even possibly starting at the 2 in bigger line-ups.

Also in reserve is T.J. Ford, who is basically identical to Collison. That is, if Darren was made of origami. Still only 26, Ford has yet to prove himself capable of withstanding the rigors of an 82 game schedule, and will have this season to prove his sturdiness before heading into the free agent pool this summer.

Beyond that, we’ve got an interesting group of young athletic swingmen, including Brandon Rush, highly-touted rookie Paul George, and NYC legend (or so he says) Lance Stevenson. Now, I’m thinking they might wanna flip one or two of these guys for some help at power forward, but if they plan on playing up-tempo again this year then all of these guys can be useful.

Rounding up the bench are solid veterans like James Posey and scrappy Jeff Foster, back for his 27th season of pick setting and rebounding madness.

But the biggest factor in Bird’s rebuilding plan may rear it’s head before the end of this season:

Cap Room. A mountain of it.

I’m talking 35 million coming off the books and a handful of expiring contracts (aka “trade chips”) here, which could be pretty dangerous weapons for a shrew guy like Bird. Of course, Indiana isn’t everyone’s favorite free agent destiny by any means, but the expiring contracts of Dunleavy, Ford and Foster should be more than enough to make a significant deal or two.

In short, don’t be surprised if this team is a contender 12 months from now.

As for now? Well, all I can say is, patience is a virtue. But if I was a betting man (and I am), I’d put mine down on good things happening here sooner than you think.

IF THEY GET LUCKY: A full season of health from the brittle bunch (Dunleavy Ford, Granger) would do alot to boost this teams’ chances. A revitalized Granger leads this group to a hot early season start, and they use some of that flexibility to swing a trade for something resembling a starting shooting guard or power forward, allowing these guys to sneak into the playoffs.

IF THEY DONT: It’ll be a repeat of last year, with the usual slew of injuries and another 35 wins or so, at best. Simple as that.

REALITY: Probably somewhere on the verge of the play-offs, but just short. Injuries do play such a vital role in the NBA, and this team has had more than their share in recent years. Honestly, I like where this team is going, and if they are able to play Collison, Hibbert and Granger together for most of the year they’ve got a good shot at going .500.


Or Dr. Dunk. Or Darnell Hillman. Whatever you call him, Hillman was the one of the ABA’s most memorable players, known for his hairstyle (his wiki says he won the prestigious “biggest afro award” at the 1997 ABA reunion) and his insane leaping ability. Legend has it that when once asked by a reporter if he could jump high enough to grab a quarter off the backboard, the 6’9 Hillman responded “put a $100 bill up there and see”. The reporter wisely declined.

Yet another example of how badass the ABA was.


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