After a Bulls loss to the Pacers back in early February, I took a look at what kind of threat Indiana posed in the playoffs. At that point, I was operating under the assumption that both Derrick Rose and Danny Granger would return and be playing at a relatively high level, and my conclusion was that the Bulls would ultimately still be the favorites.
Since then, Rose infamously sat out the season while Granger returned only to re-injure his bum knee. But Granger's injury didn't stop the Pacers from making an impressive postseason run, knocking off the Hawks and Knicks in 6 before pushing the defending champion Heat to the brink. Indiana proved to be not quite ready for the big time in Monday night's Game 7, playing dumb basketball throughout much of the game and losing by 23 despite Miami shooting under 40 percent from the field.
The ugly Game 7 defeat aside, the Pacers impressed the basketball world with their deep playoff run, and there seems to be a growing sentiment out there that they, not the Bulls, will be the biggest challengers to the Heat in the coming years. Here's one example, from Heat beat writer Tim Reynolds:
Due respect to D-Rose's presumed return next year, but you're looking at the 2014 East finals matchup tonight. So plan accordingly.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) June 4, 2013
In the world of Chicago media, Nick Friedell examined last week how the Bulls and Pacers are likely to match up next year, and he wound up giving Indiana the slight edge "on paper." Meanwhile, 670 The Score's Dan Bernstein tossed bouquets Indiana's way, making this statement about halfway through his piece:
Problem is, now, the Pacers are better than the Bulls. And they might stay that way for a while.
I find this to be a pretty bold statement, and I'm one who thinks pretty darn highly of Indiana.
Paul George and Roy Hibbert are really good players, with both guys making a name for themselves this postseason. Before throwing up a clunker in Game 7, George was averaging 21.5/5.8/5.3 on 50/47/81 in the Eastern Conference Finals. He's just 23 and did show his youth with quite a few turnovers and some brutal defensive breakdowns, but the future is extremely bright for him.
I've read the arguments about whether George is a superstar or not, and while I hesitate to put him in that class at the moment, I have little doubt he'll reach that point very shortly. He's certainly going to get paid like one very soon, and because he made the All-NBA Third Team this year, he will be eligible for a special max deal under the "Derrick Rose Rule" if he makes an All-NBA team again next year. And there's no reason to think he won't.
As for Hibbert, the max contract he signed last offseason was looking like an albatross early in the year, as he shot under 40 percent the first two months of the season. But he got stronger as the year went on, and his offense finally started to catch up to his stellar defense. The last two months of the regular season, he averaged 16.7 points and 8.8 rebounds on 50.3 percent shooting.
Where Hibbert really showed his worth was against the Heat. We know Miami is weak down low, and Hibbert feasted time and again in the ECF, averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds while shooting a robust 55.7 percent from the field. And defensively, Hibbert's presence in the paint quite often kept LeBron James out of it, and his ability to go straight up without fouling led to the word "verticality" being said like 1957340 times throughout the series (I will say that Hibbert got the benefit of the doubt quite a bit on those calls).
While George and Hibbert are the centerpieces, David West is obviously a key part to the puzzle, and he's an unrestricted free agent this summer. West has consistently stated that he wants to remain a Pacer, and Indiana has the funds to throw him a nice deal. However, Ball Don't Lie's Kelly Dwyer warns against giving West TOO big a contract, as he will be 33 in the offseason. To me, I think I'd be okay with overpaying West a little, because he's part of the major advantage Indiana has over Miami.
Looking further down the roster there's George Hill and Lance Stephenson, two talented but sometimes erratic young players. I didn't even realize that Stephenson was just 22, and while he doesn't make the best decisions in the world, he proved at times this postseason that he could be a contributor on a winning team. And again, he's only 22.
Hill has taken some flak for not being a "true" point guard, but Grantland's Zach Lowe notes that the Pacers' starting unit was just fine this year. Indiana's starters posted a 108.6 offensive rating in 1,200 minutes this year, which is good for a top-five mark. And in the playoffs, that number was 109.5 in 414 minutes, according to NBA.com. That's damn good.
Where things fell apart for the Pacers was when the second unit took the floor, and that's something that will have to improve going forward. Both Dwyer and Lowe discussed the horrific bench, and the Pacers really need a backup point guard, as D.J. Augustin just didn't cut it this year. Indiana should have the full MLE to work with this offseason, so they could acquire a backup point guard that way (Nate?!), unless they want to use it on a big to replace the likely departed Tyler Hansbrough.
Then there's the wild card: Granger. He'll be owed just over $14 million on the last year of his deal, and I'm sure the Pacers will explore the trade market for him. But with those degenerative knees, I don't know if Indiana will find anything appealing. But keeping Granger certainly might not be the worst thing in the world, and if he's able to stay relatively healthy, he could be a huge boost. Whether he returns to the starting lineup or takes a reserve role is an interesting question, but either way, the Pacers' bench would improve if he's able to contribute.
So yes, the Pacers do have quite a bit of promise moving forward. But better than a healthy Bulls team? I'm going to go ahead and Lee Corso that idea for right now.
For all the shit I've given Rose this year, I fully expect him to come back and at least be close to what he was pre-injury, and perhaps even better. If Rose comes back to that level while the rest of the team stays mostly healthy (yes, big question mark, I know), I think the Bulls are a top-two team in the East that wins around 60 games.
Sure, the bench is an unknown at this point, but I have faith that Tom Thibodeau can take this Bulls core and whatever bench is thrown together and have a ton of success. Jimmy Butler taking another step will only help matters, and perhaps the Bulls can find lightning in a bottle with their draft picks and/or whomever they pick up in the offseason.
When it comes to playing the Pacers, the Bulls can match their size and also match them on the wing with Butler and Luol Deng. George and Hibbert could give Rose some major problems, and Derrick's ability to deal with them could determine who wins a potential playoff series. But I have enough confidence in Rose and Thibs' genius that they would be able to figure things out.
All this being said, I'd certainly prefer NOT to face the Pacers in a playoff series next year, even though I think the Bulls would win. I'd much rather let them duke it out with the Heat again in a second-round series, and instead face a team like the Knicks or Nets in the second-round. We pretty much know what those two teams are going to look like, and they really don't scare me at all.
A lot can still change depending on what happens this offseason, but for right now, I'm fairly confident that a healthy Bulls team is the second-best team in the East. And I'll be expecting a Bulls/Heat rematch in next year's playoffs, except this time around, it will be for the right to go to the NBA Finals.