Indiana Pacers wing Danny Granger would like you to know that he thinks his team is the second best team in the Eastern conference right now, falling only behind only the NBA champion Miami Heat in that particular ranking. At least Danny can concede that Indiana isn't better than the champs, he'll give you that. Not better than the team that dumped them in six games last year. How kind and accurate of him.
Still, tell me why he should feel wrong, as you walk away from reading his thoughts. Why should Granger, after a tumultuous and strange NBA offseason, feel any different than this? Talk to me, after taking in Granger's musings to the Indianapolis Star's Mike Wells:
"It's going to be tough," he said. "Brooklyn, they are going to be a threat. Obviously Miami is going to be there, but I think we still view ourselves as a top-2 team in the East.
"I think we're still hungry," Granger said. "When you have that drive you don't become complacent. We had a good year, but we really didn't accomplish anything yet. So, we all still realize that and we're a veteran team and we know we have a long ways to go."
Nothing about Granger's statement exudes hubris. As you can tell from the second quote, the former All-Star still views his ever-changing squad as a work in progress, but this is where we fall in line with Danny in this particular regard.
Because the entire Eastern conference, save for those dastardly Miami Heat, is a work in progress.
It's either a conference on the make, or one ready to bow down to the 2012 champs. The Chicago Bulls, last season's top Eastern seed, will fall off and possibly out of the playoffs as star guard Derrick Rose spends potentially the entire year (once you consider what will be iffy play when he returns) recovering from an ACL tear. And every other team in the conference will be reeling from structural changes and banking on potential and potential alone while they attempt to compete on the fly.
Boston? Respect the heck out of them, but they're always a hip-pointer away from a stretch of 21-20 ball to start or end a season. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and a recovering Avery Bradley should be enough to make up for the loss of Ray Allen (to the Heat, of course), but the team's odd makeup and veteran core can't really be commented on until April gets here.
Brooklyn? Granger credits them as the conference's true up and comer, and while we very much approve of the prospects of a Deron Williams and Joe Johnson screen and roll (if not the price tag), that chemistry has yet to suss itself out. The roster, like Indiana's, looks great but not championship-great. Unlike Indiana, though, the Nets have yet to stride through a season with that rotation in place.
The New York Knicks? Few were hotter, to end the 2011-12 regular season. And, save for that nice and defensive-minded month of play, few were stranger both in the regular season and the offseason. Bad on-court chemistry and coaching turmoil marked a good portion of last season, and the typically-Knicksian oddities in the offseason (declining to match Jeremy Lin's ridiculous contract offer not because it was ridiculous but mostly out of spite, the roundup of veteran leaders that might need to be led to the arena because they've misplaced their glasses, J.R. freaking Smith) dotted another endless restructuring. It's true that none of this should really carry over once the lights go on, but a fully healthy Knick roster still has some explaining to do.
Philly likes Kwame Brown. Atlanta doesn't like being a "meh" team any more, and is rebuilding with that ethos in mind. Dwight Howard can't even be bothered to show up to lead a cast of kids after being contractually obliged to, so why would he bother to show up to aid on Jason Richardson's defensive misstep in the fall? Chicago, sadly, is done.
So why not the Pacers? Why not now?
And by "now," of course, we mean, "a sturdy second, miles away from Miami in both literal and figurative terms."
Because while the Heat still have their significant holes, this is still a team that has learned on the fly how to impose its will and talent at the same time. Indiana had every reason to believe that they could down the Heat after taking a 2-1 lead in the Eastern conference's second round last spring, what with Dwyane Wade appearing a shadow of his former self and LeBron James struggling to take over late in contests. All of that seemed to change over the course of a weekend, as you'll remember, while Miami pulled away. Granger told Wells that he's "still not over it." Considering the speed of Miami's ascension, I wouldn't be either.
Miami, for now at least, isn't the issue. The rest of the East is, and until Brooklyn wins 55-some times in 82 tries and Boston stays healthy enough to make a regular season dent, Indiana should feel as if it's their deputyship to lose. We're aware Boston was one great half of basketball away from making it to the Finals last June, but even the team's most passionate fans realize that one significant injury can change an entire regular season.
OK, maybe not the team's most passionate fans. This is Boston, after all.
For now, though, this is Indiana. George Hill is the full time starter at guard, Roy Hibbert is around and happy with his new contract, and D.J. Augustin is a one-year rental at backup point guard. Larry Bird is gone, for a year at least, and Frank Vogel will get his first real training camp with a roster that you and I both know he wants to talk and talk and talk to. The guy's been waiting his entire life to be a head coach, and then he had to wait another 20 months before being afforded a training camp that wasn't lockout-addled. Get ready to take a knee, Pacers.
And get ready, under the weight of expectation, to work on missing Miami in the early portions of the Eastern's playoff bracket, and getting to that third round. No small task, being expected to play into June, but this is what "top-two" teams do, yo. Granger, whose star has dimmed a bit over the last two years, will be expected to recover and eventually lead that charge.
We like the idea of Danny, as the world focuses on the Olympics and he taps his foot impatiently, grousing from afar and counting the hours until 2012-13 tipoff. It's a good sign, Pacer fans.
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