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Six Things to Know About the Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers are the league’s best team in terms of record, so why are their championship aspirations still questioned?

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As far as records go, the Indiana Pacers are the best team in the league, but that doesn’t mean the picture being painted out in Indianapolis has been completed just yet, even though the colors are rosy. There are still plenty of questions surrounding this team, but here are answers to six of the most pressing of those inquiries:

#1 – Danny Granger is more likely to stick with Indiana than be traded.

When a championship-caliber team heads into a trade deadline with a $14 million expiring contract and the need for some more consistent scoring, there is often a clamoring from fans that they do something with that expiring contract, like bring in another established player for the playoff push. Hope all you want, Pacers fans, but it really does look as though Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard will hold onto their former All-Star through February 20 for a number of reasons.

The first is that Granger actually has injected a little bit of offensive life into the club, averaging double digits in all but two of the games he’s played in 2014, so in some ways, the club looks at his return as a sort of mid-season acquisition of its own. He’s playing reasonably well at the moment, and they’ve always been curious to see what a healthy Granger would do for this team. Now they get to live out that experiment before he leaves the team for good this offseason.

Secondly, they really are going to need the cap space that expiring deal will create later this summer as they attempt to hold onto unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson. Unless they can get other expiring contracts back with talent on par with Granger, none of which seems likely, it makes more sense to keep the guy than trade him.

#2 – They want to keep Lance Stephenson beyond this year, but the money will be tight.

When all the dust settles this summer and the Pacers are finally ready to offer Stephenson a fat contract in the wake of what has clearly been a breakout season for him, Indiana will have about $8-9 million a year to offer their star guard without delving into luxury tax territory. The Pacers are a small market team that really can’t afford to pay that tax, so they’re really, really hoping that Stephenson hasn’t played himself out of their price range.

There is a chance that they could offload some other contract or contracts to ensure he remains in Indianapolis, but there’s also a lot of free agency money floating around this summer and Stephenson could command upwards of $11-12 million a season at this point. He fits well with the Pacers, but it’s hard to say whether another team may swoop in and steal him away. Quite frankly, it’s scaring the daylights out of Pacers fans right now, and rightfully so.

The better he plays, the better chance Indiana has at the title. But the better he plays, the less likely it is they can afford to hold onto him.

#3 – Roy Hibbert, if he stays healthy, is probably the Defensive Player of the Year

Hibbert was a preseason favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award based on Indiana’s smothering defense last year and his transcendent defensive play in the postseason, and so far this year he’s continued with that trend by averaging 2.5 blocks a night as the anchor of what is currently the league’s top defense. That dominance on that end of the floor has done nothing to dissuade those of us that thought he’d receive serious consideration for the award this season. It’s possible that he could already have this thing all sewed up.

#4 – There is interest in free agent center Andrew Bynum, for more than one reason.

When Andrew Bynum was initially released by the Chicago Bulls following his role in the Luol Deng trade, the two names that popped up as potential landing spots for the former All-Star center were the L.A. Clippers and Miami HEAT, the latter of which needs him probably more than any other team in the league, particularly now that they’ve cashed out Joel Anthony.

For some reason, however, not much has been made in regards to Bynum potentially signing with the Pacers, despite the fact that respected journalists (ESPN’s Marc Stein among them) have heard rumblings that the team may be interested in doing precisely that.

Forget for a minute that Bynum’s offense would be a much-needed addition to this team, which continues to struggle to score the ball, and look at this from another viewpoint: keeping Bynum away from the HEAT leaves them deficient at the center position, and that could potentially be worth the money in and of itself. The fact that he could find his All-Star form again for a team seriously competing for a ring would be a major added bonus.

#5 – Yes, the Pacers really can win the NBA championship this year.

At 31-7, Indiana has the best record in the NBA and has really been the only Eastern Conference team over the course of the last three years to prove even remotely close to the same level as the Miami HEAT. The most dominant team in the league deserves a little love as a real title threat, and with the step forward these guys have taken this year in terms of confidence, there’s no reason the league (and Miami specifically) shouldn’t take them seriously.

#6 – Offense is still a problem for these guys.

The only thing holding them back at this point is offense, where they still struggle to score consistently. With 97.9 points per game, the Pacers are 20th in the league in points scored, and with 20.9 assists per game, they’re actually 17th in that category as well. Paul George and Danny Granger, arguably the team’s two most natural scorers, have had a hard time filling it up with any sort of consistency or efficiency, and the rest of the top scorers on the team are more natural second and third fiddles.

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In other words, their problem this year is exactly the same as their problem was last year, the only difference now being that they’re deeper, more experienced and more confident. Is that enough to overcome their offensive woes and win a championship this spring? Nobody’s counting them out because the Pacers overall look as good as they have since the organization joined the NBA. If there was ever going to be a year when they were to win their first NBA championship, this would be it.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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