HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — At least a half-dozen different outfits have staked a claim to the title of “surprise team” in the month leading up to the quarter pole of this abbreviated NBA season.
Portland, Philadelphia, Orlando, Utah, Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers have all been in that mix at one point or another. Most of them remain among the select group of upstarts prepared to challenge for top-four seeds in the playoff chase in their respective conferences, while some others have started to fade in the face of that spotlight.
Well, you can add the Indiana Pacers to that mix of teams that surprised early on and appear to be constructed for more than just a momentary spin through the high-rent district. Having gotten off to an impressive 11-4 start this season, one that includes Sunday’s mettle-testing win over the Lakers in Los Angeles (Roy Hibbert has the broken nose, courtesy of a Kobe Bryant elbow, to prove it), coach Frank Vogel‘s team continues to turn heads.
The way the Pacers are doing it might the most impressive part. With the brain trust of Larry Bird and David Morway choosing to eschew the superstar round-up approach for a more traditional roster makeover, the Pacers have found the perfect fit. They’re getting some serious bang for their free agent bucks out David West, who has joined Hibbert and leading scorer Danny Granger in a stout starting frontline. The Pacers have talent, depth, good chemistry and a clear goal in mind. Seven players average double figures in scoring, Vogel can go 10-deep into his rotation without blinking and if you asked someone who the Pacers’ most important player was you’d get five or six different answers.
As one Pacers insider told me via text this morning, “these guys play hard, they’re athletic and for the first time in years they play as a team.”
That assessment mirrors the things Vogel said about his team to reporters after the win over the Lakers:
“It’s not about a super team of superstars; it’s about a balanced attack. We share the ball and we win the rebounding wars most nights. This team has an incredible desire to compete and to win, collectively. This team just has a collective mindset of grit and determination, to get the job done. They know that this can be a special year and I’ve never been around a team with the desire this team has.”
Vogel gets high marks for stating his team’s ambitions clearly and making sure that his team is on board. And his crew deserves the credit for taking that direction and running with it.
Hibbert went head-to-head with Andrew Bynum, with that broken nose, Sunday night and showed that he was more than up to the task against a player Shaquille O’Neal has called the “best big man” in the league this year (sorry Shaq, but we have to disagree.) Hibbert finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and two assists while Bynum countered with 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
The backcourt was fortified with the acquisition of Darren Collison (two seasons ago) and George Hill (last draft night), who have combined to average 21.7 points, 6.9 assists and 6.4 rebounds at the all-important point guard position.
If momentum means anything in this compressed season, the Pacers seem to have it working on their side. Most keen observers were curious to see if their spirited playoff effort against the Bulls last season would be followed up a next step or a step back. And right now it’s obvious they are moving in the right direction.