If you are looking for a surprise team in the Eastern Conference look no further than the Indiana Pacers.
Armed with perhaps the best young core in the league, head coach Frank Vogel begins his first full season with the Pacers, as they try to build on an impressive end to last season, as well as an even more impressive first round series that saw them give the Chicago Bulls all they could handle despite losing in five games.
Vogel changed the fortunes of the club when he took over for the fired Jim O'Brien, as the Pacers ended the year 20-18 with him at the helm and found themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
"I want expectations," Vogel said. "I want them having the bar set high. This team is capable. We've got pieces in place to do some really special things, to take this league by storm."
Bigger things are expected from this Pacers club with David West joining the fray to help ease the scoring burden from Danny Granger, who always seems to find himself right in the middle of trade discussions.
2010-11 Results: 37-45, second in Central; lost in East quarterfinals to Orlando.
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FRONTCOURT: Power forward David West automatically makes this team better. Considered by some to be the best free agent available, West adds at least 18 points and 7 rebounds to an already scrappy core, and his influence on the Pacers should pay immediate dividends. Not to mention at two years and $20 million is a bargain for a player of his magnitude.
"David looks at the Pacers as a good young team with a lot of potential," West's agent, Lance Young, told the Indianapolis Star. "He feels his experience and leadership will help a team like the Pacers."
West had his 2010-11 campaign cut short in late March with a torn medial collateral ligament. He was averaging a team-best 18.9 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds in 70 games last season for the Hornets before suffering his injury on March 24 against Utah.
If healthy West gives the Pacers a legitimate second scoring option, essentially easing the burden of the team's best player, small forward Danny Granger.
With the game on the line there are few other players you would rather have with the ball in their hands than Granger, who last season averaged 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 79 games. Having West around might also help Granger from having to resort to so many bad shots. He may even get his shooting percentages back up from the little over 42 percent he contributed the last two seasons.
In the middle is Roy Hibbert, who if he continues to progress could make the Pacers a scary good team. He's never going to be an elite passer, defender or rebounder, but he's solid to good in all those areas, and at times he's an elite scorer in the post.
BACKCOURT: Darren Collison seemed to shine once Vogel took over, as his assist numbers improved. They should be even better than the 5.1 he averaged last season with West, a player he is quite familiar with from their days together in New Orleans.
Collison probably doesn't have the size or strength to hold-up on the defensive end on a consistent basis but he's already proven he has the ability to run a team and create his own shot.
Paul George was a pleasant surprise for the Pacers last season and became the team's starting shooting guard late last season. A rangy guy that can handle the ball very well for a wing player and run the floor, George seems to be a budding star who can shoot, finish at the rim, rebound, defend, and shows a willingness, if not great ability, to pass.
BENCH: The Pacers are going to have one of the deeper benches in the league this season with the likes of power forward Tyler Hansbrough, versatile guard George Hill, as well as center Jeff Foster are all expected to play big parts for Vogel's club.
"Teams that are old are going to struggle. We have a team that most of our guys are in their prime or entering their prime and we have the depth to sustain this type of schedule," Vogel said.
Hansbrough emerged after O'Brien was fired and Vogel committed to playing him. He averaged 11 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last season.
Hill, meanwhile, is a perfect combo guard who provides a ton of energy off the bench.
Foster is back for another season and gives the team a veteran presence inside.
"There's a buildup," Foster said. "There was a three-year period where our goal was to win a championship. Obviously, we're not at that point yet, but we have a goal to make the playoffs, to continue to get better, and hopefully that goal of winning a championship comes sooner rather than later."
COACHING: Frank Vogel is a young coach with a lot to learn. His young Pacers, though, seemed to respond following Jim O'Brien's dismissal. His biggest problem will be trying to get this team to play consistently on a night-in, night-out basis.
OUTLOOK: The Pacers are still clearly a step below the toast of the Central Division, the Chicago Bulls. The Pacers, though, could be sneaky good, as they are the poster child for how small market franchises can compete in today's NBA (trades, drafting and efficient use of the salary cap). Not to mention they may be better suited than anyone to handle the insane schedule, given how young they are. Barring a major injury a playoff berth should be a lock. The only question is if they will he hosting a first round series.
"What I like about our chances is that I think a lockout-shortened season, where you're playing a lot of games without a lot of practice time hurts really, really young teams and really, really old teams," Vogel said. "The teams that sort of have a core group that's entering their prime will have the most success this season. We're young, but we don't have a bunch of rookies."