(SportsNetwork.com) - The Indiana Pacers had the Miami Heat against the ropes in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, but couldn't seem to land the knockout punch.
It was the second season in a row the Pacers were eliminated by the eventual NBA-champion Heat, but the 2013-14 campaign is showing more promise for Indiana than ever before.
The Pacers have a strong core with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and David West. George emerged as one of the league's top players last season and Hibbert solidified himself as one of the best all-around centers the NBA.
West provides Indiana with veteran leadership and a crafty offensive game. Granger missed all but five games last season with a knee injury, but his return could mean big things for the Pacers in 2013-14.
For Indiana to take that next step, dethroning the Heat, Granger will have to stay healthy and provide the same impact he did as an All-Star in 2011. So far through training camp and the preseason, it appears Granger is returning to is old self.
"I didn't see any limitations at all," Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. "He just looked like Danny Granger. Not like last year's Danny Granger where he was struggling to push off on certain plays. He looked like two years ago Danny Granger."
Indiana also benefited greatly, especially in the playoffs, from the improved play of Lance Stephenson. The Cincinnati product used the East Finals as a coming out party. While Stephenson didn't exactly light the world on fire, he proved to be more than just an average player, especially on the defensive end.
Although the Pacers had a lot to build on and look forward to after the strong campaign, they did have some needs to address.
One of the Pacers' biggest weaknesses last season was a lack of depth. In fact, Indiana was 29th in the NBA in bench scoring, with its reserves providing just 24.1 ppg.
General manager Larry Bird addressed that need in a big way, trading for power forward Luis Scola and signing point guard C.J. Watson and forward Chris Copeland. Scola provides starting-caliber talent at power forward off the bench. Watson will give the Pacers a more than capable backup to point guard George Hill.
Last season, Indiana was forced to rely heavily on Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin. Hansbrough is a great guy to have on your team with his almost unmatched hustle and toughness, but he lacks the skills to be an impact player in this league. Augustin is a tough undersized guard, but really doesn't bring much to the table.
Scola has the ability to average nearly a double-double off the bench and, while Watson isn't a great scorer, he will give the team a bona fide ball handler.
"I think (Scola's) probably our biggest (addition). In my mind, he's a starting power forward in the NBA and I don't know how we pulled him off and how we got him but we did. I think that's the brilliance of (consultant) Donnie (Walsh) and Larry (Bird)," Granger said of the additions.
Bird also inked forward Copeland, who showed flashes of talent with the New York Knicks last season. Copeland brings a much-needed shooting threat to the Pacers, who ranked 16th in the league with 6.9 three pointers per game.
2012-13 Results: 49-32, 1st in Central; lost in Eastern Conference Finals to Miami.
ADDITIONS: G C.J. Watson, F Luis Scola, F Chris Copeland, F Solomon Hill, G Donald Sloan
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- George Hill SG- Danny Granger SF- Paul George PF- David West C- Roy Hibbert
KEY RESERVES: G Lance Stephenson, C Ian Mahinmi, G C.J. Watson, F Luis Scola, F Chris Copeland, F Solomon Hill, G Donald Sloan
FRONTCOURT: Hibbert emerged as one of the best defensive centers in the league last season, and also performed at a high level on the offensive end. West received a three-year extension in the offseason and George has cemented himself as one of the up-and-coming superstars in the league, giving the Pacers the strongest front court in the East, and possibly in the entire league.
BACKCOURT: George made himself an up-and-coming superstar and the return of Granger will only help take the pressure off George. Stephenson had an impressive run in the playoffs and adds a strong defensive-minded presence in the backcourt. Hill is perhaps the Pacers' weakest link in the backcourt as he tends to be very inconsistent.
BENCH: The additions of Scola and Watson have made the Pacers significantly better. Scola, who was an amnesty casualty following five productive seasons with the Rockets, averaged 12.8 ppg and 6.6 rpg in just over 26 mpg last season with Phoenix. Indiana lost workhorse Hansbrough in the offseason, but upgraded with a starting-caliber power forward. Watson, meanwhile, gives the Pacers a solid backup point guard, providing an upgrade over undersized Augustin. Mahinmi is still very raw, but skilled enough to hold down the paint while Hibbert rests and Copeland will give Indiana a shooter off the bench. The Colorado product shot 47.9 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from behind the arc for the Knicks last season.
COACHING: Vogel returns for his third season at the helm for Indiana. Although many question Vogel's decision to take Hibbert out on the final play of Game 1 of the 2013 East Finals, he is certainly one of the best young coaches in the league, and sends a message his team can buy into.
OUTLOOK: This may be the season the Pacers drop the "up-and-coming" tag and prove that they are perennial contenders. They definitely have the pieces to do so with a superstar like George, a dominant big man with Hibbert and a veteran leader in West. If Granger can stay healthy and the bench produces to its potential, don't be surprised to see the Pacers lifting the Larry O'Brien trophy in June.