Optimistic Pacers open season versus Magic

(SportsNetwork.com) - The 2013-14 NBA season begins on Tuesday night when the Orlando Magic visit the Indiana Pacers, a team with very legitimate title aspirations.

It was in last season's Eastern Conference Finals where the Pacers stretched the Miami Heat, the eventual NBA champions, to seven games. They used bruising frontline play and stifling defense, the calling card for the Frank Vogel-led Pacers.

"Last year, our expectations were very high," Vogel said at the team's media day. "Not a whole lot different this year, other than I think we're better, deeper and more experienced."

It was in the postseason where Paul George emerged as a bona fide superstar, no longer in waiting. He averaged 19.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 5.1 apg in 19 playoff games last season and he was rewarded with a contract extension, believed to be for the max.

"They gave me a chance and now that I'm in this position, it's really my job to do everything in my position, in my will, to get us to that next step," George said when he signed his contract.

Larry Bird returned to his position as president of basketball operations and improved Indiana through a series of free-agent signings (Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson) and a nice trade for veteran forward Luis Scola.

But perhaps the most significant aspect to the Pacers improvement this season was supposed to come from former All-Star Danny Granger. He played in only five games last season with knee ailments, but is a career 18.1 point per game scorer.

Granger could have easily returned to Indiana's starting lineup, relegating Lance Stephenson to a bench role. But Granger injured his calf in preseason and will miss at least three weeks to start the season, including Tuesday night's game.

The Magic endured the worst record in the NBA last season, but it was all part of a plan. It was in the summer before last season, the Magic finally dealt malcontent center Dwight Howard in a trade most felt Orlando did not get enough.

Fast-forward to this offseason and the Magic are the only ones who still have the assets acquired in that blockbuster. Nikola Vucevic emerged as a great young center and Mo Harkless seems to have a bright future.

Factor in Orlando's fleecing of the Milwaukee Bucks that saw Tobias Harris come to the Magic Kingdom for J.J. Redick, who bolted Brew City, and the Magic do have a stockpile of young talent.

Added to that mix was Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 pick in the draft. Despite being a natural shooting guard, the Magic are trying to transition Oladipo to the point guard spot to eventually unseat incumbent Jameer Nelson.

Oladipo will begin his NBA career very close to his collegiate one as the University of Indiana product makes his league debut at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

"I'm really excited and getting this first year under my belt is going to be huge for me," Oladipo told the team's website. "I'm looking forward to having fun and learning throughout the season."

The Pacers won two of the three against the Magic last season, including two in a row. However, Orlando has taken seven of its last 10 in Indianapolis.