Are the Indiana Pacers the NBA's Biggest Dark-Horse Contender?

Ethan Sherwood Strauss@SherwoodStraussNBA Lead WriterFebruary 6, 2013

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 15:  Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers and Ben Gordon #8 of the Charlotte Bobcats go after a loose ball during their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on January 15, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Miami Heat are prohibitive Eastern Conference favorites. The New York Knicks can win almost any playoff series thanks to their three-point-heavy strategy. The Chicago Bulls are a formidable team just waiting for a major boost once Derrick Rose returns.

In the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers get lost in the shuffle. They're third in the East, and they don't receive the media attention the fifth-place Brooklyn Nets do.

The Pacers, though good, are hard to care about. They happen to play the most brutally ugly style of basketball of any team in the Association. 

In basketball terms, "ugly" equals "dearth of offense." On defense, Indiana ranks out as the best team in the league, and it has for most of the season. 

The Pacers also rank at the bottom in offensive efficiency, though that distinction is changing by the game. For much of the year, they were second to last in offensive efficiency, behind the Washington Wizards. In a matter of weeks, they've climbed up to a 21st ranking, thanks in part to Paul George's emergence. 

In George, the Pacers have their upside. He represents their ability to go from "pretty good" to "contender" status. Though they may never quite get there, the recent weeks have been encouraging.

When Danny Granger went down with patellar tendinosis in his left knee before the start of the regular season, it was assumed that George had to step up. He struggled at first, leading myself and a few others to conclude that he might not be right for a prime offensive role.

In 2013, though, George grew into his new All-Star status. He's averaged 39 percent from long range and a blip under 20 points per game. He's huge for a wing (6'8''), and he's using that size to snag 8.8 boards over that span. 

What sets George apart is his height, length, dribbling and shooting ability. A wing player usually possesses at least one of these qualities, but claiming all four is rare. More than rare, it's valuable. 

This is why you may be hearing Tracy McGrady comparisons. To be fair, even George is trying to temper those:

Yeaaaa the TMac comparisons is coo but it's too early for that.. Lemme be ME! The best way I can!

— Paul George (@Paul_George24) February 6, 2013

I doubt that George will ever be T-Mac in his prime. He just doesn't possess the same shot-creating ability. But in addition to being a perennial All-Star selection, he can be more of a defensive force than McGrady.

If you're facing Indiana in the coming years, that's quite frightening. The Pacers are already a dominant defensive unit, having throttled Miami twice this season. If George and David West drag them to offensive competence, they become what the Boston Celtics recently were.

Another factor that could help Indiana get better would be Roy Hibbert returning to form. He's a vital cog in that splendid team defense, but his offense has taken a mysterious nosedive this season.

Once Hibbert crawls from the swamp of his 41.7 percent shooting from the floor, Indiana can get back to the top-10 offensive status it claimed last season.

Under the radar, the tools are in place for the Pacers to be a dangerous playoff squad. So long as they maintain that defense, they have a shot in almost any series.