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Indiana’s Setting Their Own Pace

At the risk of a copyright claim by Sesame Street, let’s play a game of “one of these things is not like the others” featuring the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference playoff picture

–         The No. 1 seeds are the Chicago Bulls, who boast reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, reigning Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau and one of the NBA’s best benches.

–         The second seeds are the Miami Heat, whose leading scorers double as, arguably, two of the game’s best three or four players.

–         The No. 3 seeds are the Indiana Pacers, who haven’t finished .500 or better since the 2005-06 season and don’t feature a single player among the NBA’s top 20 scorers.

–         The No. 4 seeds are the Boston Celtics, winners of the East’s most recent championship (2008) and featuring Rajon Rondo alongside a trio of soon-to-be NBA Hall of Famers.

Congratulations for the eagle-eyed among you who picked the Pacers, who have spent the 2011-12 season disrupting the East’s status quo and challenging the notion that superstar-less clubs are simply also-rans in today’s NBA.

As chronicled in column this March in Sports Illustrated, Indiana, as engineered by team president Larry Bird, has pulled together a balanced group of complementary, quality players with character in lieu of having one (or two or three) franchise guys.

Not only has the core of Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough and deadline addition Leandro Barbosa already reached 40 wins on the year, but they’ve recorded victories over each of the aforementioned elite Eastern clubs and are rolling towards the postseason sporting a 10-1 April record.

It’s not just what they’re doing that’s remarkable, but how. Throughout NBA history, the general rule of thumb has been ‘have superstar, will travel’. Since 2004, you haven’t won an NBA championship without one (or more) of Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Dirk Nowitzki. Even before that, teams raised the Larry O’Brien trophy on account of players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olaujuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, well, Bird.

Then again, maybe this is the perfect time for a team like the Pacers to come along and fly in the face of league history. Prior to this lockout-shortened season, some analysts highlighted Indy as a potential riser (although I doubt anyone expected this level of success), pointing to the club’s depth, balance and youth as indications that they could navigate the tough, condensed schedule. Sure enough, the Pacers have benefited from good health, with only Collison missing significant time due to injury. This can be directly credited to the controlled minutes afforded to head coach Frank Vogel by his team’s depth (particularly with regards to oft-injured bigs West and Hibbert).

On top of that, they have emerged in a season which has not been kind to “the NBA superstar”. Just as the star-less Detroit Pistons’ 2004 title represented the triumph of David over the Lakers’ Goliath (L.A. featured O’Neal, Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton), Indiana’s group of supporting players has come along at a time when no clear MVP has broke away from the pack, Derrick Rose and Bryant have been banged up and stars like Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and lottery-bound Deron Williams have endured uncharacteristic struggles at one time or another.

Heck, the Orlando Magic, the club that the Pacers are currently slated to play in round one, might be the most superstar-damaged team in the league. Dwight Howard has led the Magic through what has been an ugly, public melodrama this season in which he has basically done every destructive thing possible to put himself on the outs with the team, including seeking the termination of his coach and asking management to keep him through the season and “roll the dice” on whether he’ll re-sign thereafter.

When (forget about ‘if’) Howard does ultimately bolt, the Magic (and the city of Orlando) might wind up as the biggest victims of any nasty NBA divorce of the past few years.

As for the Pacers, their core boasts the structure and stability to succeed over the long term. All core members except Barbosa are under contract through at least next season, with most players (George, Collison, Hill, Hibbert and Hansbrough) still on their rookie deals and Granger and West signed to long-term deals. If Indy wants to keep Barbosa in the fold, or wishes to further bolster its already-deep club, it will have plenty of room (as much as $20 million in cap space) to do so.

But for now, the focus is on a present that includes postseason play. Indiana won’t be the most experienced team out there, nor will they be the most star-studded. Whether they need to be remains to be seen.

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