Quick, after Chicago and Miami who is the third best team in the Eastern Conference? It's not Boston, Atlanta or even Orlando. Nope, it's the Indiana Pacers, who locked down the third spot and home court in the first round of the playoffs on Wednesday night. The Pacers currently sport a 41-22 record and have won seven straight games heading into this weekend.
With a good mix of young players, veterans and an up-and-coming coach, the Pacers have slid under the radar this season but they have positioned themselves to be a factor in the league for years to come.
Last season, the Wizards brass pointed to Oklahoma City as the blueprint for Washington's rebuild. The huge difference, of course, is the Thunder are aided by two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook while the Wizards don't have one.
I would advise the Wizards to scrap those plans and look to what Indiana has done as a way to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
So, how did the Pacers get back to being a solid NBA team, capable of making a run this post-season?
From 2006-07 up until last season, the Pacers were not good, going four straight seasons without sniffing the playoffs. But their rebuild started by making great draft picks three straight years. Indiana in 2008 took center Roy Hibbert, who has become an all-star. They also picked up a bruising hustle player in forward Tyler Hansbrough in 2009 and he has become a vital role player off the bench. In 2010, they took little-known Paul George, who has become a starter in only his second season.
Already with an all-star in tow in guard Danny Granger, the Pacers picked up free-agent forward and former all-star David West this past summer.
Add veterans George Hill and Leandro Barbosa via mid-season trade, and general manager Larry Bird is letting the rest of the league know that not only are the Pacers a legitimate contender this season but in the future as well.
Another key moment in the Pacers' success was Bird keeping then-interim coach Frank Vogel this past off-season. After Vogel took over for the fired Jim O'Brien last season, Vogel guided the Pacers to a 20-18 record and they sneaked in as the 8th seed. They were ousted by the Bulls in five games.
The Pacers don't wow anyone with "big names" on the roster but they have drafted wisely, picked up quality veteran free-agents, and given a young eager coach a chance -- and it has worked out.
The Wizards should take note.