Although Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler stole the headlines, my favorite move of the 2011 NBA offseason was the Indiana Pacers signing free agent David West.
It wasn’t because the Pacers are my favorite team – honestly, since it’s no longer my job to watch the NBA every night, I’ve gone back to the neutrality that comes with waiting for the Sonics to return to Seattle – but because West-to-Indy made so much sense on so many levels:
The move matched a team on the brink of being taken seriously in the East with a player that could push them over the hump. It meant that a team with question marks about its toughness was getting a guy with linebacker muscles and a perma-scowl etched on his face. A team in need of another scorer was getting a 6-9 power forward with one of the most dependable mid-range jump shots in the league, back-to-the-basket moves and a career free-throw percentage in the 80s. And a player who had been underrated and underappreciated throughout his NBA career would getting a chance to carve out his own niche and prove he could shine without being carried by the aforementioned CP3. The price tag ($20 million over two years) was even reasonable for the team, as well as a much-deserved reward for the player. Everything just worked.
That’s how I felt in December. That feeling was only confirmed when West helped the Pacers earn the No. 3 seed in the East, then averaged 15.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in Indiana’s first-round series against Orlando – the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2005.
Now that the Pacers will face championship front-runner Miami in the conference semifinals, with Game 1 tipping off Sunday, Indiana can see exactly how valuable West is to their operation.
West averaged 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in the regular season, but he has been on a tear since mid-April, when he says he realized he could finally go all-out on the knee he injured last season. He’ll be a key component in whatever chance Indiana has of beating the Heat.
But it’s less about him and more about the unit of which he’s a part. One of my first thoughts when Indiana signed West is the same as what I think today – that the Pacers have, pound-for-pound, the best frontcourt in the NBA with West, 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, and small forward Danny Granger. That trio represents the biggest advantage Indiana holds over the Heat.
What do you not get out of the Granger-West-Hibbert group? Hibbert (12.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg) and West score in the post. West and Granger (18.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) score from mid-range. Granger scores from long range. Hibbert and West rebound. Granger and Hibbert handle the ball and pass well for their positions. Hibbert protects the rim. All three defend their position, have leadership roles on the team, and buy into coach Frank Vogel’s philosophies and system. All three can play up-tempo or slow-paced, full court or half court. They cover every base you want covered by your front line.
Of course Miami has two frontcourt players – LeBron James and Chris Bosh – that are more talented individually than anybody on Indiana’s roster. But as great as LeBron is, he’s not two people. (Not yet.) And there’s definitely a case to be made that three very good players are better than two excellent players.
Not that this series is as simple as 3-on-2. The Pacers also have an offensive X-factor and defensive game-changer in shooting guard Paul George. They have two quality point guards in Darren Collison and George Hill. They have a potentially explosive, playoff-experienced scorer off the bench in Leandro Barbosa. They have a tough, “little things” type of frontcourt guy coming off the bench in Tyler Hansbrough. They have a good coach and a great home crowd (25-11 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season) and an extra layer of confidence that they didn’t have last year, when they lost to the Bulls in the first round.
The Pacers are a classic “Nothing to lose” underdog, and with the world focusing on story lines like LeBron’s clutchness and the Pat Riley-vs.-Larry Bird nostalgia, they’re under no pressure. They’re the 2007 Warriors, the 2009 Rockets, the 2011 Grizzlies. But just a little better and a little bigger.
Dwyane Wade knows. The same night he helped the Heat eliminate the Knicks, he told the Miami Herald that Indiana “is a better team” than New York. “It will be a tougher series for us,” Wade said. “Indiana plays a lot more in the post. That’s a very good team.”
In that same article, Chris Bosh and Mike Miller referenced the Pacers’ size, depth, offensive balance and toughness as challenges for the Heat.
But I have a feeling the series will swing on the play of West. He shot just 35 percent from the field against Miami in the regular season, but that was before his mid-April awakening. West is playing his best basketball of the season, and poses multiple problems for Miami if his jumper is falling and his temperament is sour.
“He’s a matchup nightmare,” Orlando’s Jason Richardson said of West in a FOX Sports article during the Pacers/Magic series. “We had four guys on him and he goes around them, we had different guys on him, he shoots right over them. It’s just that he’s tough.”
The Pacers and their power forward, however, can be more than just a tough out for Miami. They are actually capable of sending the Heat home for the summer.
What is the key for Indiana to win?
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