There’s no need to look any further, if there was any need to do so in the first place. There’s no need to get cute and try to look for “sexy” dark horse picks to come out of the NBA’s Eastern Conference this year.
Two eyes is all it takes to conclude that the Eastern Conference champion will either be the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers. Both teams sit comfortably atop the East, separated by a week’s worth of games while they hold double digit leads in the win column over the rest of the conference. The defending champion Heat, owners of back-to-back titles, barely escaped their last two playoff meetings against Indiana, battles in which Miami’s experience and superstars decided the outcome.
Size has always been the key to competing with Miami, and now the Pacers may have added it after acquiring former Lakers center Andrew Bynum to help clog the paint along with starting center Roy Hibbert and backup Ian Mahinmi. After a few tumultuous years, Bynum’s star doesn't shine as bright as it once did, but is it still bright enough to help the Pacers edge the Heat? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.
Riley: Forget about the Miami Heat, there might not be a team in the league that can defeat the Pacers in a seven-game series. Their unit was already strong, but when you include Bynum, who doesn’t even have to do much, then you’re talking about a team ready to hoist a championship banner. With Danny Granger back and trying to round into shape, by the time the postseason starts Indiana could be ready to run through the Eastern Conference. George has become the superstar that any franchise needs to carry them while Hibbert, George Hill, Lance Stephenson and David West would each start at their own respected positions for more than 90 percent of the teams in the league. Bring Bynum, Luis Scola and Mahinmi off the bench and you have the best rotation of big men in the league. Miami has won back-to-back titles using James at the four position to create mismatches and speed advantages. Trying to execute that same strategy against the Pacers’ band of bigs might get James killed.
Green: You can’t just write off the defending champs like that. Indiana has been a tough matchup for the Heat over the past few years, but even when you add up all that Indiana has, it still doesn't equal the star power that James brings—along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. I still don’t trust George to show up in big games because we’ve only seen it in flashes. The Pacers are still slow-footed as an overall unit, and one thing Miami will abuse you with is speed. Bosh at center will be just as tough as a matchup for any Pacers center, and while most of us still value Bynum for what he did in years past, we need to understand that the Bynum of late hasn't been much more than a mascot wearing a basketball uniform. Will he even be there by the time June starts? Who knows.
Riley: That’s the beauty of what the Pacers have done: they don’t need Bynum to be great, just to be big. That’s another six fouls that Indiana can now trot out on the hardwood, and still get effective post play if they need it. In a center-deprived league, the Pacers have the advantage of having a capable one on the court at all times of any game. Whether it’s the first quarter or the fourth, the Pacers will have a bag of big men that they can comfortably place on the court. With all three centers healthy and active, that’ll be nearly 900 pounds of middlemen that Indiana will have in its inventory. The late 90s Chicago Bulls team had an assortment of centers including Bill Wennington, Luc Longley and the late Bison Dele, born Brian Williams, that they accumulated strictly for the purpose of fouling Shaquille O'Neal when he was with the Orlando Magic. The Pacers’ center group doesn't have to worry about a Shaq-type center patrolling the East, but they can use their combined 18 fouls to take swipes at James if they wish. The only difference is that this group doesn’t have to just hack, they can also score with their back to the basket as well. Obviously, Jordan was a huge factor in the Bulls success but having that three-headed tandem at center worked well for Chicago.
Green: The Heat have made a living over the last few seasons by being fast and disruptive on defense. They'll continue to swarm offensive post ups and play passing lanes like they always do, and they'll befuddle an out-of-shape Bynum who hasn’t played relevant basketball in over two and a half years. I like what Indiana has done from a personnel standpoint, but the speed and attack that Miami brings changes game plans and ideas. No matter who the Pacers get, they still can’t find a player to match James’ talents, regardless of George. Simply put, James is still the best player on the planet and it’s hard to design a plan or prepare for the things he can do. I’m a show me kind-of-guy and I’ll have to see Indiana beat Miami before I actually say they can.