Remember when the Heat were routed by the Pacers in game three and panic ensued? Then LeBron had one of those memorable performances (40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists), and the Heat followed it up with 61 percent shooting in a game five rout. After Indiana jumped out to a hot start in game six, Dwyane Wade took over, scoring 18 points in the second quarter and carrying Miami to the Eastern Conference Finals. Wade finished with 41 points and said afterward, “talk about trading me again, bitch.”*
Indiana, a proud franchise that only missed the playoffs once from 1990-2006, has perhaps its best team since the 1999-2000 version that won 56 games and lost in the Finals to the Lakers. That version had 12-year vets Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson, solid interior play from Rik Smits and Dale Davis, plus offense off the bench in Austin Croshere. Their best player was probably Jalen Rose, who was just entering his prime. Miller was still an elite player at 34, but he always seemed like a “No. 2” player to me. Kind of like Danny Granger is right now (as strange as it sounds, Granger is as good an offensive player right now as Miller was at 28). The 1/2/other debate is a tricky one, and I don’t have a hard-and-fast definition, but essentially “No. 1” players are franchise players who can carry you to the Finals and make everyone around them better. Keeping in mind everybody needs help, I’d say these are your true franchise players in the NBA right now:
LeBron. Kobe. Wade. Durant. Derrick Rose. Dwight Howard. Dirk.
And that’s it.
Carmelo Anthony is a great player, but he’s been beyond the 1st round of the playoffs once. Russell Westbrook is incredible, but how do we know what he looks like without Kevin Durant? Kevin Love probably makes this list in the very near future. Chris Paul and Deron Williams are tremendous point guards, and if they were on the Bulls, would they make this list instead of Rose? Perhaps.
I know what you’re thinking – what about Boston and San Antonio? No players on the list? Well, each of those teams has three of the current Top 40 players in the league, and that’s the other way to win. (Rajon Rondo looks incredible with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce & Kevin Garnett by his side … what would he look like in Sacramento?)
Interestingly enough, here are the “stars” from the last six teams that made the Finals:
2011 – Dirk over LeBron/Wade
2010 – Kobe over Celtics Trio
2009 – Kobe over Dwight Howard
2008 – Celtics Trio over Kobe
2007 – Spurs Trio over LeBron
2006 – Wade over Dirk
[Remember, as it says above, “everybody needs help.”]
So what are the Indianas of the NBA to do? Instead of having an 8-9 deep rotation, maybe package some of that talent to get Granger two more “No. 2” players in hopes of forming a Spurs/Celtics-like team? Or do they keep the core and give it another go next year? (David West is signed for one more year; Granger two.)
Here’s a wildly optimistic look at why the Pacers should do nothing:
– George Hill, their point guard, had 20 assists and 16 turnovers in the series. He’s better than that. This was only his first season with the Pacers. He’ll improve.
– Paul George, their 2nd year pro, played great defense against Wade in games 1-3, but then Wade dominated him. George shot 44 percent in the regular season; just 36 percent against the Heat. He just turned 22. He’ll improve.
– Frank Vogel should let Barbosa and Amundson walk, and pare down his rotation a bit. You can’t play 9-10 guys in the postseason. And he needs to get Hibbert and West 10+ shots a game next postseason. Indiana’s most dominant performance in the series (game three) was also Hibbert’s best game (19-18-5).
* He did not say that.