Has Indiana permanently blown its title shot?

Indiana's fall from title contender to Eastern Conference also-ran can largely be blamed on injury. But, even when their key pieces recover, will the Pacers ever be a true title threat again? (Photo: John Locher/AP)

There’s a fine line between winning and losing in professional sports, and at the moment, no team in the NBA provides better evidence of that than the Indiana Pacers.

For the past couple of seasons, everything had been falling into place in the Hoosier state. Paul George—drafted 10th-overall by the organization in the 2010 draft—was developing into a genuine superstar. He’d battled LeBron James head-to-head in the Conference finals in two straight seasons, and grown into the face of the franchise. Roy Hibbert—though inconsistent at times—had transformed from a Raptors draft pick into an all-star, one of the top true centres in the NBA. Veteran big man David West provided muscle up front, while the oft-unpredictable Lance Stephenson could be counted on to makes plays and score with regularity. Players had clearly defined roles and Frank Vogel’s team played old-school, grinding basketball—eschewing some of the trendy perimeter play now in fashion. Most of all, the Pacers played together.

In two straight seasons, that togetherness landed them just short of a trip to the Finals—nosed out on both occasions by the LeBron-led Miami Heat. Then suddenly, it was all gone. Stephenson decamped for Charlotte in free agency, George suffered a truly horrific injury playing for Team USA and the Pacers went from title contender to a team fighting and clawing out wins with a long shot at the playoffs.

Much of that free fall has been caused by injury. George is still out; West has been sidelined for 15 games; Hibbert has missed more time already in 2014-15 than in his entire career up to this season; starting point guard George Hil has missed all 22 games; and stand-in C.J. Watson has himself been shelved for 15.

But as fast as it’s fallen apart, it’s crucial to remember that the tides can shift again in a heartbeat.

The biggest issue facing the Pacers right now is finding enough time to build some cohesion. Practice time is a valuable commodity during the season because the games follow one another so quickly, but when you are trying to reintegrate players into the lineup and get newer guys accustomed to the spotlight, you need to practice. Enough practice to develop a team—a feeling of familiarity and togetherness—but not so much that players are being hurt or worn out. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The good thing for the Pacers is that despite the upheaval on the bench they still play in the Eastern Conference. Even having dropped six straight heading into tonight’s tilt against the Raptors—even sitting eight games below.500—they are only two games out of the conference’s final playoff spot.

But even when they get healthy, when all the pieces are back together, do the Pacers have enough left in the tank and on the roster to make another deep run? Head coach Frank Vogel definitely hasn’t suddenly lost it, but injuries can derail a team long enough for that elusive window to close—sometimes forever. It is very hard to rebuild, or even reload, on the fly, and Indiana has committed to this current group. The system is still in place and, really, it still works. The defensive style employed by Vogel will keep the Pacers in many games, even without their best offensive players.

So keep an eye on the Pacers treading water and biding their time somewhere in the Eastern pack. Because, as Raptors fans know from last season’s remarkable turnaround, the about-face can happen any time—and at any speed.

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