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by Greg Habeeb

As of last Sunday, there was only one undefeated team in the NBA. It was not Miami, not Brooklyn, not Houston, not Oklahoma City, not even San Antonio. No, the team which has managed to set the pace out of the gate resides in the Midwest.

The Indiana Pacers, fresh off of last season’s trip to the Eastern Conference Finals which saw them come within 48 minutes of eliminating the would-be champion Miami Heat, have raced off the starting line winning their first seven games.

Although the season is in its infancy at this point, it is clear that Indiana has drastically improved from last year, a season in which, again, they fell merely one game short of reaching the NBA Finals.

Paul George, the star of this Pacers squad, seems to have made “the leap.” George is averaging 25 points per game on 47 percent shooting (nearly 12 points more than his career average) while also mixing in eight rebounds and four assists on a nightly basis.

He is a stellar wing defender at 6-9, with the size, speed and length to cover both guards and bigger forwards.

Should anyone beat George off the dribble, they have to deal with center Roy Hibbert, a 7-foot behemoth who is leading the league in blocks, and power forward David West, arguably one of the strongest, toughest and meanest big men in the league.

That frontcourt trio, along with guards Lance Stephenson and George Hill and a vastly upgraded bench, is the reason that the Pacers and their stifling defense have surged out to the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference.

At the very least, they have proven that last season was no fluke, and that they are real contenders in 2014.

It’s ironic that everything seems to be coming together for Indiana this season, after a tumultuous summer in which Dwight Howard grabbed just about every headline with his decision, then indecision, then decision again to sign with the Houston Rockets and form one of the best inside-outside duos in the league with All-Star James Harden.

While Indiana quietly added backup point guard C.J. Watson and forward Luis Scola to aid one of 2013’s worst bench units, the Brooklyn Nets swung a blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics and acquired aging future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

The back-to-back champion Miami Heat received heavy coverage due to its quest for a three-peat and the existence of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, The Clippers added former Celtics Head Coach Doc Rivers and divisional rival Chicago anticipated the return of Derrick Rose. Meanwhile, the Pacers welcomed Larry Bird back to their front office after a season long hiatus and awaited the return of a former All-Star of their own in small forward Danny Granger.

Read those names again. Howard. Harden. Pierce. Garnett. James. Wade. Rose. All of which were drafted in the top five of their respective drafts with the exception of Pierce, who was drafted 10th overall.

In order to build a true NBA title contender, you have to either acquire enough assets (such as young, high upside players, draft picks and/or players with expiring contracts) to create an appealing enough trade offer to pry a star player away from his current team, clear enough cap space so that once a high lottery pick reaches free agency you have the ability to woo him enough that he chooses to sign with your team or tank the season in order to have the best possible shot at a high lottery pick.

To be fair, there’s plenty of truth to that belief. The last team to win an NBA title without a player chosen fifth or higher overall finishing higher than eighth on the roster in minutes played was the 1979 Seattle Supersonics. In other words, there have been 34 consecutive champions who have had a top-five pick as either the star of their team or playing significant minutes.

The value of singular players in basketball means that teams won’t hesitate to tank and possibly receive one of these players in the draft rather than compete for a No. 8 seed in the playoffs. Teams would rather take a chance at getting the next LeBron James instead of floating around in basketball purgatory, just good enough to push for the postseason but never good enough to be a serious title contender.

Indiana’s early success has been even more striking under that backdrop, as perhaps the biggest story of the summer had nothing to do with current NBA players but instead was focused on the potential upcoming draft class for next year.

The 2014 NBA draft is expected to be one of the strongest in a decade, possibly of all time. The class, headed by the trio of Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kentucky’s Julius Randle, is believed to have prospective All-Stars throughout the lottery.

As a result, there was much buzz around the NBA amongst the weaker teams this summer about doing whatever it took to get a high of a pick as possible in order to get a franchise-changing talent.

Some of these tanking strategies have already come to light. For example, the Boston Celtics are starting Jordan Crawford at point guard and the Utah Jazz are starting Richard Jefferson’s cadaver and giving it regular minutes.

There has been such an emphasis on losing this season that it’s surprising to note that Paul George is the only lottery pick on the Pacers’ roster (George was picked 10th overall in the 2010 draft). Every other player was either a mid-to-late first rounder, such as Hibbert, Granger and West, or a second round pick such as Scola, Hill and Stephenson.

It is rare to see a team constructed this way and even rarer for a team constructed this way to be this good. All things considered, it’s rather incredible that the Pacers may have chosen to round into form this season after a summer where current and future stars dominated the headlines. Whether or not Indiana will buck the trend and prove that it is possible to win with players without a top-five pedigree is still up for debate this early on, but there is no question that they have unconventionally become an Eastern Conference powerhouse with the ability to dethrone Miami now and with staying power for the future.

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