The Indiana Pacers entered the weekend in the thick of the battle for the third seed in the Eastern Conference, which is a little bit like being the fourth Stooge, the fifth Beatle or the sixth man on the Fab Five. Nevertheless, the Pacers have been one of the league's most improved teams, and their coach, Frank Vogel, has risen from being Rick Pitino's video coordinator in Boston to a coach of the year candidate in his first full season as the head honcho in Indianapolis.
The Pacers have established themselves as rising powers in the East, but they have a lot at stake over the last four weeks of the regular season. Indiana has a slightly better point differential than Orlando, the current 3-seed, but the Magic has faced a tougher schedule. Indiana also has to worry about the cluster of teams behind it, a mixed bag of squads including Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia. The Pacers could finish anywhere from third to seventh in the final playoff standings.
Still, the Pacers are winning at a rate that equates to 49-33 over a full season, quite a step up from the 37-45 mark that squeezed them into the postseason last year. While the playoff berth was mostly a function of a shallow conference -- of 532 playoff teams since the ABA merger, only nine posted a lower winning percentage -- Indiana did put up a spirited battled against the top-seeded Bulls in the first round.
Pacers president Larry Bird seemingly has his club in an enviable position. Despite the additions of veterans David West, George Hill, Louis Amundson and Leandro Barbosa since the end of last season, Indiana is still about $7 million under this season's salary cap figure. Bird has constructed one of the league's deepest rosters and has a solid core of players who should just be entering their prime seasons. During the offseason, Bird will have to make decisions on restricted free-agents-to-be Hill and Roy Hibbert, but the recently acquired Barbosa comes off the books and there should be plenty of cash on hand.
However, as promising as the outlook in Indiana may appear right now, the Pacers do run the risk of getting trapped in the NBA's upper-middle class -- close to contender status, but not quite on the level of the league's elite -- if they can't add a star talent.