Pacers face new challenges in Central Division

Jabari Parker (12) of the Milwaukee Bucks drives by Andrew Wiggins of the Cleveland Cavaliers in an NBA summer league basketball Friday, July 11, 2014, in Las Vegas.
Jabari Parker (12) of the Milwaukee Bucks drives by Andrew Wiggins of the Cleveland Cavaliers in an NBA summer league basketball Friday, July 11, 2014, in Las Vegas.
John Locher / AP Photo

AP Sports Writer

The road to another Eastern Conference final just got a whole lot tougher for the Indiana Pacers.

In less than a month, they've seen their division transformed from Lottery Central to the NBA's center of attention.

LeBron James' decision to go home has Cleveland back on the list of title contenders. The addition of Pau Gasol and the return of a healthy Derrick Rose could give the Bulls their most formidable lineup in three seasons. The Bucks used the league's worst record to add No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker, and struggling Detroit has signed three free agents to go with Andre Drummond and Brandon Jennings. And, the two-time defending division champ Pacers were the best regular-season team in the East last season.

"It's safe to say that whoever is coming out of the East (in the NBA Finals) might be a Central Division team," Pacers swingman Paul George said after James broke the free-agent logjam and turned the Central Division race upside down. "Once again we've got our plate full. But we like our chances."

They should.

The Pacers had the league's best defense the past two seasons, still have a pair of two-time All-Stars in George and Roy Hibbert and a veteran stabilizer in David West. They haven't just stood still, either. Team president Larry Bird signed former Cleveland swingman C.J. Miles to help them stretch the floor, a move George and coach Frank Vogel believe will help fix the Pacers' biggest weakness with a more potent offense.

Indiana will need all of that and more to survive against this electrifying cast.

— James, a four-time MVP, joins three of the NBA's last four No. 1 overall picks including Andrew Wiggins.

— Rose missed most of the last two seasons with knee injuries after leading Chicago to winning the MVP Award and leading Chicago to the best record in the East in 2011. He will now have the high-scoring Gasol and 2014 NBA defensive player of the year, Joakim Noah, as sidekicks.

— Parker was widely considered the most NBA-ready player in the draft and should become the cornerstone of Milwaukee's rebuilding project.

— Drummond led the league in offensive rebounds last season and will work with Jennings, one of the league's most promising young guards, to produce a Motown turnaround.

The Pacers are embracing the test.

"That's what's fun about the NBA," Pacers backup Chris Copeland said Saturday night after playing in the Knox Indy Pro-Am game against mostly ex-college and international players. "There are stars everywhere."

The most immediate concern for Indy is re-signing Lance Stephenson, who led all NBA guards in rebounding and had a league-high five triple-doubles last season at age 23. Though the Pacers have offered him a five-year, $44 million contract, Stephenson is seeking more money as an unrestricted free agent even though some believe he hurt his free agent stock with his unusual behavior in the playoffs. Stephenson's return would allow Indiana to retain its starting lineup intact for a third straight season.

And if the Pacers are going to win their third straight division crown for the first time in the franchise's NBA history, George & Co. will need to be even better than last season.

George is already following one plan.

"I have worked a lot on posting up this summer," the 6-foot-9, 220-pound small forward said. "I've spent a lot of time here working on stuff I can get better at. I'm looking to add bulk and slowly, but surely, I'm doing it."

If George succeeds, it could give the Pacers the inside track in a division that arguably has the three best teams in the East, the top two draft picks and a boatload of young talent.

The winner will likely get home-court advantage, though that's not what the Pacers' primary focus.

"It's about winning each game," Copeland said. "LeBron is not the (only) issue for us."

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