KRAVITZ: The Pacers are no longer cute overachievers; now they are good, really good…scary good

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - One year ago, they were a cute, plucky group of misfit overachievers, a host of unheralded and unloved players who turned the Indiana Pacers into one of the best and most unlikely come-from-nowhere stories in the NBA.

Well, I am here to tell you, the Pacers are no longer cute and plucky. No, they are – what's the word I'm looking for here? – good. With a chance to be really good. With a chance to not only win the Central Division – actually, they should win the Central Division rather easily – but compete for a chance to win the Eastern Conference. Sure, Boston is the prohibitive favorite and Philadelphia tanked their way back into contention and Toronto is Toronto, but in these past two weeks, the Pacers have gone from cuddly to scary, even ferocious.

They signed Doug McDermott, the floor-stretcher extraordinaire, who has finally found a home after playing for four teams in four years. He shot 49 percent from three last year during his time in Dallas, and there's no reason to think he's incapable of putting up similarly impressive numbers next year for the Pacers. Even better, McDermott, who was born and raised in Iowa, grew up a Pacers fan and idolized Reggie Miller.

At that point, you thought, "Well, that's probably it. These are the Pacers. They don't do free agency.''

And you'd be wrong.

In one of the more surprising and exciting moves of this offseason, they signed combo guard Tyreke Evans who, if he can stay healthy, gives the Pacers another big-time scorer off the bench. Evans, the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2009-10, has been slowed throughout his career by injuries, but had a renaissance season last year in Memphis, where he averaged 19.4 points, 5.1 assists and 5.2 assists in 52 games. (He was a healthy scratch for several games because Memphis was tanking). Why is he so important? Think back to last year when the Pacers were 0-8 when Victor Oladipo didn't play. Think back to last year's playoff series loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers when the Cavs effectively took Oladipo out of several games by doubling him virtually every time he touched the basketball. The Pacers desperately needed a complementary scorer, and in Evans, they got one who can lead the second unit.

"He can play several positions,'' coach Nate McMillan said of Evans. "He'll be playing the two (guard) and he'll swing to some one (point guard). He has some versatility, too, he can play with the ball, but he has the ability to play off the ball with what we try to do with a lot of movement.''

At that point, you thought, "Well, that was a nice free agent haul, even better than last year's acquisitions of Cory Joseph, Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison, but that's it.''

And you'd be wrong.

While the Pacers cannot officially acknowledge this news, it's a done deal: Indiana signed Kyle O'Quinn, a big man who does all the dirty work and is revered around the league as one of the best locker room guys going. O'Quinn will be a cheaper, younger and more productive version of Al Jefferson, who will likely sign to play in Europe. O'Quinn averaged 7.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game last year with the Knicks. He wanted to come to Indiana so badly, he told Pritchard and his staff, "If you're in the neighborhood contractually, I'll sign.''

Granted, the Pacers didn't sign any superstars – maybe next summer, when they'll have $57 million at their disposal, depending on who they choose to retain – but they got some keepers, and in the process, they took a 48-win team and turned it into one that should win 50 or more and earn homecourt advantage in the early portions of the playoffs.

"We have our seven top returning players and we added a dynamic playmaker, one of the special, unique talents in the league (in Evans) and then an elite shooter (McDermott), so we felt like we checked the boxes with those two additions,'' Kevin Pritchard said. "…Last year's team stood on its own merits and this team has an opportunity to be a very good team. We went into free agency wanting to add two or three players, so today's a good day for us.''

McDermott, Evans, O'Quinn, they aren't headline-grabbers nationally, but locally, they are a very big deal. Remember, the Pacers have not historically been a landing spot for name free agents, with the notable exception of David West. That, though, is changing. It's changing because the Pacers have established themselves as a team that not only wins but has a culture that is appealing to players looking for a new home. It's changing because the Pacers have their new Taj Mahal in the St. Vincent's Training Center. And it's changing, really changing, because LeBron James is gone from the Eastern Conference, and now players look for landing spots hear the giant sucking sound that emanates from the vacuum in the East.

"Absolutely,'' Pritchard said when I asked him if James' exit has made Eastern teams more palatable for free agents. "How many times did he knock us out of the playoffs? Five times? There's your answer.''

I am generally not given to overstatement, but I'll say this: I don't like Indiana's offseason facelift; I love it. And it's not completely beyond the realm of comprehension that if things go well, if the Pacers remain relatively healthy, they could very well reach the Eastern Conference Finals next season. Consider, they kept their top seven players from last season, and have now added a three-point specialist (McDermott), a creator/scorer/rebounder (Evans) and a thick-bodied paint warrior (O'Quinn). All of a sudden, Indiana has one of the better second units in the league.

What happened here last year in Indiana, well, people around the league noticed. Guys like McDermott, Evans and O'Quinn, they noticed. They saw a team that is blessed with a rising star in Oladipo, a team filled with players who play for one another. If we've noticed anything in recent years, it's that it's no longer all about the money; now, guys want to win and want to be happy, and they've discovered that Indiana – humble, small-market Indiana – is a great place to find both.

"Just watching this team last year in the playoffs, you kind of wanted to be part of it,'' McDermott said. "It looks like all the guys get along and they're all pulling for each other.''

A year ago at this time, we were still getting over the Paul George trade – my take that day was, "Is that all they got?'' – and Twitter was awash in conversation about whether the Pacers should tank in 2017. Now look: They are a contender, and they are a contender in a conference that is no longer being bulled by LeBron James. Look, we know the Golden State Warriors are going to win the title next year – and the years after that, and… -- but what is everybody else supposed to do? Close up shop? Stop trying to compete?

The Pacers are building something special and enduring here in Indiana, and they did it all without tanking, with is truly novel in this day and age. The days of cute, plucky and overachieving are done. The Pacers have taken their team to a new level, seemingly overnight.

Want more Kravitz? Subscribe to The Bob Kravitz Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or TuneIn. If you have a good story idea that's worth writing, feel free to send it to bkravitz@wthr.com.

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