The return of David West puts that much more pressure on the knees of Dwyane Wade. By nearing an agreement with their power forward on Tuesday, the Pacers let the defending champions know that they had better be at full health for the latter rounds of the Eastern playoffs next year.
Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are the most talented stars of this free-agent class, but the most important (and among the least surprising) of all moves may have been West's agreement to return to Indiana.
Howard hasn't won a playoff series since 2010, and Paul has never played beyond the second round. West, by comparison, drove Indiana to a Game 7 of the conference finals last month and has earned series leads over Miami in each of the last two postseasons. The argument can and should be made that West has had a bigger impact on recent title races than any free agent on the market. The young Pacers never would have experienced their success of the last two years without the serious leadership of West.
His impending return to the Pacers gives them hope of entering next season with a better chance than ever of reaching the NBA Finals. Indiana is going to look forward to improving from within. The expectations of All-Star small forward Paul George will be strengthened after his surprising breakout season, and the standards for center Roy Hibbert were elevated by his physically dominant play against the Heat.
Team president Larry Bird returned after a one-year sabbatical by promising to improve the Pacers' disappointing bench. The Pacers lost pace-changing speed off the bench with the departures of Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa last season; next season they'll miss the aggressiveness of power forward Tyler Hansbrough, whose qualifying offer was withdrawn after West agreed to return.
Hansbrough wants to be a starter, and in any case the Pacers -- based on the absence of a market for the expiring contracts of Danny Granger ($14 million) and Gerald Green ($3.5 million) -- lacked the means to pay him. The Pacers are among the majority of NBA teams that are treating the luxury-tax threshold as a no-go area. They were expected to seek another big man to come off the bench in place of Hansbrough.
If Granger returns for another year and his recovery from a knee injury enables him to put up his normal numbers, then the Pacers' roster should be improved instantly. During the recent playoffs coach Frank Vogel was already looking ahead to the potential of restoring the 6-foot-8 Granger as the starter at small forward and shifting the 6-8 George back to shooting guard, which was the Pacers' formula two years ago. George's versatile strengths as a defender and passer could enable that move to generate more scoring without hurting chemistry.
The return of Granger would also enable Lance Stephenson to contend for the Sixth Man award next season. The 22-year-old guard produced across the board in his first year as a starter; he'll create mismatches off the bench next season, while the Pacers will be counting on improved playmaking from new backup point guard C.J. Watson.
The easiest prediction to make about the East next season is that Miami, Indiana and Chicago will be the top three contenders (to be followed by the Knicks and Nets). All three will be counting on the recovery of All-Stars with knee problems -- Wade, Granger and Derrick Rose, respectively -- but Indiana is going to be less dependent on its injured star than the other two.
The Pacers will enter next season hoping that their young rotation will peak around West, who believes so strongly in their potential that he didn't consider signing with another team. Based on the reported terms of his new deal, they'll be looking forward to three more years of contention together.