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The two top teams in the East collide Wednesday night when Paul George's Pacers visit LeBron James and the Heat (ESPN, 7 ET). In the nightcap of the twin bill, the Bulls face Dwight Howard's Rockets (ESPN, 9:30 ET) in Houston. We break down all four squads.
Aaron McGuire, Gothic Ginobili: Fact. No matter what 2013-14 metric you're looking at, the Pacers come out on top. Schedule and pace-adjusted point differential? It's plus-6.71 for Indy versus plus-5.74 for Miami. Best win? It's an 11-point road win against the Spurs for Indy versus a five-point home win against the Clippers for Miami. Head-to-head? Indiana leads 1-0.
Dean Oliver, ESPN Director of Analytics: Fact. Mark Warkentien taught me that a team is built on four things: good players, playing hard, playing together and X's and O's. Right now, Miami's top players are better than Indiana's, but Indiana plays harder and is playing together better. Miami is better with four starters than with five, better with three starters than with four, etc., a sign of a team feeling each other out -- which is not the case with Indiana.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop Network: Fiction. Indiana is certainly more invested in the regular season, and the Pacers have the superior defense. They aren't as balanced as Miami, though. The Heat have the second-best offense and sixth-best defense, all the while resting players at will. Indiana's monster D has also recently proven vulnerable to the transition attack (well, at least vulnerable when playing the extraterrestrials in Oklahoma City). I favor Miami's balance.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop76: Fact. The Pacers have come back down to earth a bit after their scintillating start, and Miami is still Miami, but Indiana has the strongest starting five in basketball, enviable depth and the best defense in the land. If these teams played on a neutral floor 100 times, right now, I think Frank Vogel's guys win 55.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Fact. The record speaks for itself at this point in the season. Indiana is better defensively and has beaten Miami once already. Paul George didn't make his first basket until late in the third quarter, and the Pacers still got past the Heat. Why? Because Roy Hibbert simply takes his game to another level when he faces Miami.
McGuire: Fact. This is more muddled than the last answer. While the twin vagaries of injury and age are hard to predict, Miami is the older team and it has gone through three consecutive final-round seasons. Expecting them to turn it up again is reasonable given the past few seasons, but exceedingly difficult. I'd hesitantly take Indiana.
Oliver: Fiction. Miami may have better players who aren't playing as hard right now or perhaps playing together so well, but they will be when the playoffs come around. They are aiming solely at that time of year. Assuming they are healthy by the trade deadline, they will be on the same page for the playoffs.
Strauss: Fiction. There's so much focus on what Miami's weakness might be and how this or that team will attack that vulnerability. It makes sense because "Who will topple the champs?" makes for better reading than "Whom will the champs beat?" My point is that there are more elements to this series than Miami's Roy Hibbert problem. For instance, Miami's swarming defense still wrenches turnovers from a slow Indiana offense. I expect that issue to swing this series again.
Sunnergren: Fiction. There are a few facts and figures I could throw around here. (Did you know the 2013-14 Heat have a true shooting percentage of 60.3? They do!) But it comes down to this: Come playoff time, LeBron, Dwyane Wade and coach Erik Spoelstra will find a way to put themselves in the driver's seat out East.
Wallace: Fiction. Technically, the Pacers were better than the Heat in the regular season a year ago, too. But things change in the playoffs. Miami is 11-1 in postseason series since LeBron James arrived. The Heat have a way of getting through the dog days of the season and then truly establishing their bite when it matters most.
McGuire: Fact. Predicting two years in the future is difficult. But in two years, the Pacers are virtually guaranteed to still have Paul George, David West, George Hill and Hibbert on the books, with three of them in their primes. The Heat currently aren't guaranteed to have any of their current stars on the books in 2016, and even if they do, they'll be a great deal older.
Oliver: Fact. It's hard to bet against LeBron, but will he be in Miami in two years? Assuming not, Indiana will stay good because the Pacers have been building right, getting a good coach, good talent who know their roles, investing in good players, not overspending.
Strauss: Fact. This, I can get on board with. If Dwyane Wade is truly "getting that Kobe deal," as LeBron puts it, it's difficult to see how Miami builds a better team going forward. Meanwhile, the Pacers should improve merely because their best players are still so young.
Sunnergren: Fact. Here's the calculus: If LeBron bolts, Indiana wins, and even if he imports a new supporting cast and returns to Miami, there's still a chance the cresting Pacers will be better. In 2015, Paul George and Lance Stephenson both will be 25 -- stronger and smarter than they are now -- and Roy Hibbert and George Hill, at 29, still will be squarely in their primes.
Wallace: Fiction. Just too many unknown variables in play to know for sure. If LeBron, Chris Bosh and even a diminished Wade are still in Miami, and the team finds an adequate supporting cast, then the Pacers will have their work cut out for them for years to come. We could very well see a 1990s Bulls-Knicks type of situation play out.
McGuire: Fiction. Even if you think Derrick Rose is coming back, the Bulls' cupboard is a bit bare. Rose is great, in theory, but Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah are their only other young pieces of note, and the team has a startling amount of dead money for a contender. They aren't in the worst shape of any team, but barring a Jabari Parker surprise, bright is an overstatement.
Oliver: Fiction. It is a big-market team, so it has that in its favor. Tom Thibodeau is a great coach, but will he wear himself or the team out? Good players, but the front office likes them too much and they got too close to a title (it's easy to overvalue your players just due to emotional ties and past success) to take the gamble to get great players.
Strauss: Fiction. Derrick Rose does a lot of great things, but he doesn't recruit and he doesn't stay healthy. Both those qualities bode badly for this team's future, to say nothing of Chicago's spending situation and Tom Thibodeau's contract status. Tanking for local kid Jabari Parker wouldn't be the worst plan.
Sunnergren: Fact. The Bulls have a franchise player in Derrick Rose (don't sweat the meniscus tear, the injury isn't career-threatening), a warrior and double-double machine in Joakim Noah, a tremendous (and tremendously cheap) young asset in Jimmy Butler and, arguably the second-best coach in the NBA. I'm not worried about Chicago.
Wallace: Fiction. There's absolutely no evidence to suggest that Derrick Rose will ever be the MVP-level player we saw three years ago after two knee surgeries. The Bulls still have assets in Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. But unless they can get a top-level free agent or make a huge trade for a catalyst, this team is stuck in neutral.
McGuire: Fact, although this one is entirely dependent on your definition of "contender." I define it as a team that has a reasonably visible path to the Finals. The Rockets' defense is concerning, but their offense is -- while not entertaining -- blisteringly effective at its peak and their best players are young. Playoff surprises aren't out of the question. The Rockets aren't a favorite, but they're in the conversation.
Oliver: Fact. They are a bit vulnerable right now to good passing teams and have the lingering Omer Asik situation. But James Harden is a tremendous talent who can leverage teammates on the offensive side and you can build a great defense around Howard, who takes care of so many problems around the basket.
Strauss: Fact. It's hard to imagine this youthful, boisterous crew actually winning, but the Rockets present formidable advantages. They buy themselves a wide margin of error by shooting a ton of 3s and rebounding the ball. As we've seen when they played San Antonio and Golden State, Houston's 4-out, 1-in approach tends to kill defenses that rely on slower power forwards. While their defense hasn't lived up to expectations, it's still a top-10 unit with a lot of potential. If that weren't enough for "contender" status, the Omer Asik stakes also should net this team a valuable piece or two.
Sunnergren: Fact. The Rockets have been a minor disappointment in 2013-14, but once James Harden's triples start dropping with greater regularity (he's shooting a career-low 31.2 percent on 3-pointers) and general manager Daryl Morey flips Omer Asik for what promises to be a haul, Houston should be ready to launch. And don't sleep on this: Dwight Howard is back. In December, he's averaging 19.3 points and 15 rebounds.
Wallace: Fact. But I reserve a slight bit of judgment until I see what the Rockets get in exchange for Omer Asik. The West, as we've seen, is wide open this season. There are as many as six teams that have a legitimate shot to reach the NBA Finals. It would be foolish to prematurely count Dwight Howard and James Harden out of that mix.