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NBA India Games 2019

NBA India Games 2019: The Indiana Pacers are a sleeper team in the Eastern Conference

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Domantas Sabonis, Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner [NBA Getty Images]

The Milwaukee Bucks dominated the NBA all last season and 24-year old reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is only going to continue to improve.

The Philadelphia 76ers were literally a few bounces away from their entire season's outcome changing and though they lost Jimmy Butler, they added key players in Josh Richardson and Al Horford to remain competitive.

The Boston Celtics replaced Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker, who has already had plenty of time to build chemistry with the team's young core - Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart - competing together at the FIBA Basketball World Cup this summer.

Those three teams are constantly brought up as the favourites to win the Eastern Conference. According to the most prominent oddsmakers, the Bucks and 76ers could flirt with 60 wins while the Celtics are once again in the mix to reach 50.

But there's another threat lurking in the East that's worthy of your attention as a contender - the Indiana Pacers.

MORE: How to buy tickets to the 2019 NBA India Games

The Pacers are coming off back-to-back 48-win seasons and are currently projected to win... 48 games! Again. They quietly strung together a successful offseason and look ready to improve upon their progress from last season.

Indiana finished 48-34 last year, good for fifth place in the conference. They did it despite losing All-Star guard Victor Oladipo for the season in January. Counted out by critics near and far once Oladipo's season was over, the Pacers scrapped their way to a 23-23 record in games without their star, a far cry from the previous season in which they went 0-7 without Oladipo.

This is a proud team on the heels of proving they're far more than one player and ready to make some serious noise come playoff time.

MORE: 10 most notable moments from the Pacers 2018-19 season

It will require patience, however. Oladipo is not expected to return from his injury (ruptured quad tendon) until roughly December or January and given this team lacks the typical star power of an elite NBA roster, it will once again rely on team defence and balanced scoring to stay afloat while awaiting his return.

This offseason, the Pacers underwent a makeover that should enable them to do exactly that.

In a historic offseason defined by unprecedented player movement across the league, the Pacers proved no exception as they themselves participated in the NBA's musical chairs in a major way.

Starting forwards in Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young signed elsewhere, sixth man Tyreke Evans has been suspended from the league and starting point guard Darren Collison unexpectedly retired. Yet somehow, they likely got better.

MORE: 10 biggest Pacers games to watch this season

The biggest addition comes in the form of Malcolm Brogdon who should flourish on both ends of the floor while awaiting Oladipo's return. Brogdon may not be an All-Star, but he' coming off a season in which he shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent from the free-throw line, an extraordinary feat that's only been done a handful of times in the history of the league. There were significant stretches during the postseason where Brogdon was Milwaukee's second-best player. He won't shy from a bigger role in the interim and once Oladipo returns, is a perfect fit alongside him.

It doesn't stop with Brogdon. They traded for Phoenix Suns scoring forward T.J. Warren who quietly averaged 18.9 points per game over the last two seasons, and they signed Charlotte Hornets sixth man Jeremy Lamb, who is coming off of a career-high 15.3 points per game last year.

Add that trio to an already promising young frontcourt of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis and you have an impressive starting unit that includes three elite defenders and five players that can score the ball when needed.

Last season, the Pacers' 106.0 defensive rating was third-best in the NBA and they'll likely be near the top again this season. Brogdon is a fantastic on-ball defender and when Oladipo returns, they'll be in the conversation for the best defensive backcourt in the NBA. With Turner and Sabonis holding down the paint, they already have one of the premier defensive frontcourts in the league.

While the loss of Bogdanovic in particular hurts (he led the team in scoring following Oladipo's season-ending injury), if Warren and Lamb can continue to score the way they did last year on depleted rosters desperate for bucket-getters, this Pacers team should have the horses to keep up with even the best of the best in their own conference.

Looking way down the line to potential playoff skirmishes, the individual matchups also work in Indiana's favour.

Turner and Sabonis matchup well with Horford and Joel Embiid and can take turns trying to wear down Antetokounmpo while also imposing a major mismatch against the Celtics' weakened frontcourt.

Brogdon and Oladipo can check any guard combination the East's top teams throw at them.

Perhaps the biggest question with regards to matchups will be how they defend players like Tatum, Khris Middleton and Tobias Harris. T.J. Warren isn't exactly known as a defensive stopper and will be challenged with taking a step forward - perhaps several steps forward - on that end of the floor.

The glaring question for the Pacers is their depth, where their bench is made up of all players with five or fewer years of experience. They'll ask a lot of guys like Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell while hoping young guns like Aaron Holiday, T.J. Leaf and rookie Goga Bitadze can keep the second unit afloat.

The defence is top-tier, there's no getting around that. They have players that can score the rock even while Oladipo continues to rehab - once he returns they have six legitimate offensive weapons. If their bench can prove to be even serviceable, with the way that this Indiana squad matches up against some of the best teams in their conference, they might be able to stun some NBA fans this upcoming season.

The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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