All-Stars Chris Paul of the Clippers and Paul George of the Pacers are leading… (Los Angeles Times and Associated…)
Wait till next year, long the mantra of sad-sack sports franchises, could have a different meaning for the Clippers and the Indiana Pacers.
As in, by 2014 the NBA Finals could be theirs.
They got next, if not sooner.
Both teams feature a young and emerging core that plays a distinctive style. The Clippers live above the rim with Lob City. The Pacers lead the league in defense and rebounding, an approach that could be called Mob City.
"That team is definitely a contender," Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said of the Pacers, "and they're here to stay for a while."
The NBA's future becomes its present Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis when the Clippers and Indiana meet for the first time this season.
It could be a preview of championship matchups to come.
"We feel like we have a chance this year and we really put this team together to hopefully have a chance to compete for a title each and every year for a number of years going forward," Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said.
Indiana has already made believers of the Miami Heat, holding the defending champions to 77 and 89 points during a pair of victories this season.
The Pacers (36-21) trail only the Heat in the Eastern Conference standings and were recently bolstered by the return of forward Danny Granger from a knee injury that had sidelined him nearly four months.
Although Indiana may not be able to match the cachet of the Clippers, who have a pair of All-Stars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Pacers possess three of the NBA's most dynamic young players in Paul George, George Hill and Roy Hibbert, along with veterans David West and Granger.
George, 22, recently became the youngest All-Star in Pacers history and is a front-runner for most improved player in the league during a season in which he is averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, up from last season's 12.1 and 5.6.
Indiana's roster could be described as having no stars, just talent. Vogel says his team is full of "two-way players," the implication being that they are as committed to defense as they are to scoring.
Indiana flusters opponents with its superior length, including the 7-foot-2 Hibbert, the 6-9 West, the 6-8 George and the 6-5 Lance Stephenson. Granger, who is 6-8, is expected to rejoin the starting lineup in the next week or so after rounding into form off the bench.
Hibbert, however, won't face the Clippers. He was suspended Wednesday for his part in a skirmish against Golden State on Tuesday.
"Guys like Paul George and David West, they play taller than they really are because they've got really long arms," TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. "But I think more than anything it's kind of the mentality that team has, and Frank Vogel has done a really good job giving that team an identity. There's a toughness about them that I really like and it shows up pretty much every night."
The Clippers' starry starting lineup is complemented by perhaps the best bench in the NBA, with reserves Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Grant Hill often outplaying the first unit. The Clippers' bench averages a combined 40.4 points, second-best in the league.
The Pacers and the Clippers say they don't fear anyone, and why should they? Indiana is 2-0 against the Heat and the Clippers (41-18) are 2-1 against the San Antonio Spurs, the team with the top record in the NBA.
"That's not even a word we even think about," Griffin said when asked about a possible fear factor.
Indiana and the Clippers would have something to fret over should they meet on basketball's biggest stage come June.
Even if that's June 2014.
"I just feel like the Clippers as a team are probably a year or two away from reaching their prime as a group," Kerr said, pointing to the need for continued improvement from Griffin, 23, and center DeAndre Jordan, 24.
The Pacers' biggest flaw is an offense that averages only 94.0 points — seventh-worst in the league — though they have hit triple digits in nine of their last 14 games. Granger has struggled in his first two games back from his injury layoff, making only two of 17 shots.
But these teams appear built to last.
Indiana has a starting lineup with an average age of 25.6 and four of its top five players under contract through at least next season. The Pacers are trying to emulate another small-market success story they know well.
"We live in the same market as our Indianapolis Colts, who had about a 10-year run where every year everybody in the NFL thought they had a chance to win it all," Vogel said. "That's what we're hoping for with this team."
The Clippers, whose starters average 27.4 years, are seeking to stay together. Should Paul sign a maximum five-year contract extension this summer, the team would have Paul and Griffin under its control through at least the 2016-17 season.
"Assuming they get Chris back," Billups said, "having that core of him and Blake here for the next five or six years or whatever it is, that's how long the window is open" for a possible championship.
Billups said all the talk about being a franchise on the rise overlooks one thing.
"I think we're past that stage of up-and-coming," Billups said. "We are here. We are ready to at least contend at this point."
Just like the Pacers.