Pendergraph getting the team riled up before a game.

Team Just Getting Started

by Conrad Brunner || Archive ||

May 24, 2012 | Updated: July 5, 2012

In the immediate aftermath of a season, the prevailing feeling most always is frustration.

That's only natural, when the last game is a loss.

Once you get past the fact the Pacers' 2011-12 season ended in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a hard-fought series with the Marquee Miami Heat, you should be able to sit back, take it all in and smile.

West celebrates during Indiana's 2012 first round victory over the Orlando Magic

The season's over, but this team has only just gotten started.

Consider where the Pacers were a year ago. So many were encouraged by a strong finish and a stirring playoff series with Chicago that offered so much promise. That strong finish was a 20-18 record under Frank Vogel that produced a 37-45 overall mark that allowed the team to squeak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. That encouraging postseason was a five-game loss in the first round.

And now?

This time, the strong finish was 12-3 in April, producing the franchise's fourth best record ever in terms of winning percentage -- .636, which would equate to 52 victories during a full season -- the third seed in the Eastern Conference and homecourt advantage in the first round.

This time, the Pacers won a playoff series for the first time in seven years and threatened to make their seventh visit to the conference finals.

That's not one small step. It's a giant leap.

So while we wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the loss to the Heat, let us also remember how the Pacers got here from there.

West celebrates during Indiana's 2012 first round victory over the Orlando Magic

It really began on draft night, when team President Larry Bird made a bold trade, dealing the rights to Kawhi Leonard in a package to San Antonio for George Hill. Not only did he bring a native son back to Indianapolis, he added a talented young guard developed in the Spurs' winning system.

Not long thereafter, Bird removed the interim tag from Vogel, making him the full-time head coach. Heading into a must-win season, this also was a gamble, given Vogel's relative lack of experience. Rather than recycling another older coach, Bird put his faith in Vogel's relentless optimism and positive energy. And then he hedged his bet by bringing in Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen to assist Vogel, adding championship rings and years of experience to the bench.

The lockout could've been a crushing blow for a team like the Pacers because it threatened to eliminate a season Bird had been building toward. He finally had the salary cap space and roster flexibility to make big moves; would that ability be robbed by a labor dispute? It was not robbed, but it was made more challenging by the remarkably short spool-up time allowed once the lockout was lifted.

No problem. Bird moved quickly to sign David West, a proud veteran power forward who would not only strengthen the frontcourt while providing a needed complement to center Roy Hibbert, but bring a no-nonsense style of veteran leadership to a young locker room.

Bird also acquired a valuable insurance policy by sending Brandon Rush to Golden State for Lou Amundson. With both Jeff Foster (back) and Jeff Pendergraph (knee) both battling health issues, Amundson would emerge as an important role-player up front.

When the season began, the Pacers faced a daunting schedule, with 15 of their first 22 games on the road. For a young team trying to establish itself while incorporating so many new faces, it was a remarkable challenge. Most experts figured if the team could survive that stretch within striking distance of .500, it would bode well for the rest of the year.

Roy Hibbert yelling in celebration after defeating the Orlando Magic in Round 1 of the 2012 NBA Playoffs

The Pacers didn't survive, they thrived, going 16-6 overall and 10-5 on the road -- including road victories over the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Magic and Mavericks (see sidebar for Key Victories). In a 29-day stretch in which the players and coaches spent 21 on the road, this team's mettle was forged. The Pacers would finish the season with a 19-14 road record, fourth-best in franchise history.

Along the way, two of the team's young stars got their opportunity to shine. Center Roy Hibbert reached the NBA All-Star Game in just his fourth season. Shooting guard Paul George participated in the league's Rising Stars Challenge as well as the Slam-Dunk Contest.

March brought 17 games in 29 days, including five sets of back-to-backs and one back-to-back-to-back. Small wonder it was the most erratic month of the season as the Pacers went 8-9, routing Miami 105-90 but then being drubbed 100-84 in New Jersey two nights later. It also brought the retirement of Jeff Foster, who could not overcome the back problems that plagued his final seasons.

Bird struck again in mid-March, snagging Leandro Barbosa in a deal with Toronto just before the NBA trading deadline. Not only did Barbosa bring an experienced, explosive scorer to the second unit, he gave Vogel the flexibility to use Hill as the backup point guard.

That took on a whole new level of importance in April when Darren Collison was sidelined in early April with a sore groin. Vogel moved Hill into the starting lineup and the Pacers promptly took off on a seven-game win streak -- their longest since 2003-04 -- to lock up the third seed and homecourt advantage.

The Pacers promptly lost it when the Magic stole Game 1 of the first-round series at Bankers Life Fieldhouse but Indiana won the next four—including two in Orlando—to advance.

For making the moves that put the Pacers back in the thick of things in the East, Bird was named Executive of the Year, becoming the first in league history to add that trophy to MVP and Coach of the Year.

In his first full season on the bench, Vogel finished third in the Coach of the Year balloting.

Add it all up and you have a breakthrough season for a solid team that used depth, balance, chemistry and leadership to reach well beyond expectations.

The Pacers are back.

Can't wait till next year.