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Pacers Hit Another Sweet Spot

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

June 4, 2013, 12:57 AM

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Back in October, just as training camp was beginning, I put the question to Donnie Walsh. Did the Pacers team heading into the season, one that was coming off a second-round playoff appearance, remind him of the teams of the late 1990s that reached the conference finals three consecutive years and the NBA Finals once?

I felt a little awkward even bringing it up, because the team's accomplishments the previous season had been modest, not to mention wind-aided by injuries to key players from each of the opponents in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Walsh, however, did not hesitate.

“That's exactly what it reminds me of,” he said. “Exactly that. And they can do it. They're all good guys, they were all focused on what they wanted to do, they all wanted to win, they all played hard, and they were all together. That's what I look for. If they can do that (again) they'll be more successful than what a lot of people may think.”

Note that Walsh was calling the Pacers “they” instead of “we,” so early was he in his return to the team presidency after three years rebuilding the Knicks and one year of retirement. His answer caught me slightly off-guard, because Walsh is normally not one to hype his teams. Was this part of a new marketing strategy, having the team president prime the ticket-selling pump?

It turned out Walsh was right. The Pacers reached the final game of the conference finals, and they did it without their leading scorer from the previous five seasons, Danny Granger. While it all ended with an embarrassing thud in Miami, with a 99-76 loss to the Heat in Game 7, the mood emerging from that game was downright cheerful. To a man, the Pacers believed the season surpassed their expectations and inspires hope for better times ahead.

Even without Granger, who played just five games because of recurring issues in his right knee, the Pacers finished 49-32 and won the Central Division because:

  1. Paul George stepped into the lead role vacated by Granger and lived up to his pre-season prediction of playing in the All-Star game. He also won the league's Most Improved Player award and established himself as one of the NBA's best two-way players.
  2. Lance Stephenson stepped into the starting lineup and surprised everyone by becoming a viable, if erratic, shooting guard at the age of 22.
  3. Roy Hibbert, after a slow offensive start due primarily to an injury to his shooting wrist, became one of the league's best defensive centers and finished the season well offensively, too. He scored 19 or more in seven consecutive playoff games to end the season before the Game 7 meltdown.

For the Pacers to have gone so far without Granger was no small feat. It usually takes longer for a team to build to that level, especially after the loss of a major contributor. Remember the early nineties, when the Pacers lost in the first round of the playoffs for three consecutive years, before breaking through to the conference finals in 1994? Walsh almost lost his job during that time, such was the frustration level surrounding the franchise. But the pieces gradually came together, and the Pacers reached the conference finals five times in a seven-year period.

Now, they've gone from four consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs to, starting with the moment Frank Vogel took over as head coach in the 2010-11 season, losing in the first round (Chicago) to losing in the second round (Miami) to losing in the conference finals (Miami again). The next two steps are exponentially more difficult, but the argument can be made in favor of the Pacers being a title contender for the next few years if tweaks can be made.

Walsh's current critique, stated before the final game but no doubt still accurate: “I didn't know how good we would be because of losing Danny. Now we've gone through it and we were good. The whole time I was thinking to myself, this team has a great future. And it's obviously even better than I thought at that time. I think it's going to be a terrific team for a long time.”

Photos - Key Victories: Early Season | Mid-Season | Playoffs |

The Pacers are young, and can hardly help but improve if the starting lineup is kept together and the bench improved. If Granger can return healthy, that alone would bring major improvement to the bench, whether he or Stephenson comes off it. The top priority of the off-season is to re-sign David West, who wants to come back. D.J. Augustin and Sam Young also become free agents. Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Pendergraph are due qualifying offers. If the Pacers oblige, Hansbrough and Pendergraph become restricted free agents and the Pacers can choose whether to match any offer they receive. Or, the Pacers can let them become unrestricted free agents.

There's also the issue of the front office. Will Larry Bird, who built the nucleus of the team, return as president? If anyone knows, they aren't saying. Bird famously keeps his thoughts close to the vest. Remember, he's the guy who didn't even tell his scouting staff who he planned to draft in 2010 until an hour or two before selecting Paul George, and few people within the organization knew he had hired Jim O'Brien as coach until O'Brien walked into the room for his introductory press conference. Bird's future is anybody's guess at this point.

All in all, it seems a sweet spot in the team's development. The chemistry and maturity within the locker room is outstanding. And, the two teams that finished ahead of the Pacers in the Eastern Conference, Miami and New York, are aging and will find it difficult to improve in the short-term.

Granger's status next season will be crucial to the Pacers' process and progress. He has one year remaining on a contract that will pay him $14 million. It's unlikely another team will make an enticing trade offer for him given the status of his contract and the uncertainty of his surgically repaired knee, but one more season with a 30-year-old Granger is likely the best of all possible scenarios. He and Paul George are good friends, and relish the thought of playing together. And Granger will be more than happy to hang out at the three-point line while George facilitates.

Nine years ago, after the Pacers had swept Boston in the first round of the playoffs with absolute ease, I wrote an article for the Indianapolis Star declaring another sweet spot for the franchise. That team won 61 regular season games, reached the conference finals and seemed to have all the pieces in place for an extended run. Jermaine O'Neal, then 25, had finished third in the voting for league MVP. Ron Artest, 24, had been voted Defensive Player of the Year. Both were All-Stars that season. Reggie Miller was a year away from retirement, but Jamaal Tinsley, Al Harrington, Jonathan Bender, Jeff Foster, Austin Croshere and Fred Jones all formed a nucleus with alluring possibilities. Thirteen of the 15 players on the roster were under 30, and the core players were secured by long-term contract.

“It's one of the better circumstances in the league,” Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said.

We all know what happened in the few years that followed -- on the court, off the court and in the stands. Those scenarios are highly unlikely to occur again, but they serve as a reminder that nothing is guaranteed. Not in life, and especially not in the NBA.

Still, it's undeniable. The Pacers haven't found themselves in circumstances this positive and promising since 2004. The heavy lifting of the rebuilding process seems complete. Now it's a matter of trying to tweak their way to the top, and they should have time to do that.

“The great thing is, we're a young team.” George said. “We're past the rebuilding stage. At the rate we're going, we should be thinking about championships in the future.”