Altered Expectation Brings Enhanced Opportunities

by Mark Montieth Writer

The Pacers held their annual Media Day on Monday, Sept. 29 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Training camp begins Tuesday, Sept. 30.

The great expectations of the past two seasons have been stored away, like summer clothing to be brought back when the climate is warmer. For now, the Pacers are promising merely to do the best they can, and see what happens.

Maybe there's an advantage in that, too, because last season's expectations and mid-season success ultimately backfired. With the perspective that comes from disappointment, they see the benefit of working in a less frenetic environment.

“The first year I was here, we were underdogs and we played with that chip on our shoulder,” George Hill said Monday during the team's media day gathering. “I feel we lost that sense of urgency when we became a popular team, people talking about us. I think success actually killed us last year. I feel we're back to Square One, with our backs against the wall, and that's when we play our best ball. That's when we get to sneak up on people and play our game.”

Last season, the Pacers were sneaked up upon, by opponents and, admittedly, their own assumptions. They jumped to records of 9-0, 16-1 and 39-10. They went 17-13 from there, however, as the national media attention and their premier position in the Eastern Conference fogged their focus.

Now, with their top two scorers from last season having been lost to free agency (Lance Stephenson) and injury (Paul George), expectations won't be a problem. They could, in fact, become an asset. Last season, when they finished 56-26 and reached Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, they were deemed a disappointment because of all the anticipation for a championship. This season, critics won't be nearly as difficult to impress. For much of last season, they were constantly asked to explain their greatness. That's not likely to happen this season. In fact, they might not be asked much of anything by the national media, which will be chasing after projected title contenders. And that suits them just fine.

“People are going to have certain opinions of us and they’re entitled to their opinions, so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and just go out and play,” Roy Hibbert said.

The Pacers' situation should play perfectly into the hands of coach Frank Vogel, an out-of-the-video room coach who has built a career on surpassing expectations. Vogel's sunny disposition has not been darkened by Stephenson's surprising defection to Charlotte or George's horrifying broken leg while playing for Team USA. He has not set specific goals for his team in terms of record or playoff advancement, but he still expects it to be competitive.

“The message to my team is going to be we’ve got to bring a high level of competitiveness every single night,” Vogel said. “We’ve got to bring it every night. We have enough to get the job done. We have enough to compete with the best. We’re not going to make it any more complicated than that.”

The Pacers' challenge would have been great enough this season with George and Stephenson. As David West pointed out, the two teams they eliminated in the playoffs, Atlanta and Washington, appear to be improved. Al Horford, injured throughout the postseason, returns to Atlanta, which took the Pacers to seven games in the first round. Washington, which lost to the Pacers in six games in the second round, is a year older and replaced Trevor Ariza with title-tested Paul Pierce.

The Pacers have three additions with guaranteed contracts – guards Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles, and forward Damjan Rudez – and another, forward-center Shayne Whittington, with a partially guaranteed deal. Stuckey and Miles were originally expected to merely nudge the offense now and then, but instead will be asked to lower a shoulder into it.

For both, this season qualifies as the greatest opportunity of their careers, something both eagerly await. It's also a renewed opportunity for Hibbert and Hill, both of whom had to slip into the backseat of the Pacers' offense so that George and Stephenson could drive more often. They look forward to new roles, too.

“The mindset is to make sure everybody gets a piece of the pie and gets a chance to compete,” Hibbert said. “Just try to look at it as San Antonio, how they won (the championship) last year, as opposed to one man taking more shots than others.”

Hill reportedly had a rigorous off-season on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse practice court, to the point he was told to leave on occasion. Stung by his play in the playoffs, he went about getting better by showing up on the first day possible after the season ended. He should have plenty of chances to flex his improvement without George and Stephenson on hand to swallow most of the offense.

“I don't think (their absence) affects my role, I think it enhances it a little bit,” he said. “Not having Lance here is a bummer, somebody we're going to miss truly, and missing Paul is going to be very detrimental to our team, but it gives everyone the opportunity to step up. Now more than ever we have to come together and play together. This is where you see the true concept of team basketball.”

Which is always an expectation in Indiana.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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