Forecast Looks Bright for Pacers Franchise's Future

The 2015-16 Pacers season ended in disappointing fashion, as Indiana's fourth-quarter rally in Game 7 in Toronto came up just short on Sunday night.

But make no mistake – this season was no disappointment.

No one was quite sure what to expect of the Blue & Gold heading into the year.

No one was quite sure if Paul George could get back to his All-Star form after breaking his right leg in August 2014. No one was quite sure how the team's top draft pick, a promising 19-year-old in Myles Turner, but a 19-year-old nonetheless, would fare in his first NBA season. No one was quite sure if the team could make the playoffs after losing two mainstays in the starting frontcourt and undergoing a major overhaul in its style of play.

Now we know the answers to those questions. They're good answers. The future is full of promise.

So while there was definitely plenty of disappointment in the visiting locker room at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday night, there was also plenty of hope.

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"I couldn't be more proud of all our guys and how far they've come this year," Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said after the Game 7 loss.

"We re-made our franchise this year, completely re-created an identity, worked through several shifts this season. And we played our best basketball down the stretch when it mattered."

Indeed they did. These Pacers went toe-to-toe with a 56-win Raptor team throughout the seven-game series.

They took Game 1 on the road. They frustrated Toronto's All-Star backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan all series long with tenacious defensive pressure. They came oh-so close to becoming only the second seven seed to advance out of the First Round of the NBA Playoffs since 1999.

"A lot of people didn't expect us to even make the playoffs this year, said a lot of negative things about us," said Pacers point guard George Hill. "We still found a way to get in there as a seven seed and gave a two seed a heck of a series."

The most promising part of the Pacers' postseason play was George. The three-time All-Star was unquestionably the best player in the series and arguably the best player in any First Round series.

He averaged 27.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.8 steals. He shot 45.5 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from 3-point range. He hounded DeRozan all series, holding the Raptors' leading scorer under 37 percent shooting in six of the seven games.

George, who turns 26 on Monday, is back on the fast track to superstardom.

Vogel called George's comeback from his devastating injury "a remarkable triumph."

"It's been a long journey," George reflected. "I'm very proud of this team, very proud of my guys."

Meanwhile, Turner went through some rookie growing pains in the series, but he held his own against the Raptors and their goliath of a center, Jonas Valanciunas.

The 6-11 center out of Texas delivered quality play all series long and moved into the starting lineup in Game 4. He was 2-for-11 in Game 7 and 2-for-13 in Game 4, but otherwise good offensively, scoring in double figures on four occasions. He was superb on the defensive end, blocking 23 shots in seven games to set a franchise rookie record for total blocks in the postseason.

"Myles Turner emerged," Vogel said. "Myles Turner showed what he's made of by having a great series in his first go-around in the NBA Playoffs. Just had a great series...There's a lot of reason to be excited and hopeful about our future because of that kid."

George and Turner are the clear pillars of the franchise's future, but most of the larger core of this team figures to be back next season.

The starting backcourt of George Hill and Monta Ellis are under contract for next season, as are key reserves Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles.

The two biggest contributors set to enter free agency are starting center Ian Mahinmi, who made huge strides in his eighth NBA season, and do-everything forward Solomon Hill, who went from out of the rotation in the first half of the season to a dependable crunch-time player in the playoffs.

Hill, for his part, sounded like a player who wants to be back with the Blue & Gold next season, speaking very positively about the franchise's future and the idea of playing with George and Turner.

"For Paul to come back and do what he did, it's (nothing) short of amazing," Hill said. "...For him to come back and be the type of player that he is and to lead us, I definitely look forward to the future.

"Myles Turner, if we can get him going in the right direction and get him focused on the right things, the sky's the limit for the kid."

As George Hill noted after the game, it's impossible to predict exactly what will transpire in the offseason. Pacers President Larry Bird could opt to keep all the key pieces from this team together or he could try to make a splash in free agency or via trade.

But all indications are that the team's stock is trending up.

As the Pacers walked off the court for the final time in the 2015-16 season on Sunday night, they did so with their heads held high. Each and every player on the roster made a point to shake hands with and congratulate the Raptors before retreating to the locker room for reflection.

"I think we had a great season," Ellis said. "Guys (were) together. We fought to the end...We left everything on the court."