by Mark Montieth | firstname.lastname@example.org
December 30, 2012
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This time a year ago, as 2012 rang in, the Pacers were 3-1 in the lockout-shortened NBA season. Their starting lineup consisted of Darren Collison, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert. Coming off the bench were George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough, Lance Stephenson, Lou Amundson, A.J. Price, Dahntay Jones and Jeff Pendergraph. Larry Bird was the team president, presumably for at least a few more years. Donnie Walsh was retired, presumably forever.
Now look at 'em. Change comes about as quickly as a three-second lane violation in the NBA, so nobody should ever be surprised by turnover, yet who could have predicted the group that represents the Pacers today? They have two different starters and six different reserves. Walsh is the team president. Bird is retired (for now at least). They're a significantly different team than the one that finished last season. Whether they're a better team remains to be seen.
So, this being the end of 2012, it's time to look back on the major events of the past season. Why? It's what newspapers and websites do to fill space, of both the cyber and print variety. We'll present the top 10 Pacers moments of the year. Why 10? Somewhere, it must be written that five and 10 are the magic numbers for lists, and nobody has the courage to buck the system and go with nine. Or 11. Or 37. Whatever. We'll also list them in chronological order, because that's so much easier than ranking them by importance. Besides, it will take awhile to know the true impact of some of the events.
For the Pacers, 2012 went something like this:
1. Jeff Foster retires (March 21, 2012): Back injuries finally dragged down the career of Foster, who played longer (13 seasons) than every person who wore a Pacer uniform not named Reggie Miller. His longevity was a tribute to his toughness and unselfishness. He was one of the league's best rebounders, particularly off the offensive glass, and was a solid defender. In fact, has any player in league history played longer for one franchise while averaging in the neighborhood of Foster's 4.9-point career scoring average? Doubtful.
Foster started fewer than half of the 764 games he played for the Pacers, but started 79 of the 82 they played in the most successful regular season in franchise history, when they won 61 games in 2003-04.
Foster's only significant flaw was his absence of shooting touch. Believe it or not, he hit all four of the three-point shots he attempted in college at Southwest Texas State and 69 percent of his foul shots as a senior. He also impressed the Pacers with his shooting during his two pre-draft workouts for them, but somewhere along the way lost confidence in his mid-range shot. Didn't matter much, though. He did everything else so well that he was worth keeping around.
2. Pacers make playoff run (April-May): It's debatable whether advancing to the second round of the playoffs qualifies as a “run,” but for a franchise that had not done so since 2005, in Reggie Miller's final season, it meant something. Orlando was dispatched in five games in the first round, and then Miami needed six games to eliminate the Pacers in the second round.
Full disclosure: Orlando played without perennial All-Star center Dwight Howard and Miami played most of the series without perennial All-Star forward Chris Bosh, who was injured in its Game 1 victory. Still. It represented progress for the Pacers, who were coming off five consecutive seasons without a winning record.
The Pacers caught the nation's attention when they won Game 2 in Miami and followed with a Game 3 victory back in Indianapolis. They held a six-point lead at halftime of that game, but wilted in the second half—particularly the fourth quarter, when they scored just 16 points. In the end, Lebron James and Dwyane Wade were too much for the Pacers, but a flame had been lit within their fan base.
3 and 4. Bird resigns, Walsh returns (June 27): Although occurring simultaneously, this qualifies as two because both moves were of major significance. Bird had been subject to loud and persistent media criticism early in his run as team president, often inaccurately and unfairly. He had the last word when he was voted Executive of the Year by his peers last season, and seemed uncharacteristically enthusiastic at his season-ending meeting with the media. His decision to step down came as a surprise to most, and had vague origins. “Now it's time to take some time off, rest up and get in shape, get my shoulder worked on, and we'll see what happens,” he said.
Does that mean he plans to come back? Nobody seems to know, but it wouldn't surprise anyone. Bird always faces the dilemma of being a private person who happens to be famous. He likes escaping the limelight now and then, but then becomes bored away from basketball.
That opened the door for the return of Walsh, who had guided the Pacers for 25 seasons and then gone to New York for three to resurrect the Knicks. Walsh, to the surprise of many, had been comfortable in retirement back in Indianapolis, but was called back into service by owner Herb Simon. Walsh works with Kevin Pritchard, who officially replaced David Morway as general manager during the transition and Pritchard, who formerly ran Portland's basketball operations, has a significant role. Walsh, however, remains atop the basketball operations front office pyramid, and while his influence is not what it once was, that's still a good thing.
5. Pacers draft Plumlee, Johnson (June 28): When you think about it, those mock drafts always seem to get it wrong when it comes to the Pacers. And for most other teams, for that matter. Do you remember anyone accurately forecasting the choices of George, Hansbrough, Granger or Shawne Williams, for example? Nobody guessed correctly on Miles Plumlee, either, understandably so. He didn't even start at Duke, and averaged but 6 points. The athleticism he showed in pre-draft workouts made him a first-round prospect, however, but it will take time to know if the Pacers were gullible or savvy.
Second-round pick Orlando Johnson also came as a surprise, but Bird thought enough of him to trade up to select him and then signed him to a guaranteed contract. Plumlee seems to have the athleticism and attitude needed to find a place in the league. Johnson has shown promise in Development League games. But, as always, time will tell.
6. Pacers re-sign Roy Hibbert (July 13): Portland forced the Pacers to ante up a mega contract to retain Hibbert, who was coming off an All-Star season. By offering a $58 million deal over four seasons, it left the Pacers with the going beyond market value for a crucial piece or leaving a gaping hole in its starting lineup. Wanting to build off the momentum of the team's advancement to the second round of the playoffs, the Pacers chose the latter option.
Hibbert has struggled mightily on offense so far, averaging just 9.8 points on 40 percent from the field, but he ranks third in the NBA in blocked shots (2.86) and has rebounded reasonably well (8.2). He'll likely have to get his scoring average close to last season's level (12.8) for the Pacers to go far in the playoffs, although the talent around him in the starting lineup has improved. Granger's return, and improved play from everyone else could make Hibbert less important to the offense, although it would be a great thing for the Pacers if he can provide an inside threat that requires some double-teams.
7. Reggie Miller and Mel Daniels enter the Hall of Fame (Sept. 7): Reggie Miller and Mel Daniels joined the Pacers 19 years apart, but are close friends. So it seemed appropriate that they go into the Naismith Hall of Fame together. At least in the technical sense.
Daniels, two-time MVP of the ABA and the heart and soul of the Pacer teams that won three league championships, missed the induction ceremony because of illness and had to record a speech from his hospital room in Indianapolis. Miller was the headliner of the event in Springfield, Mass. He had earned that privilege after offering so much drama through 18 seasons.
Miller's induction had seemed a given, although it came a year after he was first eligible. Daniels' induction represented a breakthrough for the ABA players and coaches who had been ignored by the Hall. Some of those who had thrived in the NBA as well had been granted entrance, but some like Daniels, who only played briefly in the NBA, had been ignored. There appears to be a shift in attitude from the Hall's selection committee, which could bode well for the likes of Daniels' teammates, Roger Brown and George McGinnis, and his coach, Bob “Slick” Leonard.
8. Paul George goes scoreless (Dec. 1): Ordinarily, it's easy to dismiss the occasional bad game from a player. The NBA season is so long that the odds nearly demand it. But when George failed to score in seven shot attempts over a 29-minute appearance at Golden State, it marked a turnaround in his season, if not his career.
George, who had declared his intent to be selected to play in the All-Star game on Media Day, started the 2012-13 season in a promising but erratic fashion. When he bottomed out in Oakland, however, he was so distraught that he drove to Bankers LIfe Fieldhouse as soon as the team's red-eye charter flight landed in Indianapolis and put up hundreds of shots.
That has become his game-day routine, especially for home games. And it has paid off. George has been playing at an All-Star level ever since, averaging 20.25 points in the 12 games that followed. He has yet to record a triple-double, but it only seems a matter of time. He has grabbed as many as 17 rebounds this season and has passed out as many as nine assists. He's also had five steals in a game.
The Pacers lost that game at Golden State, but it turned out to be a worthwhile investment.
9. Game postponed (Dec. 26): The “blizzard” that was forecast for the day after Christmas wasn't as bad as expected, but it was bad enough to convince NBA officials to postpone the Pacers' game with Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It appeared to be the league office equivalent of the block-charge call. It could have gone either way, and the league decided to err on the safe side.
Word didn't come down until after 4 p.m., however, by which time many fans already were on their way to the game and the Pacers' players and coaches (not to mention several media members) were downtown or inside the Fieldhouse.
The Pacers badly wanted to play. Chicago had lost by 23 points the night before, after trailing by 35, and were without injured All-Star point guard Derrick Rose. The Pacers were without Granger, of course, but by the time the game is made up who knows what the circumstances might be? The Pacers and Bulls appear likely to scuffle for the Central Division title all the way to the end of the season, so the varying circumstances might matter a great deal.
10. Danny Granger suffers knee injury (Oct. 31 to present): Although he had led the Pacers in scoring for five consecutive seasons, Granger had fallen out of favor in the eyes of many fans. After all, he hadn't led the team deep into the playoffs yet, and usually when that happens the team's best player takes the hit. (Why not the worst?)
Granger missed most of the preseason recovering from an off-season procedure on his left knee, but played in the final two exhibition games. He played reasonably well, too, scoring 19 points in 34 minutes over the two games. But, during practice on Monday, Oct. 29, two days before the Oct. 31 season-opener in Toronto, Granger reported more knee pain. He was declared out indefinitely the next day, and then was declared out for three months after having an injection to treat patellar tendinosis the following week.
Granger's absence was a major factor in the Pacers' sluggish start, but it did serve a couple of positive purposes. It made people appreciate him more, and it allowed more playing time for Lance Stephenson, who eventually latched on to a starting position and showed great improvement from the previous season.
If Granger can return with a healthy knee and be integrated back into a starting lineup that now features a much-improved Paul George and a more dominant David West, it could work out for the best heading into the playoffs. Granger will have fresh legs, and George and Stephenson will have improved their games and their confidence from the upgraded roles they enjoyed in Granger's absence.
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