by Mark Montieth | firstname.lastname@example.org
December 30, 2013
It could be argued that 2013, the calendar year, was the most fruitful and eventful in the Pacers' NBA history. It was the year they emerged as a title contender, further solidified their future with offseason moves and then took another step forward in the following season.
Their ascension actually began in December of 2012, when they won eight of their final 10 games to nudge their record to 18-13. They went 31-19 in the 2013 portion of last season's schedule, and are 24-5 this season heading into the year's final game on Tuesday. Their 55-24 record for the calendar year ranks as the best for any year in the franchise's NBA history.
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They began the year feeling encouraged by their recent play but still uncertain about Danny Granger's future and how Lance Stephenson would work out long-term in the starting lineup. Paul George was just a month removed from a scoreless game at Golden State that wound up as the turning point of his season, and hadn't yet been named an All-Star for the first time.
All of those questions were answered in the affirmative. Now they're a lock to take the Eastern Conference's best record into 2014 and could have the best record in the league outright if they win Tuesday and Oklahoma City loses.
In a season full of highlights, these 10 stand out.
1. The Game 7 loss at Miami
Sure, it was a loss, but it served two valuable purposes. By getting that far, the Pacers established themselves as one of the NBA's elite teams. It also provided the motivation that launched this season.
It's unlikely the NBA has ever seen a happier losing locker room than the one the Pacers presented after they ended their season with the thud of a 99-76 loss to the Heat. They had just completed a season in which they surpassed general expectations, and deep down inside they had to know they weren't yet good enough to dethrone the defending – and as it turned out, future – champion on its home floor.
“It's real disappointing, but at the same time I can only be proud of what we've done,” Paul George said then. “There's a lot of things we can take away from this and really be happy about … It sucks to not make it an interesting game, but we did a heckuva job this year.”
They drew confidence from their playoff run, but left with the irritation of a sound thumping that told them how far they still had to go. In other words, it was the perfect setup for this season.
2. Paul George signs a contract extension
George's timing couldn't have been better for a breakout season in which he was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team and voted the league's Most Improved Player. He was eligible to sign an extension of his rookie contract over the summer, and the Pacers came through with a deal that will pay pay him about $90 million over the next five seasons.
Max deals – George's is technically just short of max – don't always work out. Jalen Rose and Jermaine O'Neal once signed contracts that were longer and more lucrative than George's, but wound up being traded a couple or three years later. The money is great, but it comes with the burden of higher expectations.
George, though, seems fully capable of living up to the demands of his deal and spending the rest of his career, Miller-like, with the Pacers.
“I'm going to do everything in my will to continue to improve and continue to be the face of this team,” he said following the press conference announcing his contract extension in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse lobby in June. “I really want to put everything that I have into this team. I'm not going to hold anything back on the court, or off the court. I'm really going to give all my time and all my dedication to this organization, as much as they gave to me.”
So far he's backed it up. Rose and O'Neal played well in the immediate aftermath of their mega-deals, but gradually fell out of favor. George already is facing the challenges that come with fame and upcoming fortune, with so many demands for his time from media and endorsement opportunities, but he seems to be handling it. He's averaging 23.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals heading into Tuesday's game with Cleveland, and has improved his shooting percentages across the board.
Some have mentioned him as a candidate to win Most Improved for a second consecutive season. Others regard him as a legitimate MVP candidate. Whatever. What's important to the Pacers is that he appears to be the sort of player a franchise would want to keep for years to come. Maybe for the rest of his career.
3. Larry Bird returns
Funny, it wasn't that long ago some in the media and the fanbase were arguing that Bird was only keeping his job as team president because of his legendary playing status and coaching success. Since then, he's established himself as one of the NBA's best executives as well.
Bird took a year's sabbatical to have unspecified surgeries and recharge his batteries, but returned in June under some pressure from owner Herb Simon. He then went to work on the Pacers' bench, and brought improvement that could push the team to another level in the postseason.
After casting an eye toward Luis Scola for several years, he finally landed his prey in a trade. He also signed free agents C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland, as well as a solid third point guard, Donald Sloan.
Bird's greatest and longest-lasting contribution will likely remain the 2010 draft, when he selected Paul George and Lance Stephenson. But his judgment – which has been good far more often than bad – his honesty and his lack of ego have spread throughout the franchise, setting the tone for a roster and front office that are among the most respected in the league.
With Donnie Walsh still occupying an office as a consultant, a proven general manager in Kevin Pritchard and a highly regarded numbers cruncher in Peter Dinwiddie, the Pacers appear to have an all-star caliber executive branch.
4. Lance Stephenson emerges
Stephenson's emergence last season was a vital element in the Pacers' playoff push. His 25-point splash in the Game 6 elimination victory over New York in the second round sent ripples throughout the NBA, and while he lacked consistency, he still managed to establish himself as a bona-fide starter in his third NBA season.
It was quite a journey. He had begun training camp in 2012 as a likely out-of-the-rotation player. Granger's injury, though, created an opening for him, and after coming off the bench for the first six games he became a starter. He averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds for the season, a vast improvement over his first two seasons.
He's finishing up 2013 as the team's second-leading scorer (13.8) and rebounder (6.8) and the leader in assists (5.2). He also has three triple-doubles, most in the NBA, and is considered an All-Star candidate. He'll be a free agent at the end of the season and will command a hefty salary. He says he wants to stay and Bird says he wants to keep him, but it's going to come at a cost. Most likely, the Pacers will have to make some sort of roster move to create room for his salary. But it's a price they'll probably be willing to pay for a promising player who will still be 23 years old at the end of the season.
5. David West re-signs
West's signing was overshadowed by George's signing, just like West's game is often overshadowed by some of his flashier teammates. But perhaps nobody is more important to the Pacers than West, whose no-nonsense, clear-headed approach to the game helps ensure an already-mature team won't stray too far from center.
West is the team's most consistent offensive player, its most dependable in clutch moments, and is an underrated defender. He's the first to bark instruction to teammates when they miss assignments, and gets quick-handed deflections as well. All that boxing training in the off-season seems to pay off.
West has two more seasons on his contract after this one, and he says (adamantly) he'll retire when it expires. Not coincidentally, the Pacers should be a title contender for at least that long.
6. Luis Scola leads bench refurbishment
As previously stated, Bird had been wanting to adopt the 6-11 Argentinian for several years. He finally got him in June by sending Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a 2014 first-round draft pick to Phoenix in a trade that truly was good for both teams. The rebuilding Suns weren't going to benefit from a veteran such as Scola, and the win-now Pacers needed his shot-making and savvy.
Scola adds depth to the Pacers both on the court and off. He's averaging 8.7 points on 54 percent shooting heading into Tuesday's game against the Cavaliers, and brings another layer of maturity to the locker room. Pacers media relations director David Benner calls him a candidate for Most Interesting Man in the World. He owns a farm in his native Argentina, follows a strict no-sugar, no-dairy, gluten-free diet, is a workout fanatic and is married with four kids. He wants to play for as long as his body will allow him, and with the way he's taking care of it, that could be several more seasons for the 33-year-old.
7. Frank Vogel signs contract extension
Easily forgotten with all that's happened since, the contract extension for Frank Vogel that was announced on Jan. 7 locked up a coach who appears destined to become the most successful in the NBA history of the franchise.
Vogel is the new breed of coach who maintains a cool, positive outlook, accepts the modern analytical methods of team and player analysis that some old-school coaches reject and delegates authority to his staff while retaining control.
None of his nine predecessors since Slick Leonard, who was let go after the 1979-80 season, have lasted more than four seasons. He'll be at 3 ½ at the end of this season, and seems a lock to go beyond four given his youth, his fit for the franchise and community and the talent he'll have to coach.
8. Danny Granger returns
Granger was the face of the Pacers' franchise for five years, during which he led the team in scoring every season and played in an All-Star game. Now he's trying to resurrect his career as a 30-year-old reserve.
The Pacers have proven they can win without him, but they haven't proven they can get to the Finals or win a championship without him. He could be a major asset for a playoff run if he can approximate his previous form by providing scoring and experience off the bench.
Granger missed all but five games last season and the first 25 of this season. But, the knee that was surgically repaired last Spring appears fine now. It's a matter of whether he can regain his shooting touch and rhythm, defend and rebound to the current standards and accept a reserve role. If he does all that, the Pacers' title hopes are greatly enhanced.
9. Pacers win out West
Time was, just winning a couple of games on a Western road trip was nearly cause for fans rushing out to meet the team plane on its arrival home.
Last March, though, the Pacers headed West for a four-game trip through Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles to play the Clippers. They won them all to improve to 48-27, at which point they relaxed and lost five of their final six games before making their playoff run.
This season, starting in the first week of December, they played five games in eight nights – in Los Angeles against the Clippers, Portland, Utah, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. They won in L.A., Utah and San Antonio and lost the other two on the back end of back-to-back sets. The 111-100 win in San Antonio was particularly impressive.
We all know the Western Conference is better than the Eastern Conference, but the only thing that matters to the Pacers is whether they are as good as the best in the West. So far it appears they are.
10. Rasual Butler makes roster
This one might seem far-fetched, but there's such a thing as the perfect last guy on the team. Butler was filling that role to perfection before he worked his way up the pecking order. Now he's the perfect situational player.
Butler, a 10-year NBA veteran, wrote himself a great story by emerging from the Development League after last season. He got a spot on the Pacers' Summer League roster, earned an invitation back to training camp and then played so well he forced Bird's hand. Bird was planning to go with a 13-man roster, but he's a sucker for underdog stories, and Butler had become one as a humble veteran fighting his way back.
Butler is more than that, however. He's also a poised shot-maker who can contribute whenever asked, and a mature voice on the practice court and in the locker room. In other words, he's a modern version of what Chris Mullin contributed to the Finals team of 2000. Great teams always seem to have players such as them on the bench.