Larry Bird, Frank Vogel

No Tanks, Pacers Want To Win Now

by Mark Montieth Writer

The shock waves were still reverberating from the horrific sight of Paul George's leg breaking in two when a familiar argument began filling cyberspace and the air waves.

The Pacers should tank.

A legitimate championship contender the past two seasons and hopeful of resuming that role in the upcoming season, they now should take a long-range viewpoint toward rebuilding – so the argument went – because without their best player, George, and free agent departee Lance Stephenson, they have no immediate hope of challenging for a championship.

In what should have surprised nobody who's followed the team for the past decade, team president Larry Bird and coach Frank Vogel declared their intention to continue trying to win as often and as quickly as possible when they met with the media at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday.

See Also: Larry Bird and Frank Vogel Press Conference Transcript

“You can't just replace Paul George,” Bird acknowledged. “Are our expectations lowered any? I don't think so. We're going to compete hard, we're going to do our best to make the playoffs and just compete on a consistent basis.”

In other words, he's not giving up on the season six weeks before the start of training camp. The focus now becomes the enhanced opportunity that awaits returning players such as George Hill, Roy Hibbert, David West and – perhaps most of all – Solomon Hill, along with the hope that newcomers C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey and Damjan Rudez can collectively make up for the losses.

“We think we're going to put a competitive team out there,” Bird said. “We think we're going to play hard and develop our young guys. Everyone's going to get an opportunity to show us what they can do. I think we'll be an exciting team. We have a lot of things to look forward to. My goal is to win as many games as we possibly can and get in the playoffs. I know some of our fans would rather us go in the opposite direction, but we're here to win and we're going to try to win.”

George, who broke his right leg while attempting to block a shot in a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas on Aug. 1, has been resting at his home in Indianapolis for the past week. He reportedly is in good spirits and able to get around on crutches, but can't drive.

See Also: Bird on USA Basketball

The Pacers are operating under the assumption that he won't be available until the 2015-16 season, although there is hope for a return late in the upcoming season.

“No one's told us he'll be out for the entire year, but … we're sort of expecting him to be out for the whole year,” Bird said. “If he can play he's going to play. We'll just see how it goes.”

The Pacers were the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed last season, but the challenge of continuing to contend has been made more difficult by off-season changes. LeBron James returned home to play for Cleveland and Derrick Rose has returned from a knee injury to rejoin Chicago. Charlotte, Atlanta and others also appear to be stronger.

Vogel, however, believes the Pacers can continue to contend. The Pacers will return to the role of underdog as opposed to the frontrunner – a role they struggled with last season after jumping to a comfortable lead in the East.

“We have a winning culture here,” Vogel said. “I think we're going to surprise some teams. Those fans who think the season is over before it starts are very wrong. I think they're going to be pleasantly surprised with the grit and toughness we play with this year. I think we're going to be able to compete with the best.

“I don't think we're going to be that different. We're going to have to be more creative with defensive matchups against elite wings. Our frontcourt is still in place, our point guard rotation is still in place. We'll have to see how the wing rotation plays out.”

Vogel will have plenty of options as he goes about replacing George and Stephenson. He declined to take a stab at a prediction for a starting lineup, but said he is pleased with what he's seen from some of his players in summer workouts.

Foremost among them are the Hills, George and Solomon.

George Hill, criticized last season for lack of productivity, is having what Vogel calls “the best summer I've seen him have in terms of work ethic.” Hill has been practicing yoga in the mornings and working to improving his perimeter scoring ability off dribbling and cutting, rather than as a standstill jump shooter.

“He's over the top right now with the hours that he's putting in, the commitment,” Vogel said. “He's working as hard as I've seen him work and that started the day after the season ended.

“I think he wants to be a strong point of this team. It does bother him that people challenged him. I don't think he cares what people think, but he wants to bring everything he can to the table.”

Hill averaged 10.3 points last season, as George and Stephenson assumed greater roles in the offense. His role often was to pass to one of them and then go stand in the corner, awaiting a possible outlet pass.

“He was unfairly criticized in my mind because of it,” Vogel said, adding that role likely will change in the upcoming season.

Solomon Hill played in just 28 games last season and averaged 1.7 points, but should get many of the opportunities that eluded him as a rookie. He could be the player who benefits most from George's absence.

“I think he's a natural elite wing defender,” Vogel said. “He's got a toughness, foot-speed, great hands and the ability to be under the skin of the guy he's guarding. I've maintained all year, if he were playing 25 minutes a game last year, everybody would be talking about how great Solomon Hill is. He didn't get an opportunity. This year he's going to.”

Bird rejected current trade rumors involving his players, but said other roster moves could be forthcoming.

See Also: Pacers In Talks With Free Agent Shawn Marion

“You're always looking,” he said. “We've pinpointed some players that we're looking at, even next year. Our work is never done, we're always looking for players. If we can improve the roster, we'll try to do that.”

Bird added he will pick up the contract option on point guard Donald Sloan, who averaged 2.3 points in 48 games last season, and excelled in Summer League play.

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