Last season the Indiana Pacers were coming off a season in which they barely sneaked into the playoffs. Then, during a rushed period of free agency following the lockout, they weren’t able to steal many headlines aside from their addition of David West. Because of that, the Pacers were able to fly under the radar and didn’t have high expectations pegged on them from members of the media and casual basketball fans.
In many aspects, the Pacers were a forgotten team heading into last season compared to the inflated expectations following marque teams in the Eastern Conference like the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks.
Despite having a successful season, it appears this expectations are low once again this season by most members of the media and fans outside of Indiana.
Still, the players in the Pacers locker room are excited about this season and what the team should be able to accomplish. They are relishing the fact they are underdogs and fans are writing them off as eventual playoff casualties to the Heat or Celtics.
“We need to continue to play with that chip on our shoulder,” George Hill boasted. “Last year we went to the playoffs and we had a good run, but we still didn’t reach the goal that we wanted to reach and that’s win an NBA title. For people to not count us as one of the East’s elite? That’s what we want. We want to fly under the radar because we have unfinished business from last season.”
Hill isn’t the only Pacer with a chip on his shoulder. Paul George – a player who many pundits feel will eventually be named the NBA’s most improved player this season – has a chance to take another big step forward this season and relishes the chance to prove his critics wrong.
“It is something that motivates you because we finished third in our conference and we were only something like four games behind Miami,” George said. “Then we gave Miami a run in the playoffs. It definitely puts a chip on our shoulders that we still aren’t getting respect.”
Respect is something that is earned by winning playoff series and going deep into the playoffs. Sure, some teams like the New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets are able to stay relevant and garner countless headlines due to flashy additions, but teams need to earn respect by marching deep into the playoffs on a consistent basis.
Indiana’s head coach, Frank Vogel, realizes his team can’t get too cocky after one season, however he feels that the team is ready to build on what they started last season.
“I think we come into this season believing we are one of the best teams in the league opposed to last season where we spent the year building that belief and that confidence in ourselves,” Vogel said. “Last year in the playoffs we saw we could compete with the eventual champions, the Miami Heat, and that just helped us in the offseason and carrying into this season by giving us a great deal of confidence.”
Last year the Pacers flashed glimpsed of their potential during the regular and they finished with the third best record in the Eastern Conference. They were able to secure a 2-1 lead in their second round series against the Miami Heat before succumbing to the eventual NBA Champions in a tough-fought six game series.
Even with Danny Granger showing signs of regression last season – something most people expect him to regroup from this season once he is healthy – the rest of the team’s core of Roy Hibbert, David West, George and Hill all had strong individual seasons.
The team got a bit of a scare this week when it was announced the Granger would miss time due to an injury issue, but, even without the face of the franchise, the Pacers have enough depth and veteran leadership to sustain the team during his absence.
“We are still a beast of a team,” Vogel said about the absence of Granger. “We’ve still got all-stars at a bunch of positions. George (Hill) is going to be an all-star at the point guard spot by the time his career is over while David West and Roy (Hibbert) have both been all-stars. We think Paul George is going to be an all-star at some point and Gerald Green has been a pleasant surprise. He is going to step into the starting small forward spot for Danny Granger and he is going to give us a scoring punch and he has given us great energy on the defensive end.”
This summer the Pacers were able to re-sign their All-Star big man Roy Hibbert while making some subtle tweaks to improve their roster. Additions like DJ Augustin, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi weren’t sexy moves, but they were smart moves that filled needs and managed to bolster their roster.
This season the Pacers just need to continue to build on how they finished last season.
“The last month of the season we started smacking teams around,” Vogel boasted. “When we moved George Hill to our starting point guard that starting unit, every time they stepped on the court, was dominating everybody they faced. Whether it was the Miami Heat or anybody else. Our bench wasn’t and we made some upgrades to the bench this summer.”
With the Eastern Conference up for grabs, the Pacers look to once again be one of the top teams in the conference. It will be interesting to see if they continue their ascent in the conference of if injuries and other issues cause them to stumble.
Time will tell if the Pacers are truly one of the beasts in their conference or if the critics were right.