INDIANAPOLIS – Larry Bird watched the Pacers from a fans perspective last season.
He liked the starting lineup, he grimaced over the turnovers and he knew that the Pacers would have to improve their bench to contend for a title.
So when Bird returned to his old perch, as the teams president of basketball operations, he went right to work – re-signing David West, bringing in three free agents to provide more scoring punch and making a trade for Luis Scola. Bird, coach Frank Vogel and Pacers players all believe they now have the final piece to this championship puzzle.
I think when you trade away a future first-round pick and a couple of players (for Scola) like we did, I think it sends the message that its not a go-for-it year but a go-for-it time for the next couple of years, Vogel said. Last year, the expectations were high, but theres a not a whole lot different this year – other than that were bigger and stronger.
Paul George wants to prove his breakout season, All-Star selection and selection as the NBAs Most Improved Player are no flukes. Former All-Star Roy Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 center who was so dominant in Indianas postseason run, added about 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason.
West, the heart and soul of this defensive-minded team, re-signed because he thought Indiana gave him the best opportunity to win a title, and point guard George Hill spent the offseason trying to become a more consistent scorer.
The only real question is Vogels choice as the fifth starter – improving 6-5 guard Lance Stephenson or 6-9 swingman Danny Granger, who is trying to show hes healthy after missing all but five games last season with a left knee injury. Whoever doesnt win the starting job will anchor the revamped bench.
Here are five keys to the Pacers season:
The Pacers success no longer revolves entirely around Granger, Indianas top scorer for five straight seasons starting in 2007-08. He could still make a difference, though. If Granger reverts to any semblance of his old self, hell give Indiana another legitimate three-point shooter, a bigger team and more experience.
The Heat is on
After a midseason coaching change three years ago, Vogel led the Pacers into the playoffs, won a first-round series the next season and reached the Eastern Conference finals last year. The Heat eliminated Indiana each of the past two seasons, but the additions of Scola and Chris Copeland could go a long way in changing the equation in the East.
In the zone
Indiana ranked among the leagues best in defensive field-goal percentage and rebounding last season, and Vogel doesnt expect that to change this season. But he may be adding a new wrinkle – zone defense.
Indiana has been one of the more unselfish NBA teams over the past several seasons. But with George getting a max contract, Hill working on becoming a better scorer, Granger trying to come back and the addition of shooters such as Scola and Chris Copeland, the question may be whether there are enough shots to go around for all these guys.
Its no secret Hibbert and other Pacers believe they were overlooked by the national media last season until they surprised New York in the playoffs and challenged Miami. Now the Pacers are on the brink of being in the spotlight. They have 17 appearances on national television. Hibbert and his teammates know theres only one way to keep Indianas small-market team on center stage – win big.