HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — When coach Frank Vogel was thumping his chest about his Indiana Pacers this time a year ago, swearing to anyone that would listen that they would compete with the best of the best, most of us thought he was getting a little ahead of himself.
Sure, the Pacers were a solid young team, most likely a playoff regular for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they were even a team capable of contending in the Eastern Conference a few years down the line. But an elite outfit?
Not everyone was convinced. And lingering injury issues, namely Danny Granger‘s, kept them off of the 2012-13 preseason short list of championship contenders.
They’re in the middle of that mix heading into this season and eager to prove their elite status coming off of a season that ended in a Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat, sans Granger, in the Eastern Conference finals. Vogel, as confident as they come, doesn’t seem so crazy now. The Pacers belong on that short list this season, right behind the LeBron James-and Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat and right there with (and arguably ahead of) the Derrick Rose-and Joakim Noah-led Chicago Bulls.
“We’ve added a few more players with experience and our core group of eight or nine guys have improved,” said Granger, who is returning to the mix after playing five games in 2012-13. “We’re going to be a forced to be reckoned with honestly. As long as everybody stays healthy and everything … we’ve got a good team.”
When you can count four current or former All-Stars (Granger, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West) amongst your ranks, not to mention quality additions like two-time former Spanish League MVP and veteran power forward Luis Scola, there is good reason for a collective confidence that borders on cockiness.
“We feel like we’re finally getting a little recognition, like we’re getting respected. We’re feeling elite now,” George said. “We always were a team on the outside looking in and now the tables have turned a little bit.”
That twist comes with some extra responsibility that was previously not a part of the equation for Vogel’s crew. It’s more than just raised expectations, it’s more like the pressure of incumbency. When you play deep into the playoffs in consecutive seasons, losing to the eventual champions in both instances, you know exactly where you stand.
“That’s why we have to be that team that’s ready every night.” George said. “We have to be that team that comes out and plays consistent every night, because teams are going to be gunning for us every night.”
Teams will do the same thing to the Pacers this season that they did to the Heat, Bulls and Boston Celtics while Vogel was pushing his team to claw their way up the league’s food chain.
The biggest difference this time around, though, is that there is a belief that the difference between the Heat and the teams chasing them in the East isn’t nearly as great as it was perhaps two seasons ago. The Pacers took note when James said last week that there is “tension” but the Heat have no rivalries in the Eastern Conference and when Rose suggested it would be a couple of years before the two Central Division teams could actually be considered true rivals.
“I think it’s wide open, a free-for-all in the East right now,” George said. “Remember we were just one game away. Had we done things better [in that Game 7], we might have won that series and gotten to The Finals. Who knows what happens? But we feel like it’s up for grabs. There is no clear-cut champion right now in this league or in the East. We just have to come out and prove it. Kick the rankings and all the talk aside and let our play do the talking. We just have to come out and do us.”
The Heat are obviously loaded for a three-peat … and most NBA GM’s think they’ll pull it off. Rose’s return means a Bulls team that was as dangerous as anyone in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season will likely be elite again. The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks loom as potential contenders, too.
But Vogel remains fixated on his team, their potential and the same things he saw in them a year ago. He sidestepped the rivalry talk between his crew and the Heat or Bulls, insisting, and rightfully so, that the Pacers just want to beat everyone in their path.
His concentration is on the continued fortification of the Pacers’ belief in themselves and the fact that they belong, on the things he saw in them early on in his tenure that led him to boast a bit — even before his team got in on the act.
“I like the number of two-way players we have, guys that are solid on both ends of the court,” he said. “I like our depth, I like our talent. Just look at our first five. I think George Hill could be an All-Star level point guard. Paul George has been an All-Star. Roy Hibbert has been an All-Star. David West has been an All-Star. Danny has been an All-Star. I think Lance Stephenson has the ability to be that level of player some day. I like our talent and how the pieces fit.”
And he’s a true believer.
“Belief is a critical element in success,” Vogel said. “Each of the last few years they’ve believed a little bit more and a little bit more that they can be a truly great team. And hopefully, that belief is as great as it’s been since I’ve been and we can have a great season.”