Larry Bird watched the Pacers from a fan's 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 team's 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 it's 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 there's a not a whole lot different this year — other than that we're bigger and stronger."
They're also deeper now and perhaps an even bigger challenge to two-time defending NBA champion Miami, which ousted the Pacers in seven games in the East finals last year.
Paul George wants to prove his breakout season, All-Star selection and selection as the NBA's Most Improved Player are no flukes. Former All-Star Roy Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 center who was so dominant in Indiana's 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 Vogel's choice as the fifth starter — improving 6-5 guard Lance Stephenson or 6-9 swingman Danny Granger, who is trying to show he's healthy after missing all but five games last season with a left knee injury. Whoever doesn't win the starting job will anchor the revamped bench. And that could be the difference between falling one win short of dethroning Miami in June and playing for an NBA title.
"To tell you the truth, our bench is better than it was last year, and that's not to throw those guys under the bus. But I do think these guys are better," Hibbert said. "I think we've assembled a group that can take us to the next level, to win a Game 7."
Here are five keys to the Pacers season:
GRANGER'S KNEE: The Pacers' success no longer revolves entirely around Granger, Indiana's 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, he'll give Indiana another legitimate 3-point shooter, a bigger team and more experience. What's in it for Granger? A potentially big payday given his contract expires after this season.
THE HEAT IS ON: The Pacers have made a steady progression under Vogel. 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 league's best in defensive field-goal percentage and rebounding last season, and Vogel doesn't expect that to change this season. But he may be adding a new wrinkle — zone defense. At media day, Vogel promised to install a zone, something that would allow Indiana to mix it up even more on opponents. It will be interesting to see how much zone the Pacers play, and how effective it will be.
TEAM BALL: 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.
NATIONAL ATTENTION: It's 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 breaking into the spotlight. They have 17 appearances on national television this season, and Hibbert and his teammates know there's only way to keep Indiana's small-market team on center stage — win big.