Pacers aim to take next step, contend for NBA title
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Armed with one more year of experience and boosted by key acquisitions in the off-season, the Indiana Pacers are confident entering the new NBA season that they now have what they need to take the next step and contend for the championship.
The Pacers built a 49-32 record last season, good for 3rd in the East. They made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, where they pushed the eventual champions Miami Heat to seven games before eventually falling short.
That experience, combined with the addition of players like Luis Scola and CJ Watson, will help push the Pacers over the hump, the team's veterans believe.
"I think we have what it takes," says Danny Granger, who missed most of last season due to a knee injury. "Honestly, I think it's the experience. This will be my ninth year. Paul (George) gained another year of experience. David (West), obviously he’s the oldest guy in the team and he has the most experience. Roy (Hibbert) will take another step."
"When you add experience to talent, then you have a two-headed monster," Granger added. "A lot of young teams just have a lot of talent. They don't have the experience. We have both, and I think adding that one year can get us over the hump."
Their seven-game series against Miami also served as a "confidence booster" for the young team, according to Paul George.
"It was huge, because that's the champions, and at the time they were defending champions," said George, last season's Most Improved Player who averaged over 17 points per game. "We were going toe-to-toe with the defending champions, and we were one of the teams to push them all the way to a Game 7."
Scola as missing piece?
But it is the addition of veterans like Scola and Watson, along with Granger's return to form, that will give the Pacers an even bigger boost as they seek to dethrone Miami in the Eastern Conference.
"We made a lot of moves in the offseason that will help us take that next step. The additions of Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, the drafting of Solomon Hill, Danny Granger coming back," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "I think all of those things bolster what we were doing last year, and should make us a stronger team."
Vogel, Granger and George all spoke in glowing terms of Scola, an Argentine power forward whom the Pacers traded for late in July.
"He's a starting power forward, and in some kind of way, miraculously, (team president) Larry Bird pulled off the trade to get him here, and he's our back up," said Granger. "That's a great luxury that most teams don't have. I think he's gonna help us the most."
Granger agrees that Scola may be the missing piece to the Pacers' championship puzzle. "Every team needs that guy," he said. "He gives us an overload of talent, honestly. Teams are usually about six or seven deep, and with him we go eight or nine men deep. He gives us that depth."
Scola will serve as the primary back-up to All-Star David West, something that George believe will give opposing teams fits on defense.
"Having Luis is huge. He's a playmaker at the power forward position behind David West. We all know how David West is. Whoever's guarding us doesn't really have a night off at the power forward position," he pointed out. "They have to be constantly dialed in there. So it's great to have Luis with us. He's a smart player, he's a heck of a finisher, he can shoot the ball well from the outside, and he gives us a lot of different looks."
For Vogel, having Scola - an Olympic gold medalist with Argentina - makes the Pacers a smarter basketball team.
"I feel like we improved our basketball IQ with the addition of Luis Scola," he said. "He is someone who has a feel for the game that frankly, you cannot teach. So to have him come in and be able to contribute to the culture that we have here should really strengthen our team."
George also stressed that aside from their off-season acquisitions, having Granger back in the fold will be a huge boost to the Pacers especially in terms of leadership.
"It's good to have Danny back in the line-up," said George. "Danny is another leader for us, another playmaker, another shotmaker for us. He's someone whom we missed. He's a guy that in his career averaged 20 points and has been an All-Star, so he takes a lot of pressure off myself, Roy, David (West) and George."
Although the team is confident that they can build on last year's achievements, they are also quick to point out that it is far too early in the season to be making predictions about how they will fare.
"We got to take it step-by-step," said George. "It's a long season. We're still in the pre-season, so I'm not gonna put those expectations as far as where we're gonna be when it's all said and done, but we have a great team going into this whole season."
"There are a lot of teams in the East that got stronger," added Vogel. "We're gonna have to really grow, gain from the experience that we took last year, and try to take the next step."
Part of the Pacers' preparation for the season is their game against the Houston Rockets on Thursday at the Mall of Asia Arena, the first ever pre-season game to be held in the Philippines.
"The Rockets are a championship contender," said Vogel. "Obviously, they had a great season last year, and in the last twelve months, they've added two of the best players in the NBA in Dwight Howard and James Harden. It should be an interesting game."