Benner/Sports and Pacers and Capital Improvement Board and NBA and Government and Sports Business

No playoffs, but plenty of positives for Pacers

April 20, 2009

Certainly, a season-ending victory over a last-place team isn't all that much to shout about.

Neither is a 36-46 record and a third straight year on the outside looking in at the NBA playoffs.

That said, the Indiana Pacers—who closed their campaign April 15 with a stirring come-from-behind win over the Milwaukee Bucks—left me wanting more.

We'll just have to wait until November to get it.

In case you didn't notice, the Pacers went 26-25 after closing the calendar year at 10-21. They did so without (except for a token appearance) Mike Dunleavy, and for three weeks without all-star Danny Granger as he recovered from a foot injury.

I've gushed about Granger in this space before, but it bears repeating. He is both a special talent and a special person. Why he hasn't been embraced to a greater extent by the community is, I suspect, the simple fact that the Pacers aren't winning at the Reggie Miller or Peyton Manning level.

We see fans flocking to Conseco Fieldhouse to watch the likes of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. That's understandable. They have mega star power.

But right here in White River City, we now have the NBA's fourth-leading scorer, who has emerged as one of the best clutch shooters in the league. The only difference between Granger and Reggie Miller is that Granger hasn't been able to display that ability on a national stage in the playoffs.

He's the best-kept secret both in the NBA and in his hometown.

In the meantime, rookie Brandon Rush finally shook off the first-year blues and emerged as a star of the future, his confidence growing over the last month with every trip down the floor. With Dunleavy's uncertain knee and future, Rush showed he is ready to become the offensive complement to Granger.

There are other encouraging signs, including the emergence of Jarrett Jack as the starting point guard with Travis Ford as his backup, rather than vice versa. When Troy Murphy arrived here, he was viewed as little more than a high-salaried add-on to make the trade with Golden State work. Now he's Mr. Double-Double (points, rebounds) who shows up every night ready.

Overall, the Pacers also cleaned up the polluted atmosphere of the locker room, starting with simple addition by subtraction with the decision to let pout guard—er, point guard—Jamal Tinsley gather $7 million worth of rust in Atlanta. Tinsley's situation is destined for league arbitration, but the fact no one in the league was willing to bring him on board should provide a sobering reality to his overall value.

Without question, the Pacers' road back to contending status remains decidedly uphill, though opportunity beckons in the Eastern Conference. Team President Larry Bird, who still has more critics than admirers, and General Manager Dave Morway will have to maneuver through a shrinking salary cap while trying to find help in another visit to the draft lottery. Couldn't this franchise catch a lucky break just once?

All the while, attendance rose nearly 2,000 per game. Pacers' management—acknowledging both the economy and an overhanging cloud of public skepticism—discounted tickets and sincerely reached out to re-engage its fan base. Instead of handing out his business card, Pacers CEO Jim Morris distributed a buy-one-get-one-free card to everyone he met. Barely a game went by without some kind of promotion.

And in terms of community outreach, I can't recall a time when one of our franchises worked harder or did more.

Of course, the season comes to a close with other highly relevant issues—mainly, the ongoing operation of Conseco Fieldhouse under the auspices of the cash-strapped Capital Improvement Board—still unresolved. Despite the signs of a more positive basketball product, there remains a contingent in this community who wouldn't be disappointed—delighted, even—to see the Pacers pack up and move.

Co-owner Herb Simon has vowed that isn't going to happen. I take him at his word. I also remain (perhaps naively so) hopeful that the NBA and its players' association will take a hard look at their business model as it relates to sustaining the viability of the smaller-market franchises.

For now, I look forward to the NBA playoffs—the 2010 playoffs, that is, with the Pacers in them.
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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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