The Indiana Pacers open their National Basketball Association season Wednesday night with two questions overriding other concerns.
One, can they make the playoffs?
And, two, can making the playoffs make them matter in our city again?
The franchise is now six years into a public beatdown that began with The Brawl and escalated with a series of off-court embarrassments. But at least fans still cared enough to get angry. Now there seems to be a general malaise, a response to lackluster performances and, worse, effort. Even bad teams can play hard.
Without question, last season represented two steps backward in the team’s effort to rebuild without conducting a total collapse to get a plum pick in the draft lottery. And what occurred on the floor as the Pacers missed the post-season for the fourth straight year was compounded by the public furor over Conseco Fieldhouse’s funding issues.
“Let ’em go” became an oft-voiced sentiment that rarely, if ever, would have been voiced during the Pacers’ captivating playoff runs that began in 1994 and continued for most of the next 10 years.
Remember Reggie? And I mean Miller, not Wayne.
Even this summer, when much-criticized basketball operations president Larry Bird finally generated long overdue buzz with the trade that landed promising point guard Darren Collison and veteran James Posey, the hype quickly was displaced with the news of rookie Lance Stephenson’s arrest for alleged assault on his girlfriend and Brandon Rush’s four-game suspension because of a third in-season positive test for marijuana.
Stephenson’s case is working its way through the court system and his play in the preseason has been encouraging. And Rush has vowed to put down the bong and pick up his game in an effort at redemption.
On the good news front, Danny Granger collected a gold medal on the U.S. team that won the World Championship last summer. Well, make that sort of good news. Granger’s defense was so lacking that coach Mike Krzyzewski banished him to the end of the bench for the games that really mattered.
It’s becoming clear that Granger, although immensely talented and prone to have huge offensive nights, is not to the level where he can will the Pacers to victory on a regular basis. Another way to put it: He’s not yet a must-see attraction for the local audience, the guy who can put fannies into the seats.
In reality, though, in this market, only winning can do that, and the Pacers at least need to advance the notion that, after four straight seasons with win totals in the 32-36 range, this season will have some consequence.
Bird has said the time is now for the team to turn the corner—and not get hit by a bus. There is a nice young nucleus: center Roy Hibbert, who does deliver effort every night; the always-hustling Tyler Hansbrough (if only he can stay healthy) and the local kid, Carmel’s Josh McRoberts, who might become more than just the “other guy” in the trade that brought him home two years ago.
And there has been no less than gushing praise coming out of training camp for the potential upside of the rookie threesome: first-round pick Paul George and second-rounders Stephenson and Magnum Rolle.
Perhaps, too, the Pacers can get meaningful minutes from vets Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, T.J. Ford and Posey.
Pacers coach Jim O’Brien hasn’t exactly inspired recollections of Larry Brown (or Larry Bird, for that matter) on the sidelines but, to be fair, he hasn’t had nearly the talent level the Larrys had. Nonetheless, if O’Brien fails to coach this team up—or, more to the point, they offer more of the go-through-the-motions efforts of last year—it would be difficult to imagine him lasting the season. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
I don’t think fans here are looking for miracles. But they are looking for a team that competes every night, brings toughness to every possession and creates a sense of optimism that better days are coming.
They just want a team that plays like it matters to them.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.