Mark Montieth: Pacers poised for success

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Pacers fans have fallen in love with their team lately, and why not? It’s not only winning, it’s doing it with speed and flair, with style and substance, with stardom and depth.

And that’s only half the story. The Pacers are younger than all but six teams in the NBA and have the lowest payroll. Having a good team that should only get better with experience and the financial wherewithal to add more talent? ’Tis the season to be jolly for the fans, before and after Christmas.

They stepped into the national spotlight last week when they won three consecutive games over winning teams, two of them on the road. They won in Miami without star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, came home to beat Boston in an In-Season Tournament game before a capacity crowd at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, then defeated Milwaukee in Las Vegas to advance to the championship of the tournament.

One announcer called it “a breakthrough moment for this upstart Indiana Pacers team” after the victory over the Celtics, and more praise was heaped on them following the win over Milwaukee. They lost to the Lakers in the championship game, but they had impressed a nation of NBA fans.

They took a 13-8 record and four-game winning streak into Wednesday’s game at Milwaukee (the championship game of the tournament did not count toward the regular-season record). In the bigger picture, they are residing smack dab in the middle of a sweet spot for the franchise. They have a positive present with legitimate hope for an even brighter future, a combination that has come around only once a decade for this franchise.

Fair warning, though. Honeymoons can be short-lived for professional teams, and danger lurks around every bend. Collecting the talent for a winning team can be time-consuming and difficult. Maintaining it isn’t much easier, because success brings its own challenges, as it does for any business operation. Injuries, egos, aging, complacency, shifting chemistry, freak occurrences—any number of things can ruin a team and cause its fans to fall out of love.

We know this because of what has happened with previous Pacers teams that were in positions similar to this one. Things were going well and seemed likely to only get better. But then …

1991

The first time Pacers fans had an NBA team worthy of excitement was in the 1991 playoffs, at the end of the team’s 15th season in the league.

The Pacers’ starting lineup consisted of an emerging point guard in Micheal Williams, future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, former Rookie of the Year Chuck Person, role-playing forward LaSalle Thompson and future all-star Rik Smits. Two-time Sixth Man of the Year and future all-star Detlef Schrempf came off the bench.

They were young, deep and gelling. They finished the season on a 22-13 run to achieve a 41-41 record and then shocked the fan base and perhaps even themselves by winning Game 2 of the best-of-five opening-round playoff series in Boston, 130-118.

They lost the following game at Market Square but won Game 4, 116-113, in one of the most intense and raucous games in franchise history. A sellout crowd of 16,530 stood for most of the Friday night affair, creating the loudest atmosphere in franchise history to that point. Maybe to this point, too.

“I have never experienced a crowd like this in my life,” said Person, who scored 12 consecutive points down the stretch to finish with 30. “Every time I went up for a shot, I felt like I had 16,530 people right there with me.”

Keep in mind, the Pacers had won only one NBA playoff game to that point. Going head-to-head with an elite team in a best-of-five series was unprecedented and invigorating. Alas, the Pacers lost Game 5 in Boston on Sunday afternoon, 124-121. But they seemingly had announced their arrival as a team to be taken seriously.

“This team is going to be around a while,” Miller said after the Game 5 loss. “This might be the beginning of something.”

Over in the Celtics locker room, Larry Bird was particularly impressed with Williams, who finished with 23 points and 10 assists. “If they don’t win 50 games next year, there’s something wrong, because that kid can flat out play,” he said.

The Pacers brought back all the key players from that team the next season and added rookie Dale Davis but won 10 fewer games than Bird projected. They were 15-28 at one point and then finished strong to go 40-42. But were swept in the playoffs by the Celtics. The chemistry had soured, and General Manager Donnie Walsh broke up the team in the offseason by trading Person and Williams.

At that point, it became Miller’s team, a transition that needed to happen because he had a better work ethic and was more coachable. The Pacers reemerged in 1994, three years after their false alarm, with a tweaked roster and a new coach in Larry Brown that began the greatest stretch in franchise history—a seven-year run in which the team reached the conference finals five times, culminated by its only NBA Finals appearance, in 2000.

2004

The Pacers made a relatively smooth transition from title contender in 2000 to title contender once again four years later with a vastly revamped roster.

They had made the playoffs each of the three seasons between under coach Isiah Thomas, and Thomas had coached in the All-Star Game in 2003 because his team had the best record in the Eastern Conference at the voting deadline. That team foundered the rest of the season for multiple reasons.

Bird, who replaced Walsh as general manager in the summer of 2003, replaced Thomas with Rick Carlisle and was rewarded with the best regular-season record in franchise history, 61-21. That team also reached the conference finals, where it lost to Detroit in six games.

Forward Bruce Brown shoots over Milwaukee center Brook Lopez in the Dec. 7 semifinal of the In-Season Tournament. The Pacers’ spot in the finals after their victory over the Bucks brought national praise. (AP photo)

It was young except for Miller, who was still a viable starter at age 38. Jermaine O’Neal—a 25-year-old, eight-year veteran—was an All-Star and second-team all-NBA selection and placed third in the league MVP voting. Ron Artest, 24, had been voted an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year. The team had effective role players, a solid bench and hard-earned postseason experience.

ESPN commentator and former Pacer Reggie Miller embraced Tyrese Haliburton during a break in tournament action. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana Pacers)

“We’re developing a culture of winning and doing things professionally and in the right way,” backup guard Anthony Johnson said after the Game 6 loss in Detroit. “You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, so hopefully this is the start of something great.”

With only minor adjustments to the roster, the Pacers showed flashes of greatness early the following season. They started 6-2, but then came that infamous night at the Palace of Auburn Hills. A brawl erupted in the final minute of a victory over the defending champion Pistons that led to a season-long suspension for Artest and lengthy suspensions for others. The Pacers went on to achieve a 10-3 start but wound up 44-38 and lost in the second round of the playoffs.

Miller retired after that season. Artest asked for a trade after playing in 16 games the following season, and injuries became a major factor. The 2004-2005 team won 44 games and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, leading to a major rebuild and four-year postseason drought.

2012

The Pacers finally became a team to be taken seriously again in the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season. They finished 42-24 and reached the second round of the playoffs, where they lost to the eventual champion, Miami.

They reached the conference finals in 2013, losing in seven games to Miami, which went on to repeat as champion. Optimism reigned supreme in the losing locker room, however. Not only did the Pacers have a contending team, injured veteran Danny Granger, a former All-Star, was expected back the following season.

“It’s scary,” Granger said. “I think it’s really scary what we can do when we play together … for the most part, our future is very bright.”

They repeated the run to the conference finals the following season after a 16-1 start but lost again to Miami in the conference finals. Granger’s knee injury never fully healed, and cracks formed in the roster’s framework. Roy Hibbert, an All-Star the previous season, became frustrated with his role. By the end of the regular season, the shine was dimming. The Pacers had a 10-13 record over the final six weeks of the season and struggled to reach the conference finals, where they lost again to Miami.

They were young and talented enough to continue making postseason runs, but it all unraveled. Paul George broke his leg in a USA Basketball game that summer. Lance Stephenson, to his later regret, rejected the Pacers’ offer in free agency and signed a lesser deal with Charlotte. David West and George Hill suffered injuries, and the Pacers finished 38-44 and out of the playoffs in 2015. Hibbert was traded after that season. West, wanting to finish his career with a title contender, rejected the option year of his contract and signed with San Antonio.

George, not liking the direction of the team and wanting to work his way to Los Angeles near his hometown, asked for a trade a year later.

The Pacers haven’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2014. They had a winning record from 2015-2020 but lost in the first round of the playoffs each season.

Now, finally, 10 seasons beyond their most recent playoff success, they appear poised for sustained success once again. Fans should be excited, but those old enough to recall past periods such as this one can be forgiven for being wary.

However, other than the unpredictable X factor of injuries, this team appears equipped to avoid the traps of the past. Haliburton, who averages 26.3 points and a league-leading 12.3 assists, is regarded by many as the best point guard in the league. He’s also just 23 years old and under contract for five seasons after this one. He is a Miller-like foundational piece—enthusiastic, selfless and mature—and a Midwestern native (Wisconsin) who is comfortable in a smaller market.

The rest of the roster appears happy to revolve in his orbit, and nobody appears likely to create the sort of disruption that haunted past teams. Roles will shift, and some players likely will become frustrated with their place in the mix, but the front office to this point has tweaked the roster with agility and has the tools to continue improving it.

Hold your breath and hang on. It should be quite a ride. To what, only time will tell.•

__________

Montieth, an Indianapolis native, is a longtime newspaper reporter and freelance writer. He is the author of three books: “Passion Play: Coach Gene Keady and the Purdue Boilermakers,” “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” and “Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball,” with former Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher.

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