INDIANAPOLIS -- There is nothing better than the time before expectations. Everything is new and uncharted and success isn't measured, it's celebrated.
So it was with the Indiana Pacers last season when a perennial also-ran turned into an unlikely contender. For five consecutive seasons after the great reckoning -- aka the Palace aftermath -- the Pacers weren't good enough to be taken seriously and not bad enough to offer hope. They were simply there, man, a nondescript team in a small market whose only remarkable trait was its utter lack of definition.
That it all changed so quickly was a credit to Larry Bird's painstakingly measured approach to roster building. Bird offered no quick fixes and there were none to be had for a team that consistently won 32 to 37 games each season and was strung out in cap purgatory. Little by little he added good players to the mix through the draft until finally there were enough solid pieces to be something greater than the sum of their unspectacular parts.
The Pacers, in defiance of most conventional NBA methods, suddenly became very good and that's when the expectations kicked in. It's a delicate balance made even tighter without a true superstar. The problem, as they soon found out, is that when one good player is subtracted from the equation, it makes everyone else seem somewhat less than they are. That's when expectations become a curse.
Danny Granger is a hardly a great player, but he is a very good one and the Pacers have been built on the paradigm of flooding the court with enough good players to make everyone a little bit better. Removing Granger from the equation has unsurprisingly made everyone a little bit worse. The Pacers lack a playmaker, someone who can take the offense in his hands and make life easier for everyone else.
Perhaps no player on the roster has fought that as much as Paul George. When the perpetually under-appreciated Granger hurt his knee, the basketball world salivated at the prospect of George suddenly becoming a superstar. Talent and potential are one thing, but results are another and there is no bigger jump for a young player than the one that occurs when production is not merely appreciated but expected.
"I really took it upon myself that I had to play well every night," George said. "I think that's something that kind of messed me up in the head a little bit because when I had moments to score I was kind of speeding myself up, just the anxiety that I had to knock that shot down."
That George wasn't quite ready to become an elite player is not a failure, although try telling that to a 22-year-old. The Pacers are a team trying to find their way and they are trying to do it together.
"We've made adjustments and we're still a work in progress in defining guys' roles and finding the units that work best for us," forward David West said. "You can't replace (Granger) and I don't think anybody's trying to."
Told that George basically admitted that replacing Granger was exactly what he was trying to do, West shook his head.
"I don't think you have to do that," West said. "It's about playing your game, maximizing what you do and we had opportunities down the stretch where guys just made plays."
George scored 37 points on Wednesday against the Hornets. He made nine three-pointers, establishing a new franchise mark, beating the old record held by Reggie Miller. It was a virtuoso command performance, but it was all in the context of the offensive structure. His looks came off ball movement and many of them were set up by West commanding attention from the defense and then making the right reads.
"I don't think he did anything more than he usually does," West said. "I just thought he took those shots and they were good shots on the backside of the offense. He didn't force anything. Wasn't pressing. When you're shooting from the three as well as he did, you just let it fly. We're built to get stuff on the backside of the offense."
The Pacers are not pretty. They are not aesthetically pleasing, or in any way appealing, unless you happen to be a fan of lumbering centers, ball movement and aggressive glass crashing. They are using a converted combo guard at the point and, while George Hill is a fine player, he is not a lead guard in the traditional sense. Their assists are low and their turnovers are too high, which is a lethal combination for a team that ranks in the bottom fifth in field goal percentage.
They also play at a slow pace with an emphasis on defense and they seek to wear you down over the course of 48 minutes. That's a solid gameplan for the postseason, but it can become a wearisome exercise over the course of 82 games, especially when the lumbering center in question -- Roy Hibbert -- has played as if both his oversized feet have been encased in cement.
"We've got to get our offense clicking," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "I don't think there's any secret about that. We're asking our guys to make a commitment to offensive flow and offensive tempo and running into our stuff. Less play calling, more ball movement and ball reversal. Just playing the game. It takes effort. It takes commitment. It's going to take time before the execution is down pat, but I think we're taking a step in the right direction."
Essentially, Vogel is asking his team to just play, which is far easier said than done and not an easy thing at all to coach.
"You point out the things that contribute to it," he said. "That's getting deep outlets, not coming back and waiting for it. That's running into your offensive sets, not walking into your offensive sets. It's demanding ball reversals. It's holding them accountable to a lack of movement. You got to demand it on every possession and you've got to ask for that level of commitment."
After a brutal 3-6 start, Vogel made tweaks to his offense. It worked like a charm against the Mavericks, looked like hell against the Knicks and began to come together in fits and starts against the Wizards and Hornets. They've won three out of four and may be starting to dig themselves out of their early-season hole, although no one is under the delusion that all is well.
"It's still a little bit sloppy and we need to work," Vogel said. "We knew that. Changing on the fly is a difficult thing to do. It's necessary for this team. We're taking the right steps."
As West put it, "I don't know if it does much. We're just happy to get a win. We're just happy to pick them up as we go, regardless of who we're playing against, just trying to pick up wins as the year marches on."
This is not a bad time for the Pacers to sort out their offensive identity. Their defense, ranked second in efficiency, has kept them in most games. For all his struggles offensively, Hibbert remains a force inside on the defensive end. He recorded an unlikely triple-double on Wednesday thanks to 11 blocked shots and the Pacers are holding teams under 60 percent shooting inside the restricted area.
"He's the anchor of our defense," Vogel said. "We're limiting points in the paint because of Roy Hibbert."
Across the Eastern Conference there is a decided lack of structure behind Miami, the obvious frontrunner. The Knicks have unexpectedly filled the void as the conference's second-best team but no one is really sure if that's sustainable.
Losing Granger for three months was an obvious blow but, look around, almost every wannabe contender is dealing with some sort of traumatic injury. The Bulls are without Derrick Rose. The 76ers have lost Andrew Bynum. Even the teams that are whole are not without major flaws. The Celtics have suddenly stopped playing defense. The Nets have problems of their own on that end and lack depth. There is opportunity here and it won't be decided in November.
Team president Donnie Walsh told the Indianapolis Star's beat man Mike Wells that he was not about to panic. There are no major deals on the horizon and he's going to give it time. Vogel said he doesn't involve himself in personnel matters, but he agrees with the patient approach.
"I like the guys we have on our team," he said. "Obviously we're missing Danny, there's no question about that but I think we have the pieces to become a really good team and I think we're close."
It's not flashy, but then neither are the Pacers.