INDIANAPOLIS | Indiana finally won a playoff series, had a chance to eliminate eventual NBA champion Miami last spring and strengthened its bench.
The locals expect bigger and better things this season, and so do the Pacers.
"We do have high expectations and with that comes a different kind of burden," said swingman Danny Granger, who has been slowed throughout the preseason with a patella tendon injury in his left knee. "With the guys coming back, I feel like we're further along than we ever have been."
For the Pacers, it's been a steep climb back in a state where basketball has traditionally been the king of the sports universe.
Following the 2004 brawl in Detroit, Reggie Miller retired, there were other problems off the court, two years without a playoff appearance and a six-year span without a playoff series win. Donnie Walsh, architect of Indiana's last legitimate title contender, left a tattered team behind when he went to New York and former coach Larry Bird was tasked with rebuilding the team he coached to the 2000 Eastern Conference title. Frustrated fans stayed away from games, creating a decline in attendance and team owner Herb Simon renegotiated his deal with the city.
At times, it seemed things couldn't get any bleaker.
But Bird changed everything for the better and the fans, well, they seem to be coming around.
"We know we have a lot of work to do, there's a lot of expectations and we're ready for it,"All-Star center Roy Hibbert said. "We have veterans who are working hard and rookies who work hard. I think we're going to take it real far this year."
Walsh is back, replacing the retiring Bird and the franchise looks completely different.
Back then, Granger was just beginning to emerge as a team leader and potent scorer but hadn't yet been to an All-Star Game. Forward David West was a star in New Orleans. Hibbert and guard George Hill hadn't been drafted yet and swingman Paul George was still in high school.
Today, the Pacers call those five their starters — the same group that led them past Orlando in the first round of last year's playoffs and gave them a 2-1 lead over Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
What's changed since the Heat won those last three games to knock Indiana out of the playoffs?
Walsh returned as team president, general manager Kevin Pritchard decided to re-sign Hibbert and Hill to big contracts, keeping the core of this young team intact, and the Pacers revamped their bench. Indiana traded guard Darren Collison to Dallas for center Ian Mahinmi and used its first-round draft pick on Miles Plumlee, with an eye toward giving Hibbert some help.
The new management also brought in point guard D.J. Augustin to back up Hill and signed forward Gerald Green. With forward Tyler Hansbrough already an established force on the bench, the addition of rookie guard Orlando Johnson and the possibility Lance Stephenson emerges in a key role this season, Indiana could have one of the deeper rosters in the league.
"This team has got ability, there's not been a lot of change," coach Frank Vogel said. "My approach is just the understanding that this team is a year further along with experience and the bench is deeper."
Stability should help the Pacers, too, who would like to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000.
"We want to grow. From looking at a playoff standpoint, we got to the second round last year, so we're hoping to get further than that. We got a third seed in the regular season and we're hoping to do better than that," Vogel said. "Those are probably the first steps in terms of taking that next step as a franchise. We finished the season last year feeling like we were good enough to win the championship and we're a team that sets our sights high and we shoot for the moon."
All the Pacers have to do now is prove they can handle the hype and keep winning — right through the playoffs.
"We have something special here," George said. "That makes it even more exciting knowing that everybody's on the same page."