When the Indiana Pacers traded away Jermaine O'Neal last summer they were expecting Mike Dunleavy, Jr. to be the primary building block of the team's next phase. What they didn't expect was that Dunleavy would suffer a knee injury and only appear in 18 games during 2008-09. The good news for Pacers fans, the news that kept the team in the playoff chase right down to the wire, was that Danny Granger was more than prepared to step up for his team.
"Danny had a terrific year," Pacers GM David Morway tells HOOPSWORLD. "Larry (Bird) and I were pleased to be able to sign him to an extension at the beginning of the year, and we felt strongly that Danny had the potential to be a good leader and to develop into a sensational basketball player, otherwise we wouldn't have offered the kind of contract that we did. He's been just terrific, on and off the basketball court. He's growing as a leader, he understands his role with this team, and he works . . .he has a terrific work ethic and an unbelievable competitive spirit. He's the kind of guy you want as the spirit of the franchise if you plan on challenging for a championship. Offensively he had a great year; defensively, we've talked about it, we think he could be a premier defender and we think he needs to concentrate on that. He knows it, and that's his gameplan. In terms of where he's come from . . .when we drafted him we felt he had a chance to be an outstanding player, but where he's come from since that day is remarkable. It all has to do with Danny, the work he's put in, the type of person he is, and the type of competitive internal desire that he has to be great."
Granger's 28.5 points per game earned him Most Improve Player honors, as well as the respect and trust of his entire team. It also helped that rookie Brandon Rush put things together over the second half of the season. Rush played so well that the Pacers have already decided he'll be starting at the two when the 2009-2010 season gets underway.
"Danny's starting at small forward and Brandon Rush will be starting at the two-guard. Brandon had a great final six weeks of the season, a very good six weeks. He's already working on his game and we're excited about the work he's already put in and his commitment. He's a terrific kid, good young man, and he wants to be a really good basketball player and he has good skills. He's very long, he's an excellent defender already, and obviously he can shoot the basketball. Now his next step is to be able to take the ball off the dribble and get where he wants to go on the court. In terms of his development, though, he's where we want him to be. He's hoping and expecting him to start, and then we'll see what happens. Whether Mike starts or comes off the bench doesn't really matter; what matters is that we're going to have three very, very strong wings and that's a good place to start when you're building a franchise."
That's right Pacers fans, Mike Dunleavy is expected to be back on the court, perhaps even playing a significant role for the team next season.
"His career's not in jeopardy," says Morway. "When we went into the process, we didn't know; it might have been. The surgery went better than any of us could have expected. He did have a large, significant bone spur in the knee and it appeared that it had displaced some of his patellar tendon, which, had it forced them to graft the patellar tendon, could have been career-threatening. Dr. Stedman felt that there was a lot of patellar tendon hidden beneath the bone spur because the spur was so big and you couldn't see it on any of the scans they did. He was right. When he got in there, a large majority of the tendon was hidden under there, so he was able to reattach it now Mike's in the rehab phase and doing great. The feeling is, we're going to take our time with it. It's not like there's ever been a bone spur this size taken out of a knee before, so we don't have a specific period of time that the rehab's going to take. We're going to be very careful with it. I think we're all very optimistic now that not only will he come back, but that he'll be radically better now that the spur isn't in his knee. I can't tell you when he's going to play, but we feel really optimistic that he's going to be back on the basketball court at some point this season. He's back walking with no limp, he's on the court, he's in the pool, strengthening it - we're really pleased. We just don't have a timetable at this point."
It seems pretty clear that if Granger and Rush continue to play as well as they did this past season, there won't be a lot of room for Dunleavy. Granger has emerged as one of the best small forwards in the NBA and Rush averaged 15.9 points when called upon to start. In April he averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 53% from the field, 50% from three, and 83% from the line. If Dunleavy can get even close to where he was before the knee injury - averaging better than 19 points per game - he'll likely be a better trading piece than actual asset for the Pacers, but that's a problem they look forward to having. Too many healthy bodies would be a strange dilemma for the Pacers to have to address . . .and a welcome one.
As for the immediate future, the Pacers are pleased with their draft position and feel they can get someone who will help them improve right away.
"We like the position that we're in at 13," says Morway. "We think there are a number of players there that we'll be able to look at who can help our basketball team. We're in a position of rebuilding the franchise and we're going to take the best available player. We're not in a position to be able to target a specific position on the court. We feel comfortable where we are, as far as where we are in the draft, and we feel we'll be able to get a player who's going to help us as we move forward."
The next item on the agenda, of course, will be taking care of their restricted free agents. The team was very high on Jarrett Jack last season and Morway is confident he'll be back next season.
"That would be our goal. You never know when you get into these situations, but out objective is to bring Jarrett back. Every time you get into this there are financial constraints, and you never quite know, but our objective is certainly to bring him back. Jarrett had a very good year for us, we liked the combination of TJ and Jarrett, so we're looking forward to having that again. He did a great job at the point, but also as a swing. We were able to go small at times and play TJ and Jarrett together. That really helped us at the two position, so we like his versatility. We definitely want to re-sign Jarrett, we just have to get to that phase of the offseason to see if we can do it."
Unrestricted free agents will be a little trickier. The Pacers have an up-and-coming center in Roy Hibbert, who isn't ready to start, and Jeff Foster, who may not be the best option to start, either. That doesn't necessarily mean the Pacers will pursue Rasho Nesterovic, whom they acquired in the Jermaine O'Neal trade.
"We like Roy a lot," says Morway."He had a very good rookie season. He has a lot of work to do, and he's doing it this offseason. He knows this is a process for him to develop, like it is for any big man in this league. Jeff has been a vital part of our franchise for ten years, and will continue to be, going forward. As far as (Rasho), I don't know. We'll have to see. We have two restricted free agents in Jarrett and Josh McRoberts, and we hope to sign both of them. As far as the unrestricted guys go, a lot of it will be based upon what the market will bear and what we do in the draft, or if we make a trade, what we bring back and how we use the available roster spots."
Like all teams, the Pacers are trying to weigh the cost of their growth as a franchise with what the economic future of the NBA will hold.
"We have a three-year gameplan here that started last year," says Morway. "We've spent a lot of time analyzing and debating where the financial side of this business is going, so all of our decisions are going to be decisions that are made by looking at the impact on this year, the next year, and even the third year. After the 2011 is potentially when the Collective Bargaining Agreement will run out, so we may have a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, so we're not only looking at this year, but also the potential for the cap and tax going down next year depending on the economy, and then we're also looking at the CBA. At the same time, we're looking to get better as a basketball team. We think we're going in the right direction. We have a gameplan that we implemented last year and we've got to execute it. Our goal is to try to continue to improve the team while working within the financial constraints that every team has. Hopefully we're going to get a few things done this summer. Besides the draft, where you know you're going to get a player, you have to either have another team that wants to work with you on a trade, or in the free agent market you have to have a player that determines he wants to play for you. We're looking at all options."
The one thing the Pacers' executives know for sure is that if they don't aggressively look to get better the rest of the Eastern Conference will pass them by.
"The East is very competitive, and the teams are all getting better. The Raptors, Charlotte, New Jersey has a lot of young talent that they're building around and Devin Harris is terrific . . Chicago made the playoffs, but they're a team that's in the development stage . . .Detroit's going to get themselves worked out quickly . . .Milwaukee's got a lot of talent, they have challenges, but a lot of talent. One thing I know is that if you're not getting better, you're falling behind, so we have a big challenge in front of us. The one thing we were able to accomplish last year, we were able to change the culture of our team and our locker room. We were fortunate to be able to bring in a bunch of high quality, terrific guys who have a strong work ethic, want to win, and believe in the system. We made that move (Jermaine O'Neal's contract), which is a difficult thing to move - it's like moving an aircraft carrier - it's an important thing to be able to do. We were able to that, our style of play has completely changed, and now our core guys all know we have to make a stronger commitment to the defensive end of the floor. They're committed to doing that. Then I think we have a chance to be a solid team."
The first step for the Pacers will be to get healthy. Mike Dunleavy Jr.'s surgery was a success and he's expected to be back, which is excellent news for the squad. Whether that means he'll be a top sixth-man candidate, or become a key trade target, it certainly bodes well for a team that was a couple of wins away from being in the playoffs.