Two summers ago, Mike Dunleavy packed up his belongings and left Conseco Fieldhouse having never felt better about his game.
His hasn't felt the same since.
Knee injuries, surgery and an intensive rehabilitation period limited him to 85 games in the past two seasons. Sporadic playing time led to an even more sporadic shot.
The ordeal has been draining. It's why Dunleavy walked out of the fieldhouse last month knowing this will be the most important offseason of his career. He will be entering his ninth season.
The Indiana Pacers swingman not only is working to regain the confidence of the team's basketball staff, but every jump shot he takes and every charge he attempts to take in pick-up games is a step toward landing his next contract.
Dunleavy, like four other teammates, will be in the final year of his contract next season. He'll make $10.6 million.
"I'm pretty excited about the future," said Dunleavy, who turns 30 in September. "I'll get another summer under my belt where I can get my knee stronger and work on my basketball skills."
Dunleavy was coach Jim O'Brien's prized pupil the past couple of seasons. O'Brien often gushed when talking about what Dunleavy's movement and passing skill meant to the offense.
The Dunleavy factor never rose to the forefront this season. Worse, Dunleavy regressed to a level not seen since his rookie season.
Dunleavy, who had right knee surgery in March 2009, averaged 9.9 points in 22 minutes and shot 41 percent. Things were so tough, he missed a game after getting hit in the eye by a ball during pregame warm-ups.
"I knew Dunleavy wasn't going to be great right away, but he never did play the type of game that he played before he went out with the injury," O'Brien said. "He'll be better next year."
Dunleavy has to be, for his sake and the Pacers'.
Team officials are hoping he comes back as the wing who averaged a career-high 19.1 points and shot nearly 48 percent in 2007-08, so that he can be part of the rotation of Danny Granger, Dahntay Jones and Brandon Rush next season.
Pacers officials have made it clear they plan to try to move some of their expiring contracts before the February 2011 trade deadline. Dunleavy's inconsistency and salary make it highly unlikely that he'll be traded this summer. He scored 15 or more points just 14 times last season.
"It was a tough year, there's no question about that," Dunleavy said. "I came back (from knee surgery) and had some pretty good games right away. So I don't think there's any question I can do it. I just got out of rhythm. Some of it was injury related, a lot of it wasn't."
Dunleavy will spend the offseason playing pick-up ball in New York and California.
"Being able to play as much as possible is really key. I haven't been able to do that,'' Dunleavy said. "I thought I was ready to go this season, then I find out right before camp that they have to shut me down a little bit (when an MRI disclosed a knee strain).
"I didn't really do anything for six weeks besides the swimming pool. That kind of canceled out all the work I put in all summer. I don't want that to happen again."
Neither do the Pacers.