For coach Jim O’Brien and team president Larry Bird, there’s a big chunk of reputation riding on the results of this season, coming off three straight seasons of disappointing results in Indiana. The Pacers are 104-142 under O’Brien and actually took a step backward—from 36 to 32 wins—last year, not only slipping in the standings, but slipping in attendance. The Pacers averaged just 14,202 fans (27th in the league) and with O’Brien in the last year of his contract, another dud year will surely mean changes up top.
That means there’s an awful lot riding on the performance of the one key ingredient the Pacers brought in this offseason—point guard Darren Collison. There weren’t a whole lot of changes in the makeup of the Pacers coming out of the summer, apart from the addition of Collison, who will be asked to inject some life into a foundering franchise
. “That’s what I want to do,” Collison told SN. “I want to bring a little excitement back into the area, excitement for Pacers basketball. They had that for a long time with Reggie Miller and those teams, and that wasn’t that long ago. We can bring that back.”
Rescuing a wayward franchise and reigniting the lost excitement in what had been one of the NBA’s model small markets—and saving the coach’s job, to boot—is a lot to ask of a second-year point guard who spent the bulk of last season as a reserve. Playing behind Chris Paul in New Orleans, Collison averaged 6.4 points and 2.5 assists off the bench. But when Paul was injured for 37 games, Collison showed what he can do, averaging 18.8 points and 9.1 assists as a starter. That included a triple-double (against, fittingly, the Pacers) and five games of 14 assists or more.
“To be honest, I was surprised by the numbers,” Collison said. “Especially after the triple-double. I was like, ‘Wait, this is the NBA. Did I just do that?’ But at the same time, I knew how hard I had worked and how much I had tried to learn. So when I got out there and got my chance, it came to me a lot easier than I expected.”
Now, O’Brien and the Pacers will have to hope that Collison’s new task comes to him easily, too. The Pacers have opportunities to improve in places other than Collison, mostly in terms of health. Guard Mike Dunleavy struggled with injury through most of last year, and star forward Danny Granger missed 20 games. The Pacers are also hopeful that, after a summer of hard work, center Roy Hibbert is ready for a breakout year. But the position that has held the Pacers back recently has been point guard. Collison is expected to change that in a big way.
“We are much stronger at point guard,” O’Brien said. “Darren had a good half a year. I just sat down with Darren and I said, ‘You will make tremendous strides as a player this year. I do not think you’re a 15-year veteran, or a 10-year veteran. You’re in your second year, but you are going to have great responsibility on this basketball team.’ But he has room for growth, and I think he would be the first one to tell you that.”
Collison agrees. O’Brien’s system, on both ends of the floor, is predicated on pressure, and that means Collison will be expected to get out and run. In doing so, though, he will need to cut down on turnovers and push his teammates to be a better defensive team. “I have to be careful with the ball and make the right passes, make the right plays,” Collison said. “But the most important thing is defense. If we are going to be a playoff team, we have to play good defense. That starts with the point guard. I want to be a leader on defense, a leader on this team.”
The Pacers would certainly welcome that.