Great Expectations: Pacers fans plan on watching a winner this season
by Mike Wells
The Indiana Pacers enjoyed being the overachieving, blue-collar team that went toe-to-toe with the NBA's heavyweights last season.
It was that mindset -- and coach Frank Vogel's sometimes over the top optimism -- that helped the team finish with the fifth-best record in the league and brought back a buzz in the city that had not existed for years.
The optimism has carried over to the upcoming season. Training camp commences later this week.
"Our ticket sales are going very strong," Pacers Sports and Entertainment President Jim Morris said. "At this point, we've had more ticket package sales than we had the entire season last year. Our ticket sales across the board are 27-28 percent higher than last year at this point. The renewal rate has been going very well."
But the days of the Pacers sneaking up on teams have passed. They are no longer playing with a chip on their shoulder looking for respect. They don't need Vogel to pull out one of his motivational gimmicks.
The Pacers are expected to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. They'll be looked at more as the hunted than the hunter.
And now that they've reached that point, there's no turning back for them, only going forward.
Going back won't sit well for a fan base that has waited for this time to arrive.
"I believe we're right there," Vogel said. "With our experience and continuity, I believe we can take the next step and challenge for the championship."
There's Vogel being Vogel with an eyebrow-raising positive comment.
The Pacers -- and any other team in the Eastern Conference -- will have a difficult time reaching the NBA Finals as long as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are together in South Beach.
The building process, which was started by former President Larry Bird, is on track.
The Pacers reached the first round of the playoffs in 2011. They advanced to the second round last season after compiling a 42-24 record, third-best in the East.
Their next step, ideally, would be to get home-court advantage in the first two rounds and reach the conference finals for the first time since 2004.
But that won't be easy.
With the Heat clearly the best team in the East, the Pacers will compete with Boston, Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) and New York for the second seed.
>> Boston surrounded future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett with a better core group.
>> Brooklyn re-signed All-Star point guard Deron Williams, acquired former All-Star Joe Johnson and improved its bench.
>> The Knicks are a mystery, but they remain dangerous with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.
"We're going to have our work cut out for us," Vogel said. "We're going to have to work every day, every minute, but I think this group has the mindset that they're ready to start competing for a championship."
The Pacers didn't make any headlines during the offseason.
They re-signed starters Roy Hibbert and George Hill and believe they improved their bench, which was their goal.
The Pacers think their continuity and the continued growth of Hibbert and Paul George will help carry them this season.
"Our chemistry helped us win a lot of games last season," Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard said.
"We feel like the chemistry will be even better this season and hopefully help us get more wins. We've got to continue the momentum we built because the East is going to be tough. There were a number of teams who improved by making trades or signing free agents. We're going to have our hands full every single game."
The Chicago Bulls looked like they would own the division for years with do-everything point guard Derrick Rose leading the way.
But the division is the Pacers' to lose because Rose is expected to miss a significant portion of the season due to a knee injury suffered in the playoffs last season.
"I'm excited every year, but the reason I'm more excited than usual this year is because I really think this team is better than where we finished last season," Vogel said. "That's a fun thing going in every night feeling like your team is going to win."
The Pacers' fans are excited, too, and they expect an even better season.
"We kept our most important players, the bench looks like it will be better and more fun to watch and Paul George should be better than he was last year, too," Mark Stamper, 28, New Castle, said. "So I think we'll have a better shot at upsetting Miami this year, and if they can do that, a championship isn't out of the question. I'm very excited about this season."
Tony Laurenzana, 26, Bedford, concurred.
"This year, we have a training camp, full preseason and our starting five from the playoffs returning," he said. "They have experience and the ability to win. We will be good. I'm looking forward to the Fieldhouse to be packed, and not just because they added a big-screen TV."