NEWARK, N.J. -- The ice bag melted slowly on David West's left knee, the escaping water darkening the carpeted floor. This was it. Nine months removed from knee surgery, three months since being cleared to play and just a few weeks out of rehab, ice is the only daily reminder of the fall that snapped his ACL and ended his 2010-11 season with New Orleans. No protective sleeves or bulky knee braces. The pain is gone, the confidence long since returned.
"I was obsessed with my rehab," West said. "I didn't mess around. The knee is fine."
This is what Indiana was banking on when it signed West to a two-year, $20 million deal in December, the player for whom coach Frank Vogel lobbied most of the month. The Pacers gained a measure of respect last season, ending a four-year playoff drought and giving top-seeded Chicago all it could handle in the first round. They had a bright young coach in Vogel and a talented roster headlined by 20-somethings Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison. What they didn't have was a presence at power forward, not with Tyler Hansbrough still too raw to handle the position.
They wanted West and, it turned out, he wanted them too. The end in New Orleans was frustrating for West, who watched helplessly as a team that came within one win of the Western Conference finals in 2008 was dismantled, the franchise he thought he would retire with becoming more concerned about the bottom line than winning games. With ownership balking at adding the pieces needed to compete with the conference elite, the load on West and Chris Paul grew heavier by the year.
"It got to a point where it was just too much," West told SI.com. "Not just on the body but mentally, it was too much. When you know you have to go above and beyond every night just to give yourself a chance to win a game by two or three ... I think that's something that happened over the course of the last few years. Ultimately, it wore Chris down physically. We talked about it. We did all we could for that franchise. It was time to move on."
West sought a place where he could assume a big role, but at 31, he didn't want to have to carry the entire load. Boston looked good for a while, and multiple reports indicated that the Celtics had West on the hook with a three-year, $24 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal. He took some heat for passing, including a not-so-subtle shot at his desire to win from Ray Allen, but West insists it was not that close, that he was intrigued by Boston but was never committed to playing there.
"I was actually sitting on my couch with a buddy of mine when the news broke and we looked at each other and said, 'What?' " West said. "I had not talked to them. My agent, I think, had one or two conversations with them. All of a sudden, it's breaking news that I'm close to signing with Boston. I really wasn't close in terms of where my mind was."
All along West continued to eye Indiana. It wasn't just about the money, though the Pacers' offer of $10 million per season set the market. West has never been about a lavish lifestyle, never took to the NBA life. He shelled out $1.3 million to save a local basketball facility in Raleigh, N.C., and spent the summer coaching kids there in his AAU program. As he whittled down the list of prospective teams, West wanted to be part of one with a promising future. With the Pacers, he saw Hibbert, a big, skilled center who could share the physical burden. He saw Collison, a rising point guard who spent a season with West in New Orleans. He even saw Hansbrough, a talented power forward with whom he could split time.
"People confuse Tyler with a Mark Madsen type," West said. "He's really skilled. This is a young team with one of the better cores in the NBA."
That core is better now with West, who has filled Indiana's most glaring needs on and off the court. The two-time All-Star is a reliable scorer (12.4 points in 29.4 minutes during Indiana's 4-1 start) and rebounder (7.6). There has been little rust on his jump shot -- according to Hoopdata, West is shooting 50 percent from 10-15 feet, an early pace for a career high -- and he has shown no reluctance to throw his 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame around in the paint. With West joining the 7-2 Hibbert and 6-9, 250-pound Hansbrough, the Pacers can match up with the bigger teams.
"I think there was a stretch where a small-ball approach was intriguing to teams, to coaches," Vogel said. "But look at Boston, the Lakers, even Dallas. They all had great size [in recent title-winning seasons]. That's what championship teams are going to be made of over the next five to 10 years."
The Pacers needed a leader, too, one with enough stature to steer an impressionable locker room. Indiana showed great potential against the Bulls but the starting lineup had a combined 14 years of experienced and, reminds Granger, "six of them belonged to me." West has never been a rah-rah guy or prone to motivational speeches. He believes in keeping open lines of communication, in not letting things like minutes or contracts become an impediment to winning. And his presence has already been felt. Guards go to West for input on using screens. Big men seek him out for his advice on sealing off and beating double teams. Respect for West is obvious in the locker room.
"Having D-West here has been amazing," Granger said. "His experience and intangibles, those are things you can't draft."
Yes, West already has been a difference maker with Indiana, maybe more than he first thought he would be. The Pacers are not being elevated into the rarefied air of Eastern Conference favorites Miami and Chicago, but they are firmly entrenched in the next group with a chance to grow.
"It's not a myth where the Pacers are going." Vogel said. "[Assistant coach] Brian Shaw came here because this thing is real, what we are building. We have a real chance to do some damage in the next couple of years. David West saw the same thing and maybe saw this as a better opportunity for him to win."