The Pacers' superstar goes by many names, and there is nothing he cannot do. He rebounds and defends. He plays close to the floor and above the rim. He posts up and passes. He spots up and slashes. He's been humbled too often to brag. He has a wingspan of something like 50 feet, his uniform number reads like a long-distance call to Poland, and he takes up more than half of the locker room because he consists of more than half the team. "Think about it: We have seven guys with All-Star potential," says Frank Vogel, who's in his first full season as Indiana's coach. "You could say we don't have the MVP candidate, but we've got talent. We've got big-time talent."
This is an article from the March 12, 2012 issue
The Pacers are a rarity in the NBA: a contender made of up of self-made men, none of whom is the Man. At 23--12 through Sunday, they are on track for their first winning season since 2004--05, the season of the infamous brawl in Detroit that led to the overhaul of their franchise. They were assembled by team president Larry Bird, who as a Celtic was everything his Pacers are not: a franchise savior and perennial All-Star. Legends supposedly aren't able to relate to less-gifted players, yet Bird has spent the last three years developing players drafted no higher than 10th while creating cap space and investing in Vogel, whose life-changing event was appearing as a 13-year-old on David Letterman's Stupid Human Tricks.
No Pacer has the talent to create his own shot, so each must seek self-fulfillment within the team. The more they help one another, the more they help themselves. They are the NBA's most inspiring—and intimidating—underdogs.
DAVID WEST, a free agent who averaged 19.9 points over the last four seasons with the Hornets, could have worked a deal with, among others, the Celtics or the Spurs. That he agreed in December to a two-year, $20 million offer from Indiana showed how much the franchise had grown since Nov. 19, 2004, when Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson instigated the malice in The Palace, sabotaging a franchise that had just come within two wins of the Finals. Now, as West glances around the locker room in Indianapolis from the seat that used to belong to Reggie Miller, he sees nothing but promise. "I learned a long time ago, you go where you're wanted," he says, noting that the Pacers were the first team to recruit him as a free agent. "The big thing for me was to find a place I knew I could make an impact."
Last March, West blew out his left ACL when he landed awkwardly on a dunk. He was screaming in agony as he lay on the baseline, but his emotional recovery was fast. "I probably had about 20 minutes that I was sad and upset," he says. By the next day he was beginning more than two weeks of daily "pre-hab" that reduced the swelling of his knee and enabled him to walk without crutches before surgery. As the lockout wore on and his rehab progressed, he realized he was going to recover in time for training camp—wherever that would be. "I didn't deal with any of that lingering crap; I didn't feel sorry for myself," he says. His last day of rehab was Dec. 9, the same day Indiana first approached him.
West's recovery was consistent with the larger approach to his career. After four years at Xavier he was drafted 18th by New Orleans in 2003 as an undersized 6'9" power forward and likely role player. He became a two-time All-Star by aspiring to the same mission that drives him today: to be better at the end of the season than he was at the beginning. He senses a similar purpose in Indiana. "I knew this team had enough pieces," he says. "You have to have a team of depth, and you can't be a one-man show if you're intent on winning."
At week's end West, 31, was averaging a seven-year low of 12.4 points but has set an example with his mostly younger teammates by not complaining about his numbers. He has quickly established himself as a go-to scorer in the fourth quarter alongside Danny Granger, a former All-Star who has been happy to have the help. The 6'8" Granger came to Indiana as the No. 17 pick out of New Mexico in 2005, the team's first pick after the Detroit debacle. Over the last four seasons the Pacers averaged 32.3 wins as Granger averaged 22.3 points. If he didn't shoot in volume, he says, "we had no chance."
This year Granger is firing as often as he did last year, but he's shooting a career-low 38.9%. Yet his team's results have never been better because of the Pacers' across-the-board improvement and because Granger can still come up big when needed. On Feb. 16 he overcame a sprained ankle to score 32 points in a win over the Nets that ended a five-game losing skid (and launched a six-game winning streak). Granger's shooting will continue to improve as he adapts to West and the team grows more comfortable in Vogel's simplified offense. "It's picking my spots now," says Granger, who through Sunday led the Pacers with 18.3 points per game. "I don't have to force them because we're so talented."
Granger's presence at small forward forced Paul George to find minutes in the backcourt as a rookie last year, which turned out to be a blessing. George is also 6'8", which on most nights gives him a significant size advantage over other two guards. George is hitting 40.6% from beyond the arc and earned an invitation to the slam-dunk contest, where he paid tribute to his team president by slapping a sticker of Bird on the backboard. "He has more star potential than anybody on our team, hands down," says Vogel. But for a team that is finding its way collectively, fulfilling George's potential is not an urgent need. "It's remarkably important long-term," says Vogel. "But right now he's got to fit in his skills, to be one of five, and he's doing that."
George, who is averaging 12.0 points on 9.7 shots per game, was the 10th pick as a sophomore from Fresno State. Bird was impressed with his blend of length and athleticism as well as his attitude. "When we interviewed him, he had a desire to be great," says Bird. "He's a sweetheart of a kid, and I could tell he was going to do everything he could to be the type of player he wanted to be." George spent the summer adding backspin to his jump shot, which tended to knuckle in his rookie year. A fluid, effortless leaper, he has become an elite defender; Vogel closed out the final minutes of a Jan. 25 win against the Bulls by putting George on 6'3" Derrick Rose, three days after George covered his childhood idol, Kobe Bryant.
Indiana associate head coach Brian Shaw, a former Lakers assistant, has been inspiring George to work harder by telling him stories of Bryant's exhaustive regimen of conditioning, training and video study. Shaw puts George through Bryant's intensive footwork exercises to create shots on the elbow. "Kobe works at game speed so that it becomes automatic, and when he's in the game his muscle memory kicks in," says Shaw. "I share this with Paul because I've seen flashes of what he can do. The sky's the limit for somebody of his height, length and athletic ability, and he has a great shooting touch. Now it's a matter of putting all those things together, but also to have that dog in him, that killer instinct. That part of it is up to him."
George is learning in a constructive environment, surrounded by teammates who are hungry to improve. "One day I'll be the most dominant big guy," says 7'2" center Roy Hibbert, who last month became the first Pacer to make the All-Star team since 2009. Picked 17th out of Georgetown in '08, Hibbert has already transformed himself twice since arriving in Indianapolis. Before last season he trimmed down to better run the floor; last summer he regained strength by packing on 15 pounds of muscle, which enables the Pacers to run their offense through him in the low post as a scorer and passer. "I'm the best passing big man in the game right now," says Hibbert. "I can say that without fudging."
Before Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien in January 2011, Hibbert was seeing a sports psychologist. "I used to be rah-rah, jumping up and down," he says. "But now I make a good play, I'm calm, and I'm not getting on myself for every missed shot." And on the bus ride after every game, he's watching video on his iPad of his next opponent—even on a night when his nose was broken in the first quarter by an accidental run-in with Bryant's elbow. Hibbert overcame the pain to contribute 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the win. "Between Roy and Darren Collison," says Vogel of his point guard, "I don't know if I've seen guys as driven to excel."
Collison, the 21st pick in the 2009 draft out of UCLA, has developed into an explosive threat who knows exactly where he's darting because his desire to prepare exhausts the Pacers' video staff. He's just another on the list of overachievers in Indy, which also includes George Hill, who was raised in the defense-and-execution system of the Spurs, and 6'9" Tyler Hansbrough, who overcomes his lack of size by incessantly attacking the basket—and opponents.
But the most unexpected success story of all is that of Vogel, who decided to leave Juniata College, a Division III school in Huntingdon, Pa., where he was a 5'11" point guard, in order to enroll at Kentucky as a senior in 1994. He had no guarantees, just a dream of walking on and the hope of building a career as a coach by working under the hard-driving Rick Pitino. Vogel wound up playing on the jayvee team while serving as a manager for the varsity. He'd practice from 5 until 7 a.m., then take classes—"I'm trying to take 18 credits to graduate in biology, which was stupid because it's science, and science in college is hard," he says—then fulfill his managing duties from 2 until 6 p.m. "At nighttime I'm bringing my biology books into the video room, doing edits, studying," he says. "It was probably a completely unhealthy year for my body. I didn't sleep." But he did a good enough job that Pitino hired him as a video coordinator when he became coach and president of the Celtics in 1997.
In the rare moments of rest he found in Lexington, Vogel would put on a video of Hoosiers and listen to the score as he fell asleep. "I love the music—it gives me chills," says Vogel. "I was a strange kid, I guess." Indeed, when he was much younger, Vogel attended a camp in his home state of New Jersey, and a counselor encouraged his audience to learn ball tricks. Vogel spent a week teaching himself to spin a basketball at one end of a toothbrush while he brushed his teeth with the other end. His parents got him an audition for Letterman, and when the video of his 1986 appearance surfaced on the Internet last year, he received more text messages than he did for becoming coach of the Pacers. "It's a little bit silly," says Vogel, "but that trick was my first experience in believing that anything can happen if you put your mind to it."
How far can Vogel take a team that lacks anything close to a Kobe, Derrick or LeBron? Maybe the best example is provided by Hansbrough, the backup power forward who believes he can become an All-Star. Hansbrough was supposed to be too small and short-armed to excel, yet he intensifies every practice and game by ceaselessly challenging opponents of all sizes who don't tend to appreciate his bumping and swiping. During the second quarter of a Feb. 4 loss to the Magic, Hansbrough had a hat trick of harassment, drawing shoves and scowls from Quentin Richardson, Earl Clark and J.J. Redick. On those nights when he goes unnoticed by opponents, Hansbrough wonders if he wasn't playing hard enough. "I feel like every game I'm mixing it up with somebody," he says. "It's pretty normal."
Hansbrough played well as a starter at the end of last year (he averaged 15.3 points in the final 19 games), but West's arrival meant a return to the bench. Before signing, however, West agreed to play eight to 10 minutes a night out of position at center so Hansbrough would have time to contribute and improve. It might seem counterintuitive in a league of me-first players, but that's how Indiana does business. Can such a team realistically expect to beat the superstars at playoff time? The Pacers know they'll be doubted, but that is precisely what helps them to believe.