The Pacers want to start the year off on the right foot. They want to improve. They want to play with more consistency. They want to build camaraderie. They no longer want to rely on their defense to create offense. They want to compete to win every possession. They want to maintain their identity of smash-mouth defense and selfless offense. They want to be able to play Game 7s on their home court. They want to get back to where they left off.
… But, most of all, they want to win a championship. And the rest of the NBA community is starting to take notice.
CBSSports.com ranks them at No. 4.
Marc Stein’s Preseason Power Rankings place the Pacers at No. 2.
USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick projects the Pacers to be the East’s 2014 Champion.
"Attn NBA Teams: Larry Bird and the Pacers are serious about winning the NBA championship this year and in the future." (via Twitter)
Magic is right. The Pacers definitely have their eyes set on the league’s ultimate prize. All throughout the offseason, they made their intentions clear both, in word, and in deed. They retained their core, upgraded their bench, and maxed out their star. Message sent and received.
In interview, the Pacers have not hesitated to make their aspirations known:
"We're all in this year." – Larry Bird (via ESPN)
"We’re positioned really well. The only thing we really needed was the experience, and with everyone coming back together again, there’s no doubt in mind that we should win a championship." – Paul George (via HoopsWorld)
"Since I took over here, we've been talking about having a similar era to what the Colts had the last seven or eight years, where they had a chance to win it all basically every year. We're a couple of years into this thing, and to have this guy under contract for five more years gives us that type of confidence, that we can win a championship, our first [NBA] championship." – Frank Vogel (via ESPN)
"It’s really encouraging. They kinda see the potential that this group has and I think we’re really going for it. We really are title contenders now and we have to show it." – Danny Granger (via pacers.com, Scott Agness)
"I thought this team had a bright future. They're right at the hump from winning that championship, getting to the Finals and getting past the Heat." – C.J. Watson (via ESPN)
"I just feel like if we come together, get these new guys involved and adjusted to the way we do things, Day 1, we're competing for the top seed in the East." – David West (via ESPN)
"Anything less than (a Finals appearance or a conference finals appearance) would be a disappointment. I think anything over 50 wins is a good season, but I believe we’re built more for the playoffs than we are for the regular season — because we’re deep and we’ll have time to prepare. It’s hard to beat 10 or 11 guys."—Larry Bird (via Fox Sports)
The Pacers have all the characteristics of a contender: great camaraderie, superior defense, team-first mentality, depth, talent, desire, experience, and belief in a common goal.
There is just one problem.
Three other teams in the East have their eyes on the same prize. They have all improved, they are all motivated for various reasons, and they all have spoken just as passionately about their opportunity to compete for the title.
Check out the chatter coming from the other contenders’ respective media days and training camps:
"If we can stay healthy and we can improve each month, then we’ll put ourselves in position to compete for another championship." – LeBron James (via Miami Herald)
"We’re a mentally strong team, and we know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us as a group," – Dwyane Wade (via Miami Herald)
"The thing that drives me is just winning the championship. That's the only thing on my résumé that I'm missing. This is a great time to do it where everybody is watching. It's the biggest stage you could possibly play on. My teammates are preparing themselves for a big year, and I am too. It should be a crazy, magical year where I think there's going to be a lot of people watching. It should be exciting to the Bulls fans." – Derrick Rose (via ESPN)
"We all know that this is going to be an exciting year. So I’m just trying to be as ready as possible for when it starts. We’re very excited about getting our guys back. Everybody knows what’s at stake. This is a big year for us and I just want to be as ready as possible for it." – Joakim Noah (via bulls.com)
"We have a lot of work to do -- we haven’t even played a preseason game yet. But that’s our ultimate goal, to win a championship, and we feel like if, down the line, everything happens right, we have a chance." – Deron Williams (via Yahoo)
"Now, this is the window -- this season." – Nets General Manager, Billy King (via ESPN)
"The expectations have grown here in Brooklyn. It’s no longer the New Jersey Nets, hoping we can win the division. Now we’re the Brooklyn Nets with championship aspirations." – Paul Pierce (via New York Daily News)
And let’s not forget this statement from 2010…
"How fast can we build a championship team? If everything goes as planned, I expect us to be in the playoffs next season and [win a] championship in one year minimum, and maximum in five years." – Nets Owner, Mikhail Prokhorov (via ESPN)
One thing for sure can be interpreted from these various quotes coming out of Miami, Chicago, and Brooklyn, stakes are higher in the East this season than they have been in a long time.
Questions abound for each squad.
This summer, Miami added Greg Oden and Michael Beasley in an attempt to make their fourth trip to the NBA Finals in the Big Three era. They boast seven former lottery picks. They are looking to make history by becoming only the 6th franchise in league history to win three consecutive titles. Free agency looms for almost every player on the Heat’s roster next summer. Will the Big Three get one more ring to complete their three-peat? Will they all be on new teams next summer?
In Chicago, the Bulls are adding a former MVP to their roster in Derrick Rose. For the first time, Rose will be starting alongside up-and-comer, Jimmy Butler. Luol Deng and Chicago’s front office failed to agree to terms on a contract extension – meaning this could be the last chance at a title for this core. Will the Bulls regain the Central Division crown? Will they return to the top of the Eastern Conference? Will their roster limp into the playoffs, again? Can they maintain a competitive roster while facing the repeater tax or possibly losing Deng? Will they actually have to amnesty Boozer next summer?
Meanwhile, this year is it in Brooklyn - it truly is championship or bust. An Atlantic Division title will not suffice when your roster is valued at over $100M. In the coming season, the Nets will pay a luxury tax bill to the tune of $80M. Brooklyn ransomed the future of their franchise (trading away three future first round picks) to bring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Nets for a chance at the title. Is Prokhorov right, will the Nets win a championship before his five year time limit expires? Will Pierce and Garnett really be able to propel this squad to a title this late in their careers?
What does all of this mean for the Pacers?
The Pacers are all in. They are completely committed to the cause of raising a banner into the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Nevertheless, one thing stood out at Media Day that distinguishes the Pacers from all of the other Eastern Conference contenders.
Their championship window will be open over the next several seasons. They view the outcome of next season as being one step closer to the title whether they win it all or not. Although not winning a ring would be a disappointment, they will improve, they will gain experience, and they (Hill, George, West, Hibbert, Scola, Watson, Copeland, Mahinmi, Solomon Hill, and, likely, Lance Stephenson) will still be here. Magic Johnson was right; the Pacers are serious about winning the championship now and in the future.
For the rosters of Miami, Chicago, and Brooklyn, it may be the end of the line. For the Pacers, it is just the beginning.