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Pacers hoping off-season helps them build on momentum

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Associated Press
5/29/2012 12:32:23 PM
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INDIANAPOLIS - Pacers coach Frank Vogel hopes to steal the script from his NFL neighbours.

Five days after Indiana ended its longest playoff run in seven years, Vogel told reporters he believes if the progress continues at this rate, the Pacers could become the NBA's version of the Colts -- perennial championship contenders for nearly a decade.

"I think we've built something that's sustainable here around a young group of guys, and I think we're going to have a chance every year for the next five to seven years," Vogel said Tuesday. "I think that's what the Colts had for about eight to 10 years where every year might not be a Super Bowl year, but they were always in the mix."

Pacers fans would certainly take it after enduring the misery of the previous six seasons.

Following the 2004 brawl in Detroit and the subsequent retirement of star guard Reggie Miller, the combination of legal woes and playoff failures left loyal fans dismayed. Many stayed home and opted to follow a Colts team that won seven division crowns, two AFC titles and a Super Bowl championship between 2003 and 2010.

Now, the tables may be turning again with the Colts rebuilding and the Pacers emerging as one of the NBA's best young teams.

This season proved just how good the Pacers could be.

Indiana finished with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (42-24) and closed the regular season with 12 wins in 15 games. It rebounded from an inexplicable stumble in Game 1 to win four straight against Orlando -- giving the Pacers their first playoff series win in seven years. Then, after taking a 2-1 lead against Miami in Round 2 and on the verge of pulling a huge playoff upset, Indy fans spent May tracking developments at both the Indianapolis 500 and Bankers Life Fieldhouse with equal vigour, just like the good old days.

And playoff games were actually sold out.

Despite losing the last three games to Miami, this season's success has renewed hope in Indy.

Roy Hibbert became a bonafide All-Star. Danny Granger was his usual self, and second-year swingman Paul George made major strides offensively. The Pacers also found a strong point guard combination in George Hill and Darren Collison and a valuable team leader in David West.

Because it happened in a lockout-shortened season that included an abbreviated training camp and came with a first-time head coach completing his first "full" season, Vogel believes better days are still to come.

"We took a step, and we could have taken a bigger step than we did," Vogel said. "The theme (to players) is that we have a chance to do something really big, and I think they all believe that more than ever."

Why not?

Collison, George, Granger, Tyler Hansbrough and West are already under contract for next season, and Hibbert and Hill are restricted free agents. That means the Pacers can match any other team's offer for their two biggest free agents. If they keep both, the Pacers would have each of their top seven scorer's back next season.

Indiana also is projected to be more than $20 million under the salary cap this summer, enough to perhaps bring in another big-name player.

But like the Colts, Vogel would rather keep this roster together than dabble in free agency.

"I'd like to have the exact same team we have right now because I think we're really good right now and I think there's a lot of room for improvement," Vogel said. "I think with the youth we have on the roster and my system being so new, and West not being a young player but his first year on the team and George Hill not really a young guy but his first year on the team, I think there's a lot of room to grow."

Still, there could be some key changes.

Team president Larry Bird is reportedly pondering retirement, a move that will come under heavier scrutiny now that the season is over. Bird is expected to address those questions during his end-of-the-season news conference Wednesday.

Vogel's most trusted assistant, Brian Shaw, could be on the move, too. Reports have already indicated Shaw is on the short list of candidates in Charlotte, where the Bobcats are looking for a new coach.

Clearly, Vogel would prefer to have both Bird and Shaw back in 2012-13.

"Brian Shaw is not ready to be a head coach, and I think anybody that wants to interview him now is crazy," Vogel joked, drawing laughter before turning serious. "I'm actually shocked he's not a head coach yet because there are no weaknesses to him at all, and he's got some of that Phil Jackson swagger to him, which really helped us this year. I think he's going to be one of the best coaches in the league for years to come."

The question is whether the Pacers can do the same, regardless of the changes that will be made this off-season.

"I definitely think we have enough here and we're really young," Vogel said. "We gave Miami a heck of a run and they're championship-ready right now. There's tremendous area for growth within this team.

"We don't have any bad contracts," Vogel added. "I think as long as you don't have any bad contracts, you've got a good chance to sustain it."

Frank Vogel (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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