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Pacers not satisfied with being contender

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Forget about dreaming big and shooting for the moon.

The Indiana Pacers aren’t doing that anymore.

Moving forward, their objective is to win the NBA championship. Period.

The days of pining for it are over.

“We’ve always had a dream big mentality here, a shoot-for-the-moon mindset,” coach Frank Vogel told reporters Wednesday afternoon during a season-ending news conference at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, just two days after the Pacers were eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals.

“Coming into this year, it was, ‘Let’s try to compete for a championship. I think it’s realistic that we can compete for a championship, but we’re going to have to reach pretty high,’” Vogel said. “We understood that. It was still a shoot-for-the-moon mindset. I don’t think next year’s going to be a dream big, shoot-for-the-moon mentality.

“I think the realistic expectations are to go out and try to win the whole thing. I think our guys believe that fully.”

It’s easy to understand why.

Not regarded a championship frontrunner going into the 2012-13 season, the Pacers were on the cusp of the NBA Finals by the end of it. In what was easily the most fiercely contested series of the posteason, they forced the defending champion Miami Heat into a Game 7 of the conference finals and at times were the dominant team before bowing out on Miami’s home floor.

With the anticipated return of every key player, including free agent David West, and the addition of another, injured swingman Danny Granger, Vogel is adamant the NBA Finals are the next logical destination.

Indiana, after all, has been to the playoffs three times under Vogel and has advanced a round further each year. Every player in this year’s starting lineup, except West, is 27 or younger. And Paul George, a first-time All-Star and the NBA’s Most Improved Player, is approaching super-stardom.

So in theory, the Central Division champions have not reached their ceiling.

“We’ve probably got more for growth right now than any team going right now that can consider themselves a championship contender,” Vogel said, “especially when you talk about Danny Granger coming and the young players that we have on this team, with Paul George and Lance Stephenson, with so much more room to grow.

“But just having another year of togetherness and continuity, there’s a lot of reason to believe that we can be even better next year and set our goals and expectations even higher.”

Of course, that’s under the assumption that West, the Pacers’ undisputed emotional leader and front-court cornerstone, is re-signed. The 32-year-old power forward has strongly expressed his desire to stay, and Vogel strongly hinted the Pacers will ensure that he will.

“He’s a huge, huge, huge part of our culture and success, there’s no question about it,” Vogel said. “I’m pretty sure he wants to come back, and I’m very sure that we want him back.”

Then there is the matter of Granger, who is also expected to return from an injury that wiped out all but a fraction of his season.

Indiana’s leading scorer the previous five seasons, the former All-Star appeared in only five games before undergoing season-ending knee surgery in late March. The 30-year-old shooting guard is still rehabbing with the goal of being ready for the start of the 2013 campaign.

But the burning question about his return is: Will he be a starter or a reserve?

In Granger’s absence, 22-year-old guard Stephenson became the starter and improved dramatically throughout the season. One of the team’s most versatile and explosive players, he would be forced back to the bench if Granger reclaims the starting spot.

Vogel has an idea of what will happen but hasn’t made any promises to either player.

“My anticipation is that (Granger) is going to have a full recovery. That’s how we’re going into it,” Vogel said. “Our best-case scenario going into next year is he has a full recovery, returns to form, the Danny Granger that was capable of making an All-Star team, and I’m hopeful that he’s able to reach that point and can give us a tremendous lift with that ability.”

If he can’t, Stephenson might not surrender his position.

“We’ve got to see how (Granger) returns,” Vogel said. “I told him if he returns to full health and the ability he’s exhibited throughout his career, that he’ll be the starter. But I’ve also challenged Lance Stephenson not to let that happen.”

Although Indiana’s bench play was erratic and often disappointing, Vogel doesn’t anticipate wholesale changes. He has no complaints about the roster and will seek improvement from within as opposed to major free-agent or trade avenues.

“It’s important to upgrade our team. Whatever way that happens, we’re going to look at every angle and do everything we can to improve the team,” Vogel said. “I was comfortable with the individual performances that we had from our team, and I’m comfortable bringing back as many faces as we can from this year’s team. When you’re in Game 7 of the conference finals, you’ve got a pretty good team.

“We did have some inconsistent performances throughout the course of the year, but those guys are here for a reason. I believe in every one of them, and I hope they’re all back.”

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