Late in Tuesday morning’s news conference at Bankers Life Fieldhouse someone asked Larry Bird if the Indiana Pacers would honor Paul George with a uniform patch during the 2014-15 season.
“A patch?” asked the Pacers president, slowly losing his struggle to maintain a serious facial expression. “He’s still alive.”
His reaction proved the comedic highlight, though the “Still alive” message resonated — albeit not in those words — throughout the 20-minute event in the statements of Bird and Pacers head coach Frank Vogel.
Lance Stephenson’s decision to sign with the Charlotte Hornets followed two weeks later by George’s likely season-ending injury to his lower right leg has, at least on paper, reduced the two-time Eastern Conference finalists to something significantly less than its former self.
Both Bird and Vogel contend Indiana’s culture of winning is about to pay dividends.
Translation: The Pacers will do everything in their power to avoid next year’s NBA Lottery, not accept losing as a means to be part of it.
“That’s the first thing (fans) probably think of, but we don’t really look at it that way. We think we’re going to put a competitive team out there. We’re going to play hard. We’re going to develop our young guys. Everyone’s going to get an opportunity to show us what they can do,” Bird said.
“I think we’ll be an exciting team. We’ve got a lot of things to look forward to. My goal is to win as many games as we possibly can and get in the playoffs. I know some of our fans would rather us go a different direction, but we’re here to win, and we’re going to try to win.”
Losing 36 percent of last season’s point total made the offseason signings of 6-foot-5 guard Rodney Stuckey and 6-6 swingman C.J. Miles that much more important. Originally viewed as the first two reserves off Vogel’s bench, there is a good chance both will be in the starting lineup by the time Indiana opens its season in late October.
“We’ve got more than enough guys who are capable of stepping up. We’ll probably play through David (West) and Roy (Hibbert) more, but I think George Hill’s going to have a big year, as well. He was asked to sort of defer a lot last year to Paul and to Lance. I think he’s capable of doing a lot more than he showed,” Vogel said of his starting point guard, who was second on the team in both assists (265) and steals (75) last season.
“We’ve got plenty of other guys. Stuckey and C.J. Miles have shown they’ve got offensive firepower. It’s going to be a team approach.”
Vogel feels the steady improvement of 6-7 second-year forward Solomon Hill is another reason for optimism. Indiana also is looking to possibly sign 36-year-old Shawn Marion, a 6-7 swingman with 850 career 3-pointers, who is about to join his fifth NBA franchise since breaking into the league in 1999.
“What I came away with is he’s undecided where he wants to play or what he wants to do. But he did say he would like to be on a contender and try to win a championship. I know he’s talked to Cleveland. I know he’s been there, and I don’t know who else he’s talked to. He has a place here if he wants to come,” Bird said.
“We’re trying to put a competitive team out there. A team that we think can play at a high level and go from there.”
The quest to showcase the finest product possible is a year-round process for Pacers management, members of which now find themselves looking at a Cleveland Cavaliers team with LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving and the Chicago Bulls with Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and a healthy Derrick Rose.
“Some teams on paper look to be near the top when you look at what Cleveland’s doing and what Chicago’s doing. We’ve got a winning culture here and an approach that comes to bring it every single night — to be the hardest-playing team in the NBA,” Vogel said.
“I think we’re going to surprise some teams. I think those fans that think the season is over before it started are very wrong. I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised with the grit and toughness we play with this year. I think we’re going to be able to compete with the best.”