INDIANA – A late-season surge and a hard-fought playoff series under an inexperienced coach raised expectations for the Indiana Pacers.
The Detroit Pistons hope their new coach can help change the mentality in their locker room as well.
Indiana hosts Detroit on Monday night in the season opener for the Central Division rivals.
The Pacers (37-45) are coming off their first postseason appearance in five years, sparked by the hiring of then-interim coach Frank Vogel on Jan. 30.
Vogel led Indiana to a 20-18 finish after replacing the fired Jim O’Brien, and the eighth-seeded Pacers proceeded to give MVP Derrick Rose and Eastern Conference-best Chicago all it could handle.
The Bulls eliminated the Pacers in five games, but the first four were each decided by six points or fewer.
The inspired finish led Pacers president Larry Bird to hire Vogel on a full-time basis, and the coach welcomes the increased responsibility.
“I want expectations,” Vogel said. “I want them having the bar set high. This team is capable. We’ve got pieces in place to do some really special things and to take this league by storm.”
That’s exactly what the Pistons did through the early 2000s, but those days seem long gone.
Detroit reached six straight Eastern Conference finals from 2003-08, making two NBA finals appearances and winning the 2004 championship. But the team is stuck in rebuilding mode after three consecutive losing seasons, and new coach Lawrence Frank is charged with bringing the franchise back to respectability under new ownership.
“We have to represent what this Piston organization has stood for, for the majority of the time since its existence,” Frank said. “We know we have to win our fans back.”
Former coach John Kuester feuded with players, who once boycotted a shootaround and would often show up late for practices. Guard Ben Gordon saw his numbers decline under Kuester to a career-low 11.2 points per game, and he insists Frank is making positive changes to bring improvement after a 30-52 season.
“Nobody, if you ask me, last year was utilized the correct way to basically maximize their abilities,” Gordon said. “I think with Coach Frank and what he’s teaching, and the way he wants us to play, I think guys will have more of an opportunity to play to their strengths.”
Former All-Star David West should add strength to Indiana’s frontcourt after leaving New Orleans as a free agent to join a group that already featured leading scorer Danny Granger and 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert.
West averaged 18.9 points and 7.6 rebounds last season before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on March 24, an injury that required surgery.
Granger, averaging 23.3 points per game over the last three seasons, said the addition of a reliable power forward in West will improve the Pacers.
“It makes my job a lot easier,” Granger said. “I think it makes everyone’s job a lot easier. When you have another threat on the court, especially a scoring threat like David West, you have to honor everyone. That’s hard for defenses to do.”
Tyler Hansbrough should still see plenty of minutes. He played sparingly under O’Brien but thrived under Vogel, averaging 14.1 points after the coaching change compared to 7.2 before.
While Indiana also added former San Antonio guard George Hill in a draft-night trade to back up starter Darren Collison, Detroit was happy simply to get two of its top scorers back in the fold.
Tayshaun Prince tested free agency but ultimately decided to return for a 10th season, and restricted free agent Rodney Stuckey re-signed for three years. Stuckey averaged 15.5 points last season and Prince 14.1 – tying Richard Hamilton for second on the team.
Hamilton was waived Dec. 12, signing with division rival Chicago.
Greg Monroe, however, returns after a solid rookie season, and rookie Brandon Knight – the eighth overall pick out of Kentucky – hopes to provide a spark. Swedish forward Jonas Jerebko could be a factor after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Frank wouldn’t reveal his starting lineup for Monday. Charlie Villanueva won’t be available, as he’ll begin serving three more games of a four-game suspension dating back to last season for an altercation with Cleveland’s Ryan Hollins.
“Obviously we’ve looked at some different combinations and given a lot of thought to it, but when we get to shootaround (Monday) that’s when we’ll announce the starting lineup,” Frank said.
These teams split four meetings last season – both winning twice at home – after Indiana had won the previous six matchups.
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