High expectations back in Indiana
Jeff Foster could have retired or finished his career somewhere other than Indiana.
The 34-year-old free agent decided that staying with the Pacers was the best choice.
It wasn't just about loyalty. Indiana made the playoffs last season with a young team, then added versatile guard George Hill on a draft-night trade with San Antonio and later picked up former All-Star forward David West.
Foster compares the Pacers to stock that is rising in value.
''I'm excited to be a part of a great opportunity,'' he said. ''Basketball's back on the front page again. It's something we haven't had in years, and it's an exciting time to be a part of basketball in Indiana.''
New coach Frank Vogel has stirred the pot since he took over, winning over fans with his positive attitude and brash proclamations. As interim coach last season, he led the team to a 20-18 record and a playoff berth.
He's looking for more this season.
''I want expectations,'' he 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.''
All the elements to the team that pushed Chicago in the playoffs are back. Danny Granger, at 28 the oldest member of the young core, averaged 20.5 points per game last season. Last season's other starters, center Roy Hibbert, point guard Darren Collison, shooting guard Paul George and power forward Tyler Hansbrough, all are back, too.
''I see talent,'' George said. ''I see All-Star potential at almost every position on this team, and that's big.''
West, a two-time All-Star in New Orleans, averaged 18.9 points and 7.6 rebounds last season before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a victory at Utah on March 24. The 31-year-old had surgery on April 12.
Foster, for one, is glad to see him as a Pacer.
''I've had the opportunity to guard the best power forwards in this league for years, and in my opinion, he's one of the toughest covers there is,'' Foster said. ''He can score on the block, he can knock down the mid-range jumper, he hits his free throws. He's a complete player.''
Granger, who has been the focus of opposing defenses for several years, is glad he'll have an equally dynamic weapon on the floor.
''It makes my job a lot easier,'' he 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.''
Hill averaged 11.6 points and 2.5 assists last season. He played for San Antonio for three years, learning under star point guard Tony Parker.
Hansbrough emerged after coach Jim O'Brien was fired and Vogel committed to playing him. He averaged 11 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last season. Hibbert, a 7-foot-2 center, averaged 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks last season. Collison averaged 13.2 points and 5.1 assists.
George gained the starting job at shooting guard late last season and played a key role in slowing down Chicago point guard Derrick Rose in the playoffs. The second-year player, listed at 6-foot-8, says he grew two inches and gained eight pounds of muscle in the offseason.
Vogel believes the very nature of the condensed post-lockout schedule, with some instances of games on three consecutive nights, plays into Indiana's hands because of its depth.
''Teams that are old are going to struggle. We have a team that most of our guys are in their prime or entering their prime and we have the depth to sustain this type of schedule,'' he said.
Vogel said his players came back ready to run, and that will make an immediate difference. He has pushed them hard in the early practices, and they have responded well.
Vogel said part of the growing process was competing well in the playoffs against Chicago. The Bulls won the first-round series 4-1, but Indiana lost the first three games by a combined 15 points. The Pacers squandered double-digit leads in the first two games and a five-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
''They left that series feeling like we should have won,'' Vogel said. ''That's an exciting thing.''
Foster began his NBA career with the Pacers in 1999. He has seen it all with the franchise, from a trip to the NBA finals in 2000 to the brawl between Pacers players and Detroit fans in 2004 and a painful rebuilding process. Now, as the only remaining Pacer from the team's better days, he sees opportunity.
''There's a buildup,'' Foster said. ''There was a three-year period where our goal was to win a championship. Obviously, we're not at that point yet, but we have a goal to make the playoffs, to continue to get better, and hopefully that goal of winning a championship comes sooner rather than later.''
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap