“A realistic expectation for us is to be, from day one, competing for the number one seed in the East,” he said Wednesday after signing his three-year, $36 million deal. “Ultimately, we want to have Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in our building. I think that’s it.
“At the start of last year, we talked about going further than the previous year. This year’s no different. I just feel like if we come together, obviously get some of these new guys involved and adjusted to the way we do things, from day one we’re competing for the top seed in the East so if it comes down to a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s on our home court.”
That, my friends, is no modest goal.
Though the Pacers have fought Miami on nearly equal footing the past two postseasons, the regular season has been something else entirely. They were 16½ games behind the Heat in the Eastern Conference standings a year ago.The first step in bridging the gap is not falling off the edge, and retaining West assured that. They’ve added C.J. Watson, who like West signed with the Pacers on Wednesday – although his two-year, $4.2 million deal was more modest – and first-round pick Solomon Hill. Next week, they will add restricted free agent Chris Copeland, who is expected to sign a two-year, $6.2 million offer sheet with the Pacers on Sunday, starting the three-day clock on the Knicks. New York has the right to match that offer but not the financial ability, thus assuring Copeland’s departure.
Though the bench lacks a true power forward, it should be substantially more potent. Watson will bring defense, toughness and shot-making to the point. Hill looks like he can play right away. Copeland is a stretch four who will give the Pacers the ability to play a spread offense with the second unit.
“We know what our starters can do. We know how far they can take us,” Bird said. “We need a little push from our bench. If we can get that, I think we’ll be more successful.”
They will, of course, need more than that. They will need Paul George to take another step. They will need Roy Hibbert to play a full season as he did in the playoffs. They will need Lance Stephenson to continue to mature. And perhaps most of all, they will need Danny Granger all the way back.
And they also will need to wisely use the motivational fuel of last season’s tantalizing yet ultimately maddening seven-game loss to the Heat in the conference finals.
“We’re a focused group,” West said. “We’re all going to be pointed in the same direction, that’s from the top down, from the front office into the locker room. Everybody’s looking at the same goal, the same direction and we’re not going to regress.
“Guys got a taste. I remember a week or so after the season, everybody was still kind of buzzing, coach was still kind of buzzing about it and everybody still kind of had that feeling that we should’ve been playing. We’re going to prepare as early as we can to be in that same spot we were this past season but again we want homecourt advantage.”
That, in a nutshell, is why West returned, why he let the rest of the league know not to bother when it came to his free agency. He believes in what the Pacers have, both on and off the court. He is convinced, as he put it, his teammates “wake up in the morning with their minds set on doing the right thing.”
A few teams made courtesy calls on July 1, just in case, but they were politely rebuffed.
“We knew free agency was coming so it didn’t sneak up on us,” West said. “We knew who was out there and I knew what we had here.”
What the Pacers have is a chance. And it got a little better when West put his name on the dotted line.