The Pacers' superstar goes by many names, and there is nothing he cannot do. He rebounds and defends. He plays close to the floor and above the rim. He posts up and passes. He spots up and slashes. He's been humbled too often to brag. He has a wingspan of something like 50 feet, his uniform number reads like a long-distance call to Poland, and he takes up more than half of the locker room because he consists of more than half the team. "Think about it: We have seven guys with All-Star potential," says Frank Vogel, who's in his first full season as Indiana's coach. "You could say we don't have the MVP candidate, but we've got talent. We've got big-time talent."
The Pacers are a rarity in the NBA: a contender made of up of self-made men, none of whom is the Man. At 23--12 through Sunday, they are on track for their first winning season since 2004--05, the season of the infamous brawl in Detroit that led to the overhaul of their franchise. They were assembled by team president Larry Bird, who as a Celtic was everything his Pacers are not: a franchise savior and perennial All-Star. Legends supposedly aren't able to relate to less-gifted players, yet Bird has spent the last three years developing players drafted no higher than 10th while creating cap space and investing in Vogel, whose life-changing event was appearing as a 13-year-old on David Letterman's Stupid Human Tricks.
No Pacer has the talent to create his own shot, so each must seek self-fulfillment within the team. The more they help one another, the more they help themselves. They are the NBA's most inspiring—and intimidating—underdogs.
DAVID WEST, a free agent who averaged 19.9 points over the last four seasons with the Hornets, could have worked a deal with, among others, the Celtics or the Spurs. That he agreed in December to a two-year, $20 million offer from Indiana showed how much the franchise had grown since Nov. 19, 2004, when Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson instigated the malice in The Palace, sabotaging a franchise that had just come within two wins of the Finals. Now, as West glances around the locker room in Indianapolis from the seat that used to belong to Reggie Miller, he sees nothing but promise. "I learned a long time ago, you go where you're wanted," he says, noting that the Pacers were the first team to recruit him as a free agent. "The big thing for me was to find a place I knew I could make an impact."
Last March, West blew out his left ACL when he landed awkwardly on a dunk. He was screaming in agony as he lay on the baseline, but his emotional recovery was fast. "I probably had about 20 minutes that I was sad and upset," he says. By the next day he was beginning more than two weeks of daily "pre-hab" that reduced the swelling of his knee and enabled him to walk without crutches before surgery. As the lockout wore on and his rehab progressed, he realized he was going to recover in time for training camp—wherever that would be. "I didn't deal with any of that lingering crap; I didn't feel sorry for myself," he says. His last day of rehab was Dec. 9, the same day Indiana first approached him.
West's recovery was consistent with the larger approach to his career. After four years at Xavier he was drafted 18th by New Orleans in 2003 as an undersized 6'9" power forward and likely role player. He became a two-time All-Star by aspiring to the same mission that drives him today: to be better at the end of the season than he was at the beginning. He senses a similar purpose in Indiana. "I knew this team had enough pieces," he says. "You have to have a team of depth, and you can't be a one-man show if you're intent on winning."
At week's end West, 31, was averaging a seven-year low of 12.4 points but has set an example with his mostly younger teammates by not complaining about his numbers. He has quickly established himself as a go-to scorer in the fourth quarter alongside Danny Granger, a former All-Star who has been happy to have the help. The 6'8" Granger came to Indiana as the No. 17 pick out of New Mexico in 2005, the team's first pick after the Detroit debacle. Over the last four seasons the Pacers averaged 32.3 wins as Granger averaged 22.3 points. If he didn't shoot in volume, he says, "we had no chance."
This year Granger is firing as often as he did last year, but he's shooting a career-low 38.9%. Yet his team's results have never been better because of the Pacers' across-the-board improvement and because Granger can still come up big when needed. On Feb. 16 he overcame a sprained ankle to score 32 points in a win over the Nets that ended a five-game losing skid (and launched a six-game winning streak). Granger's shooting will continue to improve as he adapts to West and the team grows more comfortable in Vogel's simplified offense. "It's picking my spots now," says Granger, who through Sunday led the Pacers with 18.3 points per game. "I don't have to force them because we're so talented."
Granger's presence at small forward forced Paul George to find minutes in the backcourt as a rookie last year, which turned out to be a blessing. George is also 6'8", which on most nights gives him a significant size advantage over other two guards. George is hitting 40.6% from beyond the arc and earned an invitation to the slam-dunk contest, where he paid tribute to his team president by slapping a sticker of Bird on the backboard. "He has more star potential than anybody on our team, hands down," says Vogel. But for a team that is finding its way collectively, fulfilling George's potential is not an urgent need. "It's remarkably important long-term," says Vogel. "But right now he's got to fit in his skills, to be one of five, and he's doing that."
George, who is averaging 12.0 points on 9.7 shots per game, was the 10th pick as a sophomore from Fresno State. Bird was impressed with his blend of length and athleticism as well as his attitude. "When we interviewed him, he had a desire to be great," says Bird. "He's a sweetheart of a kid, and I could tell he was going to do everything he could to be the type of player he wanted to be." George spent the summer adding backspin to his jump shot, which tended to knuckle in his rookie year. A fluid, effortless leaper, he has become an elite defender; Vogel closed out the final minutes of a Jan. 25 win against the Bulls by putting George on 6'3" Derrick Rose, three days after George covered his childhood idol, Kobe Bryant.