Expectations soar as Pacers embark on new season


Expectations soar as Pacers embark on new season

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indiana finally won a playoff series, had a chance to eliminate eventual NBA champion Miami last spring and strengthened its bench.

The locals expect bigger and better things this season, and so do the Pacers.

``We do have high expectations and with that comes a different kind of burden,'' said swingman Danny Granger, who has been slowed throughout the preseason with a patella tendon injury in his left knee. ``With the guys coming back, I feel like we're further along than we ever have been.''

For the Pacers, it's been a steep climb back in a state where basketball has traditionally been the king of the sports universe.

Following the 2004 brawl in Detroit, Reggie Miller retired, there were other problems off the court, two years without a playoff appearance and a six-year span without a playoff series win. Donnie Walsh, architect of Indiana's last legitimate title contender, left a tattered team behind when he went to New York and former coach Larry Bird was tasked with rebuilding the team he coached to the 2000 Eastern Conference title. Frustrated fans stayed away from games, creating a decline in attendance and team owner Herb Simon renegotiated his deal with the city.

At times, it seemed things couldn't get any bleaker.

But Bird changed everything for the better and the fans, well, they seem to be coming around.

``We know we have a lot of work to do, there's a lot of expectations and we're ready for it,''All-Star center Roy Hibbert said. ``We have veterans who are working hard and rookies who work hard. I think we're going to take it real far this year.''

Walsh is back, replacing the retiring Bird and the franchise looks completely different.

Back then, Granger was just beginning to emerge as a team leader and potent scorer but hadn't yet been to an All-Star Game. Forward David West was a star in New Orleans. Hibbert and guard George Hill hadn't been drafted yet and swingman Paul George was still in high school.

Today, the Pacers call those five their starters - the same group that led them past Orlando in the first round of last year's playoffs and gave them a 2-1 lead over Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

What's changed since the Heat won those last three games to knock Indiana out of the playoffs?

Walsh returned as team president, general manager Kevin Pritchard decided to re-sign Hibbert and Hill to big contracts, keeping the core of this young team intact, and the Pacers revamped their bench. Indiana traded guard Darren Collison to Dallas for center Ian Mahinmi and used its first-round draft pick on Miles Plumlee, with an eye toward giving Hibbert some help.

The new management also brought in point guard D.J. Augustin to back up Hill and signed forward Gerald Green. With forward Tyler Hansbrough already an established force on the bench, the addition of rookie guard Orlando Johnson and the possibility Lance Stephenson emerges in a key role this season, Indiana could have one of the deeper rosters in the league.

``This team has got ability, there's not been a lot of change,'' coach Frank Vogel said. ``My approach is just the understanding that this team is a year further along with experience and the bench is deeper.''

Stability should help the Pacers, too, who would like to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000.

``We want to grow. From looking at a playoff standpoint, we got to the second round last year, so we're hoping to get further than that. We got a third seed in the regular season and we're hoping to do better than that,'' Vogel said. ``Those are probably the first steps in terms of taking that next step as a franchise. We finished the season last year feeling like we were good enough to win the championship and we're a team that sets our sights high and we shoot for the moon.''

All the Pacers have to do now is prove they can handle the hype and keep winning - right through the playoffs.

``We have something special here,'' George said. ``That makes it even more exciting knowing that everybody's on the same page.''

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The curious case of Alex Smith and the NFL Top 100 list

The curious case of Alex Smith and the NFL Top 100 list

Every offseason the NFL Network polls a number of current players to determine the Top 100 stars in the league.

It's a fun discussion topic during an otherwise slow time in the football calendar, and while the rankings carry no official meaning, it would be silly to dismiss the process altogether. After all, these are players voting for their fellow players. 

Over the last few seasons, the Redskins have seen a various number of their players make the list. Trent Williams is a mainstay, Jordan Reed made an appearance, and while he was playing in Washington, QB Kirk Cousins made the list. 

For example, in 2017, Cousins ranked 70th on the NFL Top 100. That same season, while quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith came in at 81 on the list. 

Now Redskins QB, there is a bit of a mystery surrounding Smith.

The NFL has revealed numbers 100 to 11, and Smith hasn't made the list. Cousins, now a Viking, landed 94th, the first QB on the list.

Another 10 QBs have been named to the Top 100: Jimmy Garoppolo (90), Derek Carr (60), Philip Rivers (56), Case Keenum (51), Deshaun Watson (50), Jared Goff (38), Matt Stafford (31), Matt Ryan (29), Ben Roethlisberger (18) and Russell Wilson (11).

Smith had the best statistical season of his career in 2017, and he led the NFL in passer rating. He certainly belongs higher on the Top 100 than a number of the quarterbacks listed above, particularly young players without his track record of success like Keenum, Watson or Goff. 

But does Smith deserve a Top 10 ranking in the NFL?

For Smith to make the list, it will mean a Top 10 ranking. Consider too that Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz have not yet landed on the Top 100. All four of those players seem like locks for the Top 10, which will be revealed next Monday night on NFL Network. 

It might seem surprising for Smith to land in the Top 10 of the NFL Top 100, but it would make zero sense for him to be left off the list altogether. 


— Contract years: Redskins face 5 tough decisions 

— Dead Money: Trades, misses and mistakes hurt Redskins salary cap


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Ravens agree to terms with first-round pick Hayden Hurst


Ravens agree to terms with first-round pick Hayden Hurst

The Ravens have their entire 2018 draft class locked up.

The team agreed to terms with first-round pick Hayden Hurst, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

Hurst's rookie contract - like all first-round picks - is a four-year deal with a team option of a fifth year. According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the 25th overall pick is due $11.1 million. 

The 24-year old, who was a walk on at South Carolina at 21-years old after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, finished his three-year career with 100 receptions, 1,281 yards and three touchdowns.

Standing at 6-foot-3, Hurst will be a nice addition to the TE corps with Nick Boyle and third-round draft pick Mark Andrews. 

Fellow first-round pick Lamar Jackson signed his rookie contract on June 5th.

Training camp kicks off for the Ravens July 19th.