(Reuters) - Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel said on Monday his team remained on track in its pursuit of an NBA title despite a disappointing finish and a 25-point dismissal by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference clincher.
“We built something here that’s going to give us a chance every year,” Vogel told reporters at his season-closing news conference. “This group, as constructed, has room to grow.”
After a sterling start that produced a 33-7 record in the first half of the regular season, the Pacers struggled but managed to hang on to top-seeding in the East with a 56-26 record.
They needed seven games to get past eighth-seeded Atlanta before losing to LeBron James and the Heat in the conference finals for the second season in a row.
“We’re still very young. I think that experience matters and I think that going into another year, (there is) more room for growth,” said Vogel.
Despite rumors that Vogel’s job was in jeopardy due to the team’s lackluster finish, the coach won support from management following the playoffs to return for a fifth season.
Vogel said he believed in the Pacers’ ability to thrive with two big players dominating in the middle, center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West.
Yet Vogel conceded he needed to get more consistent play from shot-blocker Hibbert, who was a non-factor in numerous games down the stretch.
“I think we can win at the highest level with this style of play,” the coach said, adding that Hibbert has “got to continue to work and continue to raise his level of play.”
The emergence of Paul George gave the Pacers reason to be optimistic for the future and Vogel said he would like to have the mercurial but talented Lance Stephenson, who is an unrestricted free agent, stay with the team.
Stephenson, one of the team’s most creative players, was widely criticized for his antics in Game Five of the conference finals when he was caught on camera blowing into LeBron James’s ear, walked into a Heat huddle and was guilty of flopping.
“I’d like to see him back, clearly,” said Vogel, who added that team president Larry Bird and general manager Kevin Pritchard would be looking into ways to improve the team through free agency.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Gene Cherry