INDIANAPOLIS -- About five weeks ago, Mike Dunleavy thought his basketball career might be over.
The pain in his right knee was severe enough to cut his comeback short, and the high-scoring Indiana Pacers guard agreed to a risky surgery to remove a bone spur. He was told he might not regain the strength to play again after the procedure.
"Beforehand, they were probably saying 50-50," Dunleavy told The Associated Press. "Now, the way I'm progressing and the way I'm moving forward, we feel very confident that I'll be able to get back, and probably better than I was."
Dunleavy finished sixth in the most improved player award voting last season after averaging 19.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. The wing combination of Dunleavy and Danny Granger was expected to carry the Pacers this season.
Instead, while Granger emerged as an All-Star, Dunleavy missed the first 34 games with lingering pain in the knee. He eventually returned and averaged 15.1 points in 18 games before shutting down because the pain continued to increase. It was discovered that the bone spur had done significant damage to his patella tendon.
The Pacers announced on March 6 that Dunleavy had successful surgery at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colo.
"I was forced to get the surgery to remove it [the bone spur], which I guess you would call a last resort," Dunleavy said. "They removed the spur and without doing any major damage to the tendon. They were able to sew the tendon back up. Now, it's a matter of waiting to let that tendon heal, getting it strong again, and that process is going to take some time."
Pacers coach Jim O'Brien doesn't expect Dunleavy back until at least 2010.
"Nothing that I have heard has Mike coming back anytime before January," O'Brien said. "It's not even on my radar. I have to approach next year as if he's not coming back."
Dunleavy is still in the resting phase of his rehabilitation.
"The main thing the first six weeks is letting the knee heal," he said. "To have any hopes of getting in the pool or riding a bike or cardio work -- you don't worry about that right now. You can make up for all that later."
The waiting around isn't something Dunleavy is used to. He missed a total of 11 games his first six NBA seasons. It has been especially difficult for him because he was coming off a career-best performance.
"There's been a lot of sitting around and a lot of boring afternoons, but that's part of the process," he said. "You've got to get through that."
If Dunleavy isn't careful, his starting job will be long gone before he returns. Rookie Brandon Rush has been exceptional as Dunleavy's replacement. He scored 29 points in back-to-back games in late March against Washington and Chicago.
"Over the last month, he's playing with a great deal of confidence," O'Brien said. "I think confidence breeds good play. He's not only playing good basketball, he's defending at a high level. As a result, he's on the court extended minutes."
"Brandon will be hard to beat out in the position opposite of Danny next year."
Rush started off slowly this season, but has taken advantage of the minutes that have become available with the injuries to Dunleavy and Marquis Daniels.
"He's proving that he deserves the minutes that he's getting," O'Brien said. "He's using his dribble to attack well, and he's defending and getting more comfortable in every phase of the game."
Dunleavy said the injuries could benefit the Pacers in the long run, as long as they don't continue to be a recurring theme.
"It's given a lot of different guys a chance to play and produce," he said. "I think it's been good. Our future looks bright. We've certainly increased our depth. If we can look forward into next season with a healthy team, I think we've got a good chance to not only make the playoffs, but win in the playoffs."
How much Dunleavy will have to do with that is unclear.
"In terms of how far I have to go or when I'm going to be back, we don't know right now. Just continue to work and improve, and whenever I'll be back, I'll be back," he said.