Why Do the Pacers Care?

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Here’s the deal: I know a large portion of the Pacer fan base has decided that Coach Jim O’Brien is the anti-christ, but I think he’s OK. Solid, not great. I do think he panicked when things went bad, however, futzing around with the lineup way too much. This probably cost the team a few wins (well, maybe a couple, who knows?), and I think it at least created too much uncertainty. There has been speculation dating back to even December that he lost the team, with direct comments coming from drive-by guys like Bob Kravitz and Kelly Dwyer, which are then repeated when national websites talk about coaching hot seats and the like.

In any case, though I have yet to see a definitive statement from what I consider a reliable inside source, it does seem (or at least, did seem) reasonable to me that the team has tuned out O’Brien. I also think that O’Brien should be fired at season’s end.

I’m generally hesitant to fire coaches unless one of two situations exist:

1. You have a better option in mind and pretty much lined up.
2. You simply don’t think it can get any worse.

In this case, I would also set a higher bar because of (a) the financial implications of paying two coaches given the team’s current situation, and (b) I cannot for the life of me think of any major name that would take this job unless the Pacers just paid through the nose (and we won’t do that).

To be honest, I know for sure that condition #1 doesn’t exist, and I’m far from convinced that condition #2 exists. Still, I would let O’Brien go. He really has done a poor job this year (after two good years), and I think he responded very poorly when things got tough. I think things will be tough again next year, and I believe that the relationship with the players is used up. Time for a new voice, so to speak.

But…

They have been playing much better lately. Yes, with two wins against Detroit and another against Washington, the schedule has not been tough. But they also beat both Utah and Oklahoma City. And more than that, they have been playing better at both ends of the floor. They’re executing the offense more coherently, and they’ve been more aggressive defensively. They’ve been more enthusiastic and more cohesive. During the Washington game last week, Slick Leonard was trying to explain the Pacers recent play, and he finally stammered, “They’re … just … playin’ better together.”

There was an almost audible shrug in his voice.

But…

It’s easy to just write that off as playing against teams that don’t care, are tanking or are looking past them. Even if that’s true, my question is, “Why do the Pacers care?” Or, put another way, “Why are they still playing with effort for O’Brien?” More pointedly, why do they actually seem to be playing more together and having more fun than they have all season? Why are we seeing more evidence of players being good teammates, like the way random guys like Murph and Watson are going out of their way to help and support guys like Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert? Why are we suddenly seeing the nasty Danny that we came to expect last year? Why is Danny, arguably the only player on the team with a vested interest in the Pacers landing a top draft pick, suddenly playing better defense than he has in two years?

I mean, this is a team that, for all intents and purposes, looked like they were all heading their separate ways for most of the season. They largely seemed unhappy, occasionally surly and selfish just a few weeks ago, and now they actually look like a team. Still not a very good one, but an actual team.

Here’s something Jared tweeted Tuesday night:

@8pts9secs Solo on the floor forcing a jump. Can’t say these dudes ain’t trying. Can say they aren’t good, but can’t say they aint trying.

These guys spent two-thirds of the season rolling over and dying at the first sign of trouble, and now they’re suddenly resilient?

As I type this, it frustrates me that I just can’t casually give the answer that I really want to give: They’re doing it, because they’re good guys, and that’s what they were taught, and it’s the right thing to do. If you put on the uniform, you back your teammates and you try to win the games, regardless of their import.  Hell, I’m sure my father would be baffled as to why I would even expect less effort. Baffled, and probably a little sad.

But beyond my expectations for poor effort down the stretch based on the way these players have played for most of the season, rolling over is actually understandable (though not necessarily admirable) given the futility they have all slogged through.  I mean, it’s been miserable for fans; it’s gotta be worse for the players.

Look at the Sixers, Pistons, Clippers and Wizards. You watch those teams, and you seem to see players who have just completely checked out .

Why haven’t these guys? Why aren’t they mailing it in, particularly if O’Brien’s gone stale on them? Why, after a season of crap, do they look like they’re ready to go now?

I’m a huge Indiana Hoosiers fan, and I remember the last few years under Knight.  They would start out strong, blowing through the preseason schedule before taking an early Big Ten lead.  About midway through the Big Ten season, they would have a tough game against one of the other league leaders, and they’d lose.  From there, it would be a downhill spiral, and by the time the NCAA’s came around, it was painfully obvious that the players just wanted the season to be over.  This is the natural result of a miserable working situation. It’s the Friday afternoon after a deadline on a shi**y work week.  You may sit there until the clock says 5:00 pm, but you aren’t going to get anything done.

Why don’t these guys have the thousand-yard stare?

It’s absolutely true that these wins mean almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s also true that a higher pick is better than a lower pick, and this activity could be reasonably argued as short-sighted.

Look, I really don’t want to get into tanking. I am always in danger of violating some corollary of Godwin’s law when talking about tanking, because I unequivocally believe in what I said earlier: If you put on the uniform, you back your teammates, and you try to win the games, regardless of their import. I hold the coaching staff and the front office to that standard, as well. I am acutely aware of the difference in value between a pick in the top 5 and a pick in the top 10, and I am comfortable with the “price” of winning “meaningless” games.

But, while tanking may be the smart, expedient, or most beneficial thing, why is this team all of a sudden doing what I consider to be the right thing (by playing together and playing to win)?

Secondary to that, why did it take this long?

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Tags: Jim O'Brien Slick Leonard Tanking Why Do The Pacers Care?

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