One word has come to mind lately regarding the Pacers.
In recent games this team has reverted back its late December-January form, where they managed a 3-12 stretch that included seven double-digit losses. Late February-March has so far brought a 1-5 mark, with three double-digit losses.
Saturday night the Pacers continued their poor play with a 112-95 loss at Houston. It wasn’t nearly that close. The Pacers were dominated thoroughly for three quarters, with Houston leading 94-68 after 36 minutes. Kevin Martin scored 20, Chase Budinger 18, Kyle Lowry 18, Luis Scola 16, Courtney Lee 13 and Goran Dragic 12 for the Rockets. That’s 97 points from that fearsome half dozen.
The Pacers starters were simply awful in this game. Besides helping Houston find all kinds of good looks that led to a 65-point first half, the Indiana starters shot a combined 19-50 for the game. It all added up to another uncompetitive loss. With the way this team has been playing lately, sounding the fire alarm can come none too soon.
There have been many suggestions that interim coach Frank Vogel would not fiddle with his rotation. The problem with that thinking is that the rotation already was drastically altered with the injury to Mike Dunleavy.
Dunleavy is an easy whipping boy for critics of the Pacers. Despite his talent, he’s never lived up to the billing of the third pick in the NBA draft. The past few years he has also suffered serious injuries that have stunted his abilities. That is unfortunate since the Pacers offense works best with Dunleavy on the floor. His passing and shooting skills have been sorely missed in recent games as the Pacers offense has ground to a screeching halt on multiple occasions.
Brandon Rush is not the answer. He’s only starting to preserve a second unit that seems to be losing some steam now that the starters are struggling. It may well be time to throw Paul George in at the deep end and see if he can give the Pacers more production as a starter. George is still raw. The talent is breathtaking, but anyone who says he can be this franchise’s next Reggie Miller is getting way ahead of himself. He’s a rookie, who is going to make rookie mistakes, but this is not a case of giving him more playing time because he’s a young guy. He simply may be the best available shooting guard.
For that matter, it may be time to return Tyler Hansbrough to the starting lineup because of his scoring ability. Yes, the ball stops when it hits Hansbrough’s hands, but he seems to give the team as much energy as anybody else on the floor. He too will make rookie mistakes, but he’s probably the best power forward option available right now.
A move to Hansbrough would not be an indictment of Josh McRoberts. In fact, McRoberts is still a solid contributor on most nights. Something that had to be in question after the failed Indiana-Memphis-New Orleans trade that included McRoberts. It just seems he fits best as a bookend to Dunleavy in the starting lineup. Those two work well together as facilitators of the offense with their passing skills.
Right now the pieces just don’t fit. George and Hansbrough may be square pegs into the proverbial round holes, but you’ve got to try something different when the ship is sinking. Since the Dunleavy injury and aborted trade that’s exactly what’s happening. The Pacers have not turned into the Titanic yet, but icebergs do surround them.
None of this means the Pacers won’t make the playoffs. The teams around them in the standings are equally flawed and uninspiring. For all the strengthening of the top of the Eastern Conference this year, the bottom of the bracket remains far inferior to the West.
What we’re seeing here in the Pacers is an unfinished product. Vogel is a rookie coach who got the interim job years before he would have otherwise have been considered for a head coaching gig. Going to him was the right move because Jim O’Brien had run out of answers and overstayed his welcome. The Dunleavy injury and failed trade came just as the schedule started to toughen up a bit. Vogel’s degree of difficulty went way up after that. If he can get the team in its current state to the playoffs it has to be viewed as a success story.
An outsider would say that this team is fatally flawed if Dunleavy’s injury is such a big deal. That’s probably true. Expect the Pacers to use their cap room by shopping for a starting-quality shooting guard and a starting-quality power forward in the offseason. If George and Hansbrough end up being the answers at those spots, the team will gladly take any influx of new talent and do cartwheels that it has some real depth.
The more disturbing questions may come about when looking at the futures of Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison.
Granger is clearly the team’s best player, but may be destined to be the next Chuck Person. A player with superb talent that is not a number one option or perhaps even a number two option on a good team. If that’s the case, Granger’s trade value should be ascertained immediately following the season.
Hibbert was thrust into a team leader role this year that he clearly was not yet ready for. Several people that follow the Pacers have compared him to a younger Rik Smits, who eventually became one the franchise’s best players. Hibbert is way too inconsistent to be compared with Smits. However, patience with big men — especially someone with Hibbert’s talent — is usually advisable.
Collision is still very young. In fairness to him he should probably be viewed through the same lens as George and Hansbrough. Collison needs to pick it up on both ends of the floor, but would likely benefit from a true point guard to back him up. A.J. Price is a nice player, but he’s really a short two guard.
What’s the key for this team to find the will and attitude to make a playoff run? The easy answer is play better defense, but as our statistical guru will tell you, the defense is already decent. It’s the offense that needs to be fixed. The Pacers don’t have enough offensive weapons on the roster. Maybe it’s time to use the ones they have in the starting lineup together and see what happens.