The departure of Jim O’Brien, and his replacement by Frank Vogel was viewed by many as a breath of fresh air.  Vogel promised a different team, and – for a time – delivered.  However, the Pacers have faltered in recent days, losing five of their last six games and being generally uncompetitive on their just-completed three-game road trip to Oklahoma and Texas.

After the Houston loss, Mike Wells asked if the ship was sinking.  He had tweeted about shouting in the locker room after the Houston game, and mentioned specifically in-game displays of frustration/anger by both Jeff Foster and Dahntay Jones.

Yesterday, on The Ride with JMV, Mike Wells took things further.  If you listen to the audio,  you’ll get a more complete picture, but I’m not sure you’ll like what you hear.

Wells described this team as “a very young team that doesn’t have any type of leadership.”  A damning statement of the veterans on this team – specifically Danny Granger.   Wells said he went so far as to slide his ear up against the door Saturday night, but “(it was) so many guys talking, you couldn’t pinpoint one voice out of it.”  Wells also reiterated his “substitute teacher syndrome” concerns about this team and interim coach Frank Vogel.

I agree with Tom Lewis of Indy Cornrows, who said “with Stephenson and Dahntay Jones creating the most noise in the Pacers’ locker room, I can’t see anything worthwhile emerging from the yelling.”  That’s two fringe players — at least currently — having a petty squabble.  It’s neither uncommon nor unexpected.

The problem is that it now seemingly becomes the (or a) central conflict for the entire team.  In a room full of passive, disinterested, or perhaps even weak individuals, the dominant personalities will set the agenda.  This is less leadership, and more inertia.

But digging deeper than just who is fighting with whom, and whose playing time is being unjustly given/taken away, you find a foundational problem.  What is this team trying to accomplish when they take the floor?  What is their game plan?  If there was a leader in the locker room, where, exactly, is he supposed to lead them?

We’ve heard ad infinitum, ad nauseum, that the Pacers are now a “smash mouth, power post team.”  Well, that’s fantastic pablum for a fan base weary of losing, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.  Those are things that you are, not that you do.  And, c’mon … who. besides Jeff Foster, Tyler Hansbrough, and perhaps Dahntay Jones on this team could you picture describing as “smash mouth” without bursting out in laughter?

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard vague, nebulous phrases about “getting back to where we were a couple weeks ago” or “not coming out as pumped as the first couple of games” after the coaching change.  Again, what exactly does that mean?

It seems apparent that the team is lacking leadership, but to me, the bigger thing they are lacking is direction.  One of the reasons that the so-called “goon squad” has continued to have success is that it is populated with “scramblers.”  Price, Hansbrough, and Dahntay Jones are all capable of making things happen when everything falls apart.  Arguably, they operate better in those freelance situations than they do within a working system.  From this perspective, their success could be (fairly or unfairly) portrayed as much as a symptom of the dysfunction as anything else.

Meanwhile, players like Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison, Danny Granger, and Josh McRoberts, who benefit from some degree from structure, begin to flounder.  (Or, as in the case of McRoberts, find that their contributions become less meaningful in a scramble situation.)   Further, a player like Paul George (who Mike Wells described as “the perfect rookie”) finds himself stuck in between — trying to do what he has been taught, while pretty much everyone else is off doing their own thing.

Both Wells and Lewis focus on Lance Stephenson in their discussions, but he is less a cause, than a flashpoint.  Again, in my opinion, a symptom of the lack of direction.  It seemed odd to me (and to Mike Wells) that the Pacers had pushed him for playing time during a playoff race.  Perhaps they feel that the spots in the bag — it would take an epic display of incompetence not to grab the 8th seed in the East — but his presence seems clearly to be at least a short-term disruption.

I don’t think that was a wise decision given this team’s history of fragility.  Further, I continue to believe that the main focus of development should be getting Danny Granger, Darren Collison, and Roy Hibbert to work together as a cohesive unit.  Right now, the three don’t play off of each other at all so much as just in the general vicinity of each other.  To a large degree, working Stephenson into the lineup is a huge distraction from that.  It creates noise where there needn’t be.

Vogel simplified a lot of things when he took over from O’Brien, but those were tactical.  The problem now seems that the loss of Dunleavy, the struggles of the starting lineup vs. the “goon squad”, and the introduction of Lance Stephenson may have complicated things all over again.

Wells (seriously, listen for yourself) believes that the Pacers are at a tipping point.  They have three “should win” games (home vs. Philly, @ Minny, and @ Toronto) that can either help restore them or help destroy them.  This is a perfectly sensible point of view given this team’s history.

The leadership issue isn’t going to be solved this season.

If there isn’t one now, there isn’t going to be one to suddenly step up in the last 20 games.  Therefore, the test falls to Vogel.  He can’t hope to give a St. Crispin’s day speech before every game to get wins.  He can’t count on the players’ individual talents to carry the day.  He needs to get the team away from thinking about being happy and pumped up, and towards understanding their jobs and responsibilities on the floor.

And therein lies my biggest concern.  Does even Vogel have a clear idea of how the pieces are supposed to fit and function?

We’re gonna find out.

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Tags: Dahntay Jones Frank Vogel Lance Stephenson

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