The feeling is a familiar one: the bottom drops out of my stomach, a bleak emptiness consumes my soul and mind, and a vein of burning acid starts working its way up my esophagus. The end result is always the same: the Pacers lose – badly – and I vow to never watch them again. This has happened 14 times in the last 58 games. Luckily all these symptoms can be cured by — and my solemn vow forgotten after — a good night’s sleep.
If you were wondering, 58 is the number of games the Pacers have played with Frank Vogel at the helm. Fortunately for the Pacers (and my esophageal lining) 33 of those games have been wins. What disturbs me, however, is that in the 24 games this team has lost, they have been unwatchably wretched for large portions of 14 of them.
Lately I’ve begun calling these types of games – games where all the joy is sucked out of watching my favorite team in all of sports due to their general malaise, pathetic effort level, or atrocious play – vomit-inducing losses (VILs). My gut feeling was that these losses were more common for the Pacers under Frank Vogel than for any other team I’d ever seriously followed, so I decided to dig into the numbers and see what I could find.
At first blush, the numbers certainly seemed to justify my suspicions.
The Pacers have lost 24 games during Vogel’s tenure as coach, and 14 of these losses have been of the vomit-inducing variety. This number includes five of the Pacers’ six losses this season and nine of their eighteen losses last season. This means that 58% of the Pacers losses have been VILs.
What exactly qualifies as a VIL? As I delved into the historical box scores, where my intestinal rumblings were of no help, I developed the following definition of a VIL: (1) the team in question is never really in the game resulting in a double digit loss (for example, the game at Miami this year), (2) the team in question plays an inordinately awful stretch of basketball that results in loss (e.g., at Sacramento or home vs. Orlando), (3) the team in question is beaten by an inferior team that does not play particularly well (e.g., at Detroit or at Sacramento), or (4) the team in question is beaten by an injury-riddled that does not play particularly well (e.g., at Boston).
Even with this (admittedly vague) definition, it is hard to know exactly how much of an outlier that 58% number under Vogel is. I wanted to find some historical comparisons for this number. So I first perused the box scores from 2009-2010: the last full year that Voldemort, a guy you may know as Jim O’Brien, coached the Pacers. (Note: This is not something I would recommend doing for any Pacer fan. It was a painful experience. I used to think the Pacers would have been a playoff team a year earlier if they’d only re-signed Jarrett Jack. I no longer think that.)
The Pacers lost 50 games that year and 20 of them seemed to fit into the VIL category. That’s 40% — a number which seems high, but is far short of Vogel’s 58%.
However, Voldemort’s teams played a style that lead to more wild swings in results and quality of play than Vogel’s teams. To see what a “normal” team would do, I looked at the box scores of the 2010-2011 Philadelphia 76ers. They were a 41-41 team that was near the middle of the pack in every major statistical category, had a bunch of young players, and played at a similar pace to Vogel’s Pacers. The 76ers had only 9 VILs among their 41 losses. That’s a remarkably low 22%. For a comparison with the 2009-10 Pacers, I looked at the 2010-11 Golden State Warriors: 19 of their 46 losses (41%) were VILs.
At this point, the only conclusion I was able to draw was that Vogel’s VIL% was incredibly high. I didn’t want to lie this at his feet, however, without doing due diligence. Maybe the players were the problem.
I decided to look at the first 44 games of the 2010-11 season. During this span, the Pacers lost 27 games with twelve of them being VILs. That’s 44% — approaching Vogel’s rate, but still far short.
All these numbers, though they point to a phenomenon that is certainly occurring, do nothing to explain why. They also don’t tell us if this occurrence is even a problem for anything other than my esophagus. Sadly, I have no definite answers to those questions. I can only offer a couple of theories that I am not entirely satisfied with.
The first is that Vogel’s uber-positivism and use of “rah-rah” motivational tactics has a natural ebb and flow that is not sustainable on a nightly basis. When the confidence/enthusiasm starts to wane, the bottom drops out.
My second theory is that it has nothing to do with Vogel’s coaching whatsoever. Former NCAA football coach Homer Rice once said “You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both those methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation.” It’s possible that this collection of players is just not a very self-motivated group.
The truth could be a combination of these two ideas or it could be something else entirely. It might even be nothing more than coincidence and a small sample. It is, however, something to watch as this young team and coach move forward into what I hope will be a bright future.