A company’s “internal culture is its only sustainable advantage. Everything else is transitory.” Exactly where I read that bit of fortune cookie wisdom, I can’t recall, but the sentiment resonates. Identity is the kind of “concrete intangible” that successful organizations clearly establish, and unsuccessful ones lack.
A clear sense of identity has been something that has come and gone over the 46 years of existence of the Pacer franchise, and success has come and gone along with it. It has run the gamut from being the flagship franchise of the ABA to a team in need of a telethon to keep it from moving to a roster full of members who spent far too much time on the police blotter.
Reinventing the Pacers
But now, these Indiana Pacers have an identity.
Coach Frank Vogel described it back in February, 2011.
“This is a new team, a new beginning,” he said. “This is going to be a special end of the year. Jump on board. We play with enthusiasm, hard work, and we play blue-collar, smash-mouth basketball. We’re an old-school team. We’re simple.”
To be brutally honest, that was really more a declaration of vision than of fact at the time.
It would take time, effort, and personnel changes to achieve that vision. But today, some 27 months later, this squad seems poised to cement that new identity. It is on the verge of becoming the legitimate descendants of the ABA Pacers and Reggie Miller’s Pacers.
Two years ago, the term “smash-mouth” basketball had been virtually unheard of. “Smash-mouth” is a football term, largely co-opted by Frank Vogel. Today, it has become a part of the vernacular used to describe the Pacers. As Indiana eliminated the Hawks, the ESPN2 broadcast crew used the phrase repeatedly.
And, it is this identity to which the Pacers must be true as they face the rest of the playoff. It’s something that the team’s leaders fully understand.
“Before you do anything, you gotta stick to who you are,” Coach Frank Vogel said when asked about adjustments after Game 1 of the Atlanta series. These comments followed a win that was greeted by palpable relief inside Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Coming into the playoffs, Indiana had lost five of its final six games, trailing by 20 or more points in all six.
Worse, it was their defense that failed them.
Losing Their Way
Entering April, Indiana had been the best defensive team in the league (statistically), allowing a full two points per 100 possessions fewer than number-two Memphis. Those historically good numbers were in stark contrast to a miserable April, in which only three teams allowed more than the over 109 points per 100 possessions given up by the fading Pacers.
They weren’t just losing games, they were losing who they were.
After the Pacers lost in New York on April 14, David West made comments on why they lost in game were also applicable to why they had faded so badly in April. “I don’t think we did what we do,” said West. “And ultimately, it cost us…”
But, West also spoke of the solution to the problem. “It’s a matter of sticking to what we do,” said West. “I just don’t think it’s going to come down to whether or not we can make adjustments. We’ve got to be able to be ourselves first.”
He, too, spoke about identity, and that concept only becomes more important from here in the playoffs.
The New York Knick team the Pacers face is much better than the Hawks team that made them feel a little pressure. Further, Indiana is a weak road team that is extremely unlikely to enjoy home-court advantage for the rest of the playoffs. Their best shot at succeeding is doing what they do, as well as they can.
“We’re a defense and rebounding team,” said Vogel. “We try to preach offensive physicality. We’ve got to play with passion.”
They’ll need all of that to survive…and advance.
And that identity began to assert itself in the final two games of the Atlanta series. Through the first four games of their first round series with Atlanta, Indiana had allowed 102.4 points per hundred, putting them solidly in the middle of the pack in the playoffs. In winning the last two, Indy allowed fewer than 85 points per 100, best in the Association. They also grabbed over 62% of the rebounds, including a remarkable 91% rate on their defensive glass.
Getting Back to “What We Do”
West touched on this sense of self when discussing April’s swoon. “We understand we didn’t close the season the way we wanted to, but I don’t think our confidence or our belief in what we can do has ever dipped or swayed,” said West. “We’ve always felt like we play solid enough defense, and that’s going to give us a chance in any series. Ultimately, we’ve got to depend on our defense.
“We’re just going to continue to play the way we’ve played all year: rely on our defense, continue to tighten the screws, take care of the ball. Those are ultimately going to be keys for us.”
And, that’s what not just the playoffs — but the future — really hinges on for this Pacer franchise. If they do “what we do,” Indiana has more than a puncher’s chance in winning this — and any series — in the playoffs.
The Pacers need to continue to know who they are — who they want to be — and continue to keep their eyes on that goal. If they do that, then the franchise will continue to survive and advance, regardless of the outcome of this — or any — series.