The Pacers have been playing mediocre basketball since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day passed. Leading up to the holiday, Indiana smacked around the Clippers and followed that up by flying to Oakland and beating the Warriors on the civil rights’ leader’s (observed) birthday.
They were 32-7. They were the best story in basketball. They could almost see the rings on their fingers. Even the national media outlets that haven’t talked about the team since players were punching fans were starting to call them favorites.
It was hard to look at them as anything but. Their defense was absolutely suffocating. It was by far the best-pefrorming unit in the NBA, allowing just 92.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. How unreal is that number? The next closest team, the Chicago Bulls, were allowing 97.3 points per 100 — almost 5 points more. What Frank Vogel’s Pacers were doing was absolutely historical.
If you don’t like those numbers, try these: Prior to the Clippers game on January 18, here were the number of points allowed by Indiana in its previous 13 games: 89, 92, 66, 87, 79, 78, 82, 82, 76, 91, 86, 79, 81.
The average NBA team scores 100.8 points per game this season. The worst-scoring team, the Bulls, averages 93.4. For 13 straight games in January, Indiana didn’t allow a single team to score as many points as the slow, horrible-shooting, turnover-prove Bulls’ average.
On the other end of the court, the offense was ranked just 16th overall and there were always reasons for concern. Still, the half-court action was looking better than it had last season, and there were many encouraging signs that their potency would only continue to improve as they tightened up their sets and cut down on mistakes. The best evidence: in terms of shot-making (effective field-goal percentage) the Pacers’ offense was 11th best in the league on January 20. It was more the turnovers that seemed to be the big problem (6th worst in the NBA), so it felt like once they cleaned that up a bit, everything else would fall into place.
Here we had a defensive juggernaut of historical proportions that had an improving offense led by dynamic wing scorers and bruising interior bullies. They looked like they would be an absolute monster come playoff time.
It’s funny what two months can do.
How Far We Done Fell
The Pacers are now in utter disarray. The blinking light of despair was the four-game losing streak that started on March 4. But more than being the reason for panic in and of itself, that skid was just the red, bulbous, infected symptom of the disease that finally reared its head to the surface.
The team had been playing bad basketball for weeks prior to the losing streak and it has yet to play well since. For sure, there is so much talent on this roster that there have been stretches of brilliance amidst the ongoing disappointment, and that has been enough to both win some games against “rebuilding” teams and assuage concerns that the team is falling apart at its core.
But as with the days when the Pacers looked like title contenders, those days, too, have passed us by. There is now nobody who can continue to say that things are right with this team and keep a straight face.
Another poor performance, this one on national television in the world’s most famous arena, erased any doubt that deep problems exist.
Last night’s lackluster showing in a loss 92-86 to the Knicks, to me, appeared to be largely a product of an offense missing makable shots. In 48 minutes, there are going to be any number of things to point to as why a team lost. And as is always the case with Indiana’s uninspired offense, pick your favorite flaw to highlight.
For me, last night, it was missing open shots.
What I think matters little, of course.
According to Roy Hibbert and others in the Pacers locker room, the issue was more about not sharing the ball, particularly with the big guys. Hibbert was vocal about the team being too willing to settle for perimeter shots. It’s easy to agree with him based upon the fact that Indiana crawled its way back into the game during a third-quarter that featured Hibbert scoring 14 points (while hitting 5-of-6 shots ) and the whole team attempting 15 of its 21 shots in the paint.
Here is how Hibbert expressed his frustration after the loss, as reported by Candace Bucker of the Indianapolis Star. (Emphasis added by me.)
“We’ve fallen in love with the jump shot for a while,” Hibbert said. “People feel like they have it going and they want to do it themselves sometimes. That’s just how it works. I feel like two guys that I have 100 percent trust in doing that is Paul and David. I feel like they should have carte blanche on whatever they want to do in terms of attacking the paint and (put) the ball’s in their hands because they’ve earned my respect.”
“They’re able to do it at a high level, even if they start off a little slow but I know they’re going to bring it. Those guys have the green light whenever they have it, but other than that I think we should move the ball and get people involved.“
I wasn’t in the locker room and don’t like putting words in anyone’s mouth. That said, I think it’s safe to say that Roy Hibbert isn’t talking about George Hill here. I mean, I’m sure the biggest man on the court wished his point guard could get he and West the ball in better positions to score down low, but Hill takes 8.4 shots per game and has a usage rate of 15.4 (11th on the team). Moreover, given Hill’s presence in the locker room and his pedigree as a professional, I just can’t believe that George Hill has not earned Roy Hibbert’s respect.
No, Roy is talking about Lance Stephenson. It’s pretty clear. Actually, he isn’t so much talking; Roy is taking a big dump in Lance’s mouth, actually, is what he is doing. And by proxy, he is doing the same thing to his coach, since that’s the guy who has sat by as the offense has followed the rise of its young talents to the perimeter.
We can set aside the fact that last night was just the second time since February 2 that Hibbert has scored more than 15 points in a game (and the fact that most of his points came against Cole Aldrich, who is decidedly not Alonzo Mourning). To him — and perhaps in reality — maybe his ongoing inability to produce is largely a product of the offense drifting away from its “smashmouth” roots.
Regardless, it wasn’t just Hibbert throwing darts. We also had Paul George, in the same locker room, questioning his team’s collective I.Q., also as reported by Buckner.
“(The Knicks) switch almost everything on the floor,” George said. “They just take you out of stuff and we haven’t grown our I.Q. as a team into improvising when teams try to throw in little wrenches into our offense and that’s where we got to grow offensively.
“I say that because at this point of the season everybody knows what we’re running, so this is the point where we’ve got to be able to play at a higher pace and higher I.Q. as a team to where we can beat teams to whatever style that they’re playing.”
So Hibbert, a big man, thinks there are too many jump shots while George, a wing player, thinks the team needs to improvise better and play at a higher pace.
There was David West, in the same article, cutting straight to the point, as he does.
“We just didn’t move (the ball),” West said. “We didn’t play team ball at all.”
It looks like everyone agrees: The Pacers offense is a disaster.
Yup, this is a team in utter disarray.
The first instinct might be to say that this moment, and hearing these statements, is the most glaring sign yet of a season unraveling, of that once-undeniable “title contender” status spiraling the drain.
But this could actually be a positive sign.
For weeks and weeks, the Pacers have mostly maintained, in public anyway, that they were just in a rough patch. Things weren’t so bad, but aw shucks, the ball just wasn’t bouncing their way. Here’s a taste of the yarn- spinning and riddle-spitting they were giving the media.
Back then even, it was a crock of the stuff Hibbert just hurled at Stephenson, and now it’s only more obvious that such a sentiment is a fairy tale.
So that’s why this latest real talk can be seen as encouraging. At least now they aren’t hawking delusions and trying to convince themselves everything is OK.
There are real, core, fundamental problems with this team that seem to be both technical basketball issues and psychological concerns about people’s motivation. Team architect Larry Bird knows it, telling Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star that the players need to not get caught up in the off-court stuff — the media hype that crowned them title favorites in December — and instead remain focused on how to win basketball games.
They’ve somehow got to block it out and stay focused. Sometimes, I think, they’re not 100 percent committed to their jobs.’
And, oh yeah, Bird also mentioned this to Kravtiz.
“One thing I’d be nervous about is pointing fingers,” he said. “‘Well, so-and-so isn’t doing this or that.’ I haven’t seen that, yet, but that’s a sure sign you’ve got a problem.”
He said that on March 11.
Larry Bird isn’t a doctor, but if you trust his diagnostic abilities, then there is no doubt the Pacers have a problem. They can’t score, their defense no longer scares anyone, and they’re now pissing on each other in the press.
The only question now is whether the people on this team come together to fix the problems that they have now — finally — acknowledged or if they just devolve into a finger-pointing group of underachievers who can’t figure out how to turn all this talent into a group that wins basketball games.
Indiana’s best shot at an NBA title in a decade hangs in the balance.