The Pacers are not what they once were. At least, they are not what we once thought they were.
The kind of disappointment that fact may bring to the organization and its fans is huge. It’s at a level not felt in almost a decade, when arguably the best team in basketball at the time collapsed under the weight of its own stupidity, immaturity, and utter lack of self-control. The reasons and the people involved are as different as night and day, but that would do little to soften the blow. It is said that the body doesn’t remember pain, so while some times in the past may have been more dire, it is always the freshest hell that feels the worst.
Heading into Wednesday night’s game against Detroit, this hell was getting fresher by the moment.
This Pacer swoon is an experience being shared by many people who can be crudely lumped into two groups: those in the audience, and those on the stage. We are among the observers in the audience: the fans, the media, and in some ways, even the front office. The coaches and the players are on the stage. Both groups are looking for answers, but it really only matters if one — those on the stage — finds them.
The thing is, I think they already know the answers. I think even we know the answers.
They just aren’t particularly satisfying.
A Matter of Trust
It’s entirely a matter of trust. The Pacers must trust their system, and they must trust each other. They have to play the right way, and they have to believe that doing so will bear results — even when it doesn’t.
Some — perhaps all — of you are currently thinking, “Those aren’t answers. Those are cliches.”
True and false. Cliches are easy. That’s a big part of why they’re omnipresent. But that doesn’t mean that cliches aren’t grounded in truth. Trite? Sure. Regularly misused? You betcha. But, their foothold in the public discourse comes from their basic resonance and their ability to efficiently – if not completely – communicate larger, more intricate ideas .
Here’s the kernel of truth at the root of these cliches: Indiana’s decline isn’t anchored in mechanics, but in faith. When the Indiana Pacers dominate, it’s because they are tied together, focused on their jobs, and are willing to step up and protect their teammates, and they know their ‘mates will do the same for them. This extends to the whole team, but let’s face facts. Indiana’s fortunes are built on its starters: The Five.
Defensively, Paul George could crowd his man and herd him in one direction or another because he knew that Roy Hibbert was there to protect the rim. Roy Hibbert could confidently hang back at the rim, because he knew George Hill would fight over the screen and challenge the ballhandler. Lance Stephenson could stay at home on the weakside, because he was confident that Hibbert and David West could handle their man on the block. As each player individually honored the lesson taught by Frederick the Great’s quote, “In trying to defend everything, he defended nothing,” the Pacers as a team succeeded in defending everything.
Offensively, it’s less obvious, but no less true, especially with The Five. The Pacer offense in total was never special, but their starters were consistently potent. Through the end of February, the five-man unit featuring Hill, Stephenson, George, West, and Hibbert scored 107 points for every 100 hundred possessions. In 2012-2013, their efficiency approached 109 points per hundred. Their effectiveness came from their balance, and the fact that defenses had to honor all five of the men in that unit.
After beating the Pistons last night, Paul George talked about how having everyone involved was so important early in the year. “That’s what was winning for us,” he said. “I was just on the receiving end to start the year off. Everyone was a facilitator. Everyone was a threat. The shot-making came, just because everyone was a threat on the floor. That’s how I got a hot start off, and I just kind of rode with it. That was the same kind of chemistry and vibe we had tonight.”
It was a chemistry and vibe noticeably absent during March, when The Five could only muster an offensive efficiency of 97.0. When the members of one of the best units in basketball knew that the guy to the right or left of them could make a play, the offense hummed. When they lost that faith in one another— and by extension, in themselves — then The Five simply became a collection of their individual flaws.
To find their way out of the wilderness, they must first believe.
Before any efforts to correct their problems will work, they must believe that the problem is correctable. They have to shut out the noise — from the fans, the media, and even from Larry Bird — and focus on what they believe made them succeed.
“Everybody’s got to get back on the same page,” David West said, “and we’re working towards that, making sure all of our goals are the same. The last six or seven games, we can’t worry about seeding or anything like that. We’ve just got to focus on playing better basketball — being a better basketball club.”
For the people on the stage to accomplish what they need to accomplish, they will have to do and say things that will, at times, irritate or anger those in the audience. At the very least, it will make audience members scratch their heads.
Before Monday’s game against the Spurs, Frank Vogel was asked why his team hadn’t been able to play together lately. His answered flabbergasted the reporters
“We really did play together yesterday,” Vogel said. “We missed a lot of open shots. There was a noticeable difference in how well we shared the basketball in the Cleveland game vs. prior games, and that’s very encouraging to me.”
As he said these words, I must admit that I had to fight back an urge to laugh at him. At the back of the gaggle, I simply turned away and rolled my eyes. The Pacers had just been manhandled by a Cavs team playing all or part of the game without key players like Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao. Indiana’s offense had appeared to be an unmitigated disaster yet again. Vogel has a well-earned reputation as a glass-half-full kinda guy, but this brought new heights to the term “polishing a turd.”
However, given some time and distance, his responses have actually started to make more sense to me. First, 8p9s editor Jared Wade pointed out to me that he thought the offense from the starting five on Sunday looked pretty good. I checked, he’s not wrong. The 106 points per 100 possessions the starters posted was their best offensive outing since a win over Chicago on March 21.
Second, just as the Pacers have to believe in who they are, Frank Vogel has to believe in who he is. He has crafted a very successful career to this point, and he’s done so with a positive thinking mindset that borders on relentless. While I think this attribute has been overwhelmingly a good thing during Vogel’s tenure, it has also contributed in some ways to Indiana’s troubles of late. I believe that, to the team’s detriment, teachable opportunities that arose during the halcyon days of November, December, and January were foregone in order to avoid harshing the team’s mellow.