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What Secret Disease Is Plaguing the Pacers?

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In the book Show Time, Pat Riley breaks down the Los Angeles Lakers’ 1987 championship season. Within, he offered us one of the most fascinating and important sports theories that exist today: The Disease of More.

Isiah Thomas found the concept fascinating. His team, the Detroit Pistons, suffered a crushing game seven loss in the Eastern Conference Finals during the year Riley chronicled, and it came up just short again the next season, losing to Riley’s Lakers in the NBA Finals in 1988.

The Pistons persevered, however, winning a championship the following year, and even before they reached their goal, Thomas believed that overcoming The Disease of More was instrumental to success. He shed light on the topic to Cameron Stauth for the 1990 book The Franchise: Building a Winner With the World Champion Detroit Pistons, Basketballs Bad Boys. (The quotes below are edited-for-space versions of what Thomas said and excerpted from Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. Emphasis added by me.)

[Winning in the NBA is not] not about physical skills. Goes far beyond that. When I first came here, [Pistons' GM] McCloskey  took a lot of heat for drafting a small guy. But he knew that the only way our team would rise to the top would be by mental skills, not size or talent. He knew the only way we could acquire those skills was by watching the Celtics and Lakers, because those were the teams winning year in and year out. I also looked at Seattle, who won one year, and Houston, who got to the Finals one year. They both self-destructed the next year. So how come?

I read Pat Riley’s book Show Time and he talks about “the disease of more.” A team wins it one year and the next year every player wants more minutes, more money, more shots. And it kills them. Our team has been up at the Championship level four years now. We could have easily self-destructed. So I read what Riley was saying, and I learned. I didn’t want what happened to Seattle and Houston to happen to us. But it’s hard not to be selfish. The art of winning is complicated by statistics, which for us becomes money. Well, you gotta fight that, find a way around it. And I think we have. 

That year’s Pistons became the first team in history to win the title without a single player averaging 20 points a game. While Thomas, Vinnie Johnson, and Joe Dumars could all be offensive wizards at times, they understood that their team was built around defense and mental toughness. Each player on the team made a conscious effort to put his own motives aside for the good of the team.

In so many ways, the 2013-14 Pacers are like those Pistons.

Check that, they were like those Pistons.

After heart-wrenching losses in 1987 and 1988, the Pistons were finally able to get over the hump in 1989 en route to two consecutive championships. After blitzing the league in November and December of this season, Indiana fans began pointing to teams like the Pistons as a sort of good omen for the 2014 playoffs. But history doesn’t mandate that all teams that go through heartbreak eventually get over the hump. For every late ’80s Pistons squad, there are teams like the ’86 Rockets, ’93 Suns, and ’08-’10 Cavaliers. Winning a championship is hard, and it doesn’t take much to throw everything out of whack.

This is why what’s been going on behind the scenes in the Pacers’ locker room over the last month has become so troubling. Fans of this team will remember just how much this team seemed to love each other not long ago. Fans of this team will recall just how far this team went to have each other’s backs not long ago.

After a hard-fought win over the Pistons in November, Roy Hibbert heaped mounds of praise on everyone.

“We all take pride in our defense. We’re all long and athletic and that can really spark us getting out on the break. This is fun, we like playing defense.”

He continued.

“When we’re not really communicating, our offense suffers. Tonight, we found the open man and we made our shots. I thought we all played really well. No one was selfish tonight.”

It seems important to point out that in that game, Hibbert only went 3-of-8 from the field while scoring 8 points in 34 minutes of action. David West only took 10 shots, George Hill didn’t play, and C.J. Watson was actually the Pacers’ second leading scorer.

On that night — and almost always — the statistics didn’t really matter. They were doing things differently. They weren’t the Miami Heat. They had five starters who put defense first, individual glory last. “The Five” was going to be stronger than “The Big Three.”

Compare that to recent days.

After getting 8 shots in a loss to the Wizards last week, Hibbert sounded much different.

“Some selfish dudes in here, some selfish dudes. I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve been talking about it for a month.”

He continued.

“I was letting the lack of touches on offense really affect my defense. So I came to the conclusion, I said, if I [only] get one or two shots a game, I’m just going to get back on track for Defensive Player of the Year … and not worry about offense, let Paul and Lance and David take over the helm in terms of scoring.”

I’m unfairly singling out Roy Hibbert for something that has clearly been indicative across the board with this team. They haven’t used headline-making words like “selfish,” but David West, Paul George, and George Hill have all touched on just how poorly the team is playing. Hill and Lance Stephenson got into a verbal altercation about who knows what on the sideline. Hibbert didn’t play the entire second self in arguably Indiana’s most embarrassing defeat of the season because, according to his coach, he was “worn out.”

Something is clearly amiss.

Bill Simmons gave his take in a recent mailbag:

I’m the same guy who wrote a 700-page NBA book about the secret of basketball not having anything to do with basketball. So, yeah, I can’t help overanalyzing Indiana’s chemistry meltdown. Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Pacers were calibrated a certain way — grit and grind, defense first, stats don’t matter, the team is bigger than one person. Then they ripped off that early hot streak. Then George got some early MVP buzz. Then all the “THEY CAN BEAT MIAMI!” stuff started. Then the media started preaching the genius of Roy Hibbert’s verticality and pushing for Lance Stephenson to make the All-Star team. Then they signed Andrew Bynum (not exactly Gandhi in the clubhouse) and flipped Danny Granger (a beloved teammate) for Evan Turner (a 2014 free agent who hasn’t fit in).

So now you have 25 percent of your team playing for new deals, a star who’s getting prematurely compared to LeBron and Durant, a defensive anchor who thinks he’s Bill Russell, Lance thinking he’s an All-Star headed for a meaty extension, and a subtle behind-the-scenes chemistry downgrade from Granger to Turner/Bynum. And as soon as things started going south a little, shit drifted out into the public. Larry Bird calling out Frank Vogel. Hibbert and George arguing in front of reporters. All of Hibbert’s quotes. Teammates arguing on the bench during games. West saying what he said. That’s the sign of real dysfunction.

Zach Lowe went into further detail, digging into every bit of statistical evidence possible to unearth a problem that is not all that tangible. The Pacers are passing just as much, running just as much, and appear to be working just as much as they were earlier in the season. Closer looks at shot attempts and usage rates validate this as well. They are simply playing worse basketball than before.

Much, much worse basketball.

Combine the lack of a distinct change in strategy with the clear chaos that seems to be surrounding the team and something has to be plaguing the team from a chemistry standpoint.

Of course, it’s not really fair to speculate as to the whos, whats, and whys.

Could Lance’s contract extension be weighing heavily on the collective minds? Sure it could. Is it possible that Andrew Bynum is a cancer? Absolutely. Was Danny Granger more important than anyone, including Larry Bird, realized? It appears that way. Has the absence of C.J. Watson affected the Pacers far more than anyone is leading on? I think so. Has Paul George been pressing of late, trying to make another All-NBA Team to get a contract bonus that seemed to be a lock in December? It’s certainly plausible. Has Roy Hibbert gotten so caught up in the DPOY Award race that it’s turned him into a selfish player? One can only wonder.

In the midst of all the confusion, I think one thing is clear: This is not a meaningless slump. This seems more like the new normal.

The Pacers are not the same team they were in December 2013. The problem is not at simple as “flipping a switch” come playoff time when the team’s boredom with the regular season disappears. This isn’t the doldrums of the regular season plaguing a team. This is something else. It’s real, it’s sad, it’s inexplicable, and it’s incredibly discouraging.

People around the league have taken notice — and the Pacers and their fans need to be on full alert.

Isiah Thomas once told Bill Simmons that “the secret to basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” As of April 6, 2014, it appears that the Indiana Pacers have somehow forgotten that secret.

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