(Photo: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)

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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Tags: Indiana Pacers

  • Jeremy Cram

    Great article really great! I think that you are right on the pulse of this team’s problems! Its very appreant that the individual goals have taken over the locker room and that this team has splintered and there run is over. I see noway that they can turn things around, but I dont think the Granger trade is the biggest factor everyone knew that was going to happen at some point, but that the release of Orlando Johnson is a major factor…. This was a team first hard worker who was the glue guy not Granger who wasnt around all that often. I believe the players were upset that O.J. was let go to make room for Bynum and Frank Vogel will be the1 to pay for this. I also believe that Hibbert will be dealt because he has done more harm than anyone in the media, and Evan Turner doesn’t fit and is trying to do much to make sure he has a good payday next season. Lance is also guilty of this but not on the smae level as Turner, George Hill may also be gone after this year as he is over paid and not a true point which they have always needed. Paul George is also guilty in getting caught up in fame and being the team first guy that made him great as well as looking like a guy not putting in daily work and being distracted and trying to do to much. The 1 fatal flaw of Vogel is he has never been any good at using a bench and it realy shows with how well guys play with other teams andthe fact u have 3 million wasted dollars on Copeland who cant see the floor everin favor of a sluoing Scola who provides no defense what so ever. All these factors on top of the points u made in this article are why u are seeing the biggest colaspe of a NBA team i have ever witnessed

    • Josh Strouth

      I agree with everything you said except for O.J. being the glue for the team. What I will say is that during the team’s hot start during Granger’s injury, the bench wing minutes were destributed nicely between Johnson, Butler, and Solomon Hill, with an occasional appearance from Copeland, but when Granger came back all of those guys were taken out of the rotation. All of those guys are selfless, team first, hardworking guys who always give max effort and are always looking to make an extra pass to help the team’s scoring chances. They make game winning plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet and taking them out of the rotation was a mistake. Lavoy Allen is another guy who does the little things that help a team win. I want to see Turner and Scola taken out of the rotation and replaced by a combination of Butler, S. Hill, Copeland, and Allen with those guys all getting minutes on a situational basis based on their individual skill sets. There’s just too many chiefs and not enough indians right now. We need to remove some chiefs and add some indians.

  • ZeRaul

    Excelent artice!!

  • Ian

    Some of this is true but some of it doesn’t really pass muster. Roy gets paid the same regardless of how many touches he gets. Early in the season when the players were winning Roy never complained about shots. There’s something else going on with him. He’s really confusing because I always saw him as a leader on this team. What happened to him?

    Lance might be playing for a contract but his stats don’t really show any indication that he’s the problem. He’s not taking lots more bad shots. In fact many games he’s been the only guy to consistently put in the effort. I don’t think George is that motivated by the bonus. He also looks like the player who has been most trying to will his team back into games.

    It might not be quite as complicated as people think. Turner has meshed horribly in his new role, Scola’s shot has abandoned him and CJ is hurt, as is Bynum. Think about that, thats your top 4 bench guys! A bench that was slightly below average suddenly went to total black hole. The starters know that when they go out of the game there’s a good chance that they’ll be in a big hole when they come back in, which creates a lot of pressure and probably makes them press more and not play within themselves. The Pacers are essentially 5 1/2 deep right now (with Mahinmi being the half and Copeland not allowed to play). No team can hope to win much with such a roster, unless you have one of the all time greats in your starting 5 (like Shaq or Hakeem or LeBron) and even then there’s limits how far that can take you.

    Now some of this is on Vogel, namely his unwillingness to give Copeland a real role to see if he can be a productive reserve (one night he makes 2 shots, next he doesn’t play, next he misses 2 shots, next he doesn’t play). I also think something that would help the team is for him to loosen the reins on the playcalling. Because Vogel calls a play pretty much every time down the court, there’s like 14 seconds on the shot clock before the Pacers start running everything, putting even more pressure on. If they cut down on set plays and started going with more pick and rolls, then they could push the ball and get it across halfway with 19 seconds on the clock, giving them more time to try 2nd and 3rd options.

  • Jeremy Cram

    Great points guys… I really dont think its a lack of talent on the bench, I really think Frank has no idea how to coach on the fly or use his bench. The set rotations are not only wearing the starters out but the bench looks lost and clueless and everyone of them except Scola has no freedom to make any mistakes. I am really starting to think Frank has lost this team and your right on with the play calling no need for it at all, just let them play and if they dont get it together then see ya later! Frank will be gone and maybe Lance which is a shame but i could see a combination of Hill, hibbert West all dealt! Lets hope for the best, Bench Scola nad Turner and let some role players be just that role players, and when turner is on the floor let him run the show with the 2nd unit….just my thoughts I’ve always thought Frank uses his bench just like Jim O’brien did which is a big part of the reason he was ran out of town

  • llcoolray3000

    No heart. No self-respect. No professional pride.

    The team’s identity used to be Blue Collar – Gold Swagger. The blue collar was a point of emphasis and a point of pride. They were the toughest defending team in the Association. The swagger came from the confidence in knowing they were the best defense, and knowing they were better than they were given credit. Then they started hot, read their own press, let success go to their heads, and their true characters were revealed. They got away from what made them a success in the first place, being a hardworking, gritty, TEAM, and they’ve failed miserably as thin-skinned, moody, selfish teenagers. They’ve stopped listening to Vogel. I don’t think there’s anything he can do about it either.