Vogel’s faith in his players and reliance on balance has proven both a strength and a weakness. It allows the offense to reflect the evolving skills of the players, but it has resulted in the offense fundamentally changing without it happening intentionally. That works for awhile, but when teams adjusted and loaded up on the wings, the Pacers didn’t have a counter. In other words, this wasn’t an intentional shift with a road map to-and-from where they’d been. The change wasn’t something that they did, it was something that happened to them. Now, the mindset is, “We don’t know how to get back,” when it needs to be, “This is who we are, how do we use that?”
There are ample instances demonstrating lack of execution and discipline, but what if the problem is that what they’re trying to execute no longer fits the unit? Every time they work on those things, they’re working on plays and execution that worked for the old power post Pacers, but may not work for the newer wing-centric ones. Have these players outgrown the offensive system?
And the problems all starts at the offensive end. The evolutions in 2013 were all really at the defensive end. Paul George emerged offensively, but he basically filled the void left by Danny Granger. Lance Stephenson was a distant fifth option for last year’s Eastern Conference Finalists. The shift in the pecking order brought about by the rapid growth of the wings has proven seismic to this unit.
The offensive end is where the dissatisfaction has taken root, and where the changes are most pronounced. That bleeds into the defensive end. The idea that defense is “all effort” stands as reductionist bullshit, but defense does involve a whole lot of work that often goes unrewarded. It’s not selfish of an unhappy or frustrated player to be less effective on the defensive end. It’s just a natural result.
Eventually, the problems reach critical mass, and it becomes self-sustaining. At that point, every issue becomes an obstacle, and the issues cascade. The following issues are – by themselves – minor, even silly:
- Lance stat hunting
- Signing Andrew Bynum
- Trading Granger
- Releasing Orlando Johnson
- Losing C.J. Watson for more than a month
- Luis Scola shooting slump
- David West shooting slump
- Paul George’s off-the-court distractions
- Too much media attention
- Not enough discipline in the locker room
But…taken together, they become a huge problem. In fact, the specific events don’t really even matter. Each and every cut and scrape festers, and the damage accumulates. Add to that the fact that teams are adjusting, and the Pacers have certain, immutable (and exploitable) mechanical flaws – inability to take care of or consistently shoot the ball – and you have the recipe for a collapse.
Making matters worse, some things were done and said that can’t be undone or unsaid. There are certainly things we can’t see, but Roy Hibbert’s comments from late March – especially the “selfish dudes” comments – are public examples of events that probably set back recovery efforts significantly.
This isn’t about players who are selfish, or who don’t care, or who don’t want it bad enough. Everybody is trying to do what they believe is the right thing. This is about a unit that has failed to understand the ramifications of the changes in its individual members, leading to a dissonance among their beliefs where once was harmony.
Who Are You?
Now, it is possible – maybe even likely – Vogel is trying to make the wrong fix. He is trying to get the team working the way it used to, instead of trying to figure out how this team would work best now. He’s clinging to the rim protector and Hibbert, because it was the most visible part of the old Five.
Oddly, the ability make the team better when change was forced upon him has been one of the most impressive things in Frank Vogel’s tenure. Things easily could have fallen apart last season with the loss of Granger and the early struggles of Hibbert & Paul George. Instead, Vogel was able to keep Hibbert engaged defensively, turning him into one of the top two or three rim protectors in the league. Vogel and his staff also help Paul George fill Danny’s shoes offensively. However, it seems that once the team reached the level of success they enjoyed early this season, Vogel forgot that change was constant – fighting it, instead of riding it towards inspiration.
And you have to wonder if this is the unexpected consequence of losing both Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen this past summer. To Vogel’s unending credit, he has run his coaching staff as a collaborative exercise. Shaw, Boylen, and Dan Burke spent the last two seasons shaping this team under Vogel’s direction. In addition to the credibility that the two assistants had with the players, did Vogel and the Pacers lose some of their flexibility and perspective with their departure?
Last summer and fall, there were some big changes coming for Indiana. How would the significant additions of Danny Granger and Luis Scola effect the identity and physicality of the Pacers? Those attributes were at the core of their success, so adding talent wouldn’t necessarily make the team better. However, that was the wrong concern.
The Pacers absorbed the changes brought with the additions of Scola, Watson, and eventually Granger, relatively well. Surprisingly, big changes are often easier to assimilate. The changes that they’ve been unable to deal with are the subtle ones that have come from within. What’s more, these changes – especially the growth and emergence of Paul George and Lance Stephenson – are arguably ones they needed, if they wanted to improve enough to get past Miami and raise a banner.
To get to their goals, the Indiana Pacers have to embrace and leverage these changes. To a man, The Five must recognize and accept how they have become different, while continuing to understand that the only way they succeed is together. Frank Vogel must coach today’s Indiana Pacers, not last year’s or even last month’s.
Because, until they stop trying to be who they were, and start making the best of who they are, they will not get appreciably better. More importantly, the ability or inability to come to grips with these will be a defining factor in how the franchise will need to address the coming years, not just the coming games.