Pacers Must Stop Looking Back if They Want to Move Forward

Mar 11, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) congratulates forward David West (21) after he scored against the Boston Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Boston 94-83. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) congratulates forward David West (21) after he scored against the Boston Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Boston 94-83. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Indiana Pacers are struggling.  A Game 4 win in Atlanta offers some momentary relief, but the issues are far from resolved. Yet they find themselves in virtually the same position they were one year ago – tied 2-2 with the Hawks and heading home. We all know that turned out relatively well.

A year ago, things were so simple. To the members of the Pacers, it was just a matter of doing “What We Do.” Today, are things really that much different? Indiana spent the first half of this season being arguably the best team in the Association. Isn’t the key to the turnaround simply remembering who they were?

One big problem with that: they can’t be who they were. They can only be who they are.

Becoming “Smash Mouth”

Under Frank Vogel, Indiana has not been shy about proclaiming what they want their identity do be. Virtually the second he took over, he proclaimed the following.

"“This is a new team, a new beginning. This is going to be a special end of the year. Jump on board. We play with enthusiasm, hard work, and we play blue-collar, smash-mouth basketball. We’re an old-school team. We’re simple.”"

That’s more of a manifesto than an instruction manual. While it has largely served as a guiding principle, the details have been left somewhat to chance.

The Pacers have – in a lot of ways – “built” around Roy Hibbert. However, that wasn’t because they thought Hibbert was an ideal guy to build around. It was because he was who they had. In fact, if you look at the evolution of this team and the “system,” you’ll see that the design was somewhat improvised. Vogel – along with Jim Boylen and Brian Shaw – didn’t necessarily have a blueprint for the way the team was going to play. There were broad strokes, but mostly, I think they said, “OK, what do we have here, and what can we do with it?’

There was definitely a desire to be big and play post up, half court basketball. That was a function of the presence of Hibbert and the addition of David West. However, the utterly dominating defense appears to have come out of self defense.

When Danny Granger went down at the start of the 2012-2013 season, it fundamentally altered the way the team defended. With Granger and Paul George as the wings, they focused more on deflections and turning teams over. The 2012 Pacers weren’t the Gary Payton Sonics, but still they were more aggressive. When Lance Stephenson moved into the starting lineup, they gambled less and converted to more of a play-em-straight-up-and-wear-em-down style. Meanwhile, as Vogel has noted on more than one occasion, they cultivated the “verticality” approach less as a way to provide dominating rim protections and more as a way to keep Roy out of foul trouble. Whenever asked, Vogel says, “We’re looking for the no-call, not necessarily the block.”

Over last season and into the playoffs, the team’s identity became more and more focused. The whole concept of “What We Do” was very clear and very narrow. That identity continued to become seemingly more pronounced throughout the first part of the year, but the dynamic started to subtly change.

Taking Wing

One of the things Dave Searle keeps saying on the Miller Time Podcast is, “It’s the same team.” But, it really isn’t.

To be perfectly clear,  I’m not talking simply about trading Granger for Evan Turner trade or bringing in Andrew Bynum. Even replacing Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin with Luis Scola and C.J. Watson aren’t the most profound changes this team has seen. The most meaningful changes have occurred in the group that has stood at the core of this team’s success – the starters…The Five.

What you see above is one way to show the migration of the offense towards the wings. Much like the changes that occurred during the 2013 season, this migration was at least somewhat unplanned. It was an evolution, as opposed to a designed development. Therefore, it happened without the coaching staff or the players entirely grasping it, or understanding the consequences – both good and bad.

Lance and Paul have become more dominant, while George Hill has faded into the background. West is still their security blanket, but they don’t use him consistently or organically. Meanwhile, Hibbert continues to want more touches – really, shots – but there are fewer to go around. More importantly, just getting Hibbert the ball is a chore. Part of that is defensive focus, part of it is bad passing, and part of it is that Hibbert is so limited in where he can be effective offensively. At times, the entire offense stagnates, when they decide to force the ball to Roy.

The Five is No More

And so, what happened over the last half of the season is that The Five – as we understood them – ceased to exist. They evolved past their optimal point. Paul George got better. Lance Stephenson got better. David West maybe slipped a little, and Hill slipped a lot on lack of usage (the fault of both his intransigence and his teammates’ increasing ball dominance.) Hibbert remained more or less the same guy he ever was. Unfortunately, these shifts have thrown off the way they interact with each other – at both ends. At first, they thought the struggles were just normal mid-season doldrums. Then, when things didn’t get better, frustrations mounted.

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Now, they – the coaches and players – are desperately trying to recapture something that doesn’t exist any more. I’ve talked to West and Paul George and Frank Vogel, and they all talk about getting back to “What we do.” West said after game 1, “We can’t change who we are.” Problem is, they have changed, but they don’t recognize it.

In some ways, they can’t see the trees for the forest. They have been so wrapped up in the #1 seed and Miami and championships for so long now, that they have lost focus on the details. I understand that, and in some ways, it was almost unavoidable. However, they are in danger of losing to a bad Atlanta team in the first round, because they are still trying to beat Miami a month from now.

In this context, it is only natural that Roy is the focal point of the unraveling. Roy Hibbert is the most singular player among The Five, and one of the most unique in the NBA. He has very specific strengths wrapped up in some very obvious and exploitable weaknesses, and his success comes only through a very specific path. In many ways, the Pacers believe they have become the same. That they can only succeed in one way.


Roy Hibbert is like that guy among your group of high school or college friends who never moves beyond those years. As change happens, he becomes more and more out of his element and increasingly unhappy. As the group grows and evolves, he stays the same, becoming out of tune. Since he won’t or can’t adapt, the group is forced to either adapt to him or leave him behind, Adapting to him means limiting the possibilities and opportunities of the others and the group as a whole. This can lead to stagnation or resentment or worse.

To a degree, this is what we’re seeing, when the team is slow to make changes. Vogel and the Pacers are trying to adapt to Roy, and it’s stunting their growth. Of course, this isn’t a perfect parallel – Indiana still needs Hibbert to succeed – but the mountain and Mohammad need to meet halfway.

Roy Hibbert has been singled out here, but his issues are only the most visible – highlighted by an Atlanta series where he seemingly has little value. Just as this group succeeded collectively, they are failing collectively. George Hill is facing similar issues of reduced relevance and not handling them with any greater aplomb than Roy. Meanwhile, Paul George and Lance Stephenson have yet to figure out how to successfully leverage their individual growth to make the unit better. Finally, the leaders of this team – David West, Frank Vogel and the coaching staff – have struggled to recognize and address these issues as they’ve appeared.

And, yeah, that’s a lot of psychobabble there, but there are also practical, mechanical issues coming from these changes. Consider the following:

– In order to accommodate a more wing-centric, increasingly isolation/pick-and-roll offense, Vogel has pulled his power forwards further away from the basket. As a result, a team that was top five in offensive rebounding percentage each of the last two season plummeted to 21st this season.

– Even a casual observer can see that neither Paul George nor Lance Stephenson have any sense of how and where Roy Hibbert can best receive the ball, be it in the post or in the pick-n-roll.

– There is a chicken-and-egg issue with overdribbling vs. standing around. Late in Game 1, one offensive set saw Paul George with the ball and David West on the block both visibly indicating that neither had any idea what the hell play they were trying to run.

– Watching this team try to set screens is brutal, as neither the ballhandler nor the screener appears to know what the other is trying to accomplish. This leads to a disturbing number of botched possessions by the Indiana offense that could have been saved with as little as one good screen used well.

None of these are things are isolated or even rare. There are multiple examples in every game – hell, every quarter. A team that has been a model for being “tied together” now plays as if they met for the first time in the locker room before the game.