Volatile Chemistry: Why last season’s Indiana Pacers underachieved

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 26: The Indiana Pacers
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 26: The Indiana Pacers /

Different superstar, same team. The chemistry of this year’s team stands in stark contrast to the Indiana Pacers team of 2016-17.

Chemistry is a powerful thing. This season’s Indiana Pacers team is all but set to be one that fans will look back fondly upon. If one moment epitomizes this season’s team, it was when nearly the entire roster rushed to pick up Cory Joseph after he tumbled to the ground.

It stands in stark contrast to the perpetually .500 Pacers squad from a season ago. High hopes faded into a malaise that stripped joy away from a talented but flawed group of players.

A number of factors played into the team’s demise, and some were more clear than others from the outside. After speaking with several sources, both inside and outside the Pacers organization, we have a clearer picture of the issues within the locker room.

The information was given on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation.

A gathering storm

Going into the season before last, then coach Frank Vogel hadn’t lost the locker room, but many of the players began to tune him out. It didn’t help his star player, Paul George, all but refused to play at power forward.

But one player was particularly vocal in his criticisms of the organization and of other players. That was Monta Ellis.

According to one source, Ellis was constantly complaining. And not just about Vogel. That negativity would make its way into last season, even after Vogel’s contract unexpectedly came to an end. Ellis was described as having a “loud voice, and not always positive,” and that sentiment was echoed by others.

While not everyone took issue with Ellis, several had nothing to say but compliments about him. According to more than one source, he seemed to rub several players the wrong way. Even if Ellis’ attitude wasn’t an issue, several other factors were in play as last season’s team came together.

Many people either knew (or rather “knew”) Paul George was leaving after the season. One rumor even claimed this to be a fact for a few years. George’s lame-duck status had an effect even if the move wasn’t official.

Even if that was known or an open secret, there was still a season of basketball to play. George might have been “hell-bent” on making his way to Los Angeles, but there was still a Pacers team to lead.

Or at least try to.

Many people either knew (or rather “knew”) Paul George was leaving after the season. One rumor even claimed this to be a fact for a few years. George’s lame-duck status had an effect even if the move wasn’t official

One source said George made several efforts to connect with the team as a leader, but ultimately those efforts were unsuccessful. Another source said George tended to be more of a person who “went with the flow of things.” Ultimately, the combination of people knowing his future plans and George just not having the right personality as a leader created a vacuum. It’s worth noting that no one had anything particularly negative to say about George, but his situation was pointed to as a factor in the team’s issues.

It didn’t help that arguably the team’s second-best player, Jeff Teague, wasn’t a vocal leader, either. It wasn’t his personality to be a torchbearer before coming to the Pacers, and that remained true when he was with the team.

Without an unquestioned team leader and other players either lacking the experience (Myles Turner) or the tenure (Thaddeus Young), the starting group of players wasn’t always on the same page.

And being on different pages didn’t just mean a lack of harmony. Issues bled over to the court as well.

Perhaps one incident sums up the nature of the situation. After calling for the ball and being looked off by Teague on a play — which apparently was a regular occurrence — and then needing to go to the sideline to be worked on by an athletic trainer, the player was asked by the training staff: “Are you f***ing Teague’s mom or something?”

Unstable elements

An ongoing storyline throughout the season was whether or not Ellis should still be the starter or if the Pacers should move Glenn Robinson III into a starting role.

Ellis went down with an injury in December and missed most of the month, opening the door for Robinson III. Even when Ellis was healthy, Robinson remained as the starter thanks in part to what he added defensively to the Pacers.

This did not sit well with Ellis.

He wasn’t happy coming off the bench despite showing promise as Indiana’s sixth man. His offensive game was below average for the majority of the season, and his defense was unreliable. In spite of this, he wanted to be treated the same as he was before his injury.

Robinson’s lack of scoring moved him out of the starting shooting guard role, but Ellis continued to stew as C.J. Miles took his shot at the job.

When the Pacers were desperate to make make the playoffs in late March, Ellis finally got off the bench and back into the starting five. But outside of a 19-point game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the veteran shooting guard failed to impact the game as he once did.

Ellis started the Pacers’ first two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers in playoffs, but his role was reduced down to just over five minutes in the team’s final game of the season.

Perfectly flawed

It isn’t fair to put all of the blame on Ellis. While he was considered vocal and negative, that influence could have been tempered by other players or coaches.

The Pacers were more or less headed toward these issues one way or another.

Perhaps there was a scenario where George elected to stay in Indiana whether or not he made the All-NBA team, which would have made him eligible for a much bigger contract extension than another team could have offered. But going back to the 2014 season, many of Indiana’s efforts to improve the roster backfired.

More from 8 Points, 9 Seconds

Trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner resulted in minimal gains on the court and reportedly one fight off the court. The signing of Ellis produced decent results early on, but unfortunately, the returns diminished as time went on. Al Jefferson is a great teammate, but his production waned. According to one source, the trade of George Hill was a surprise to much of the locker room and wasn’t a move that supported by every player. Solomon Hill and Ian Mahinmi could have helped last year’s team, but ultimately they were out of Indiana’s budget after the NBA lost its collective mind during the 2016 free agency period.

Other things weren’t under the control of the front office, at least to the same degree. Rodney Stuckey’s injuries ultimately took him out of Indiana’s lineup and eventually out of the league. David West chose a few years before this storm to depart Indiana for a contender. His leadership in the Eastern Conference Finals years was well known, and unfortunately, no one filled that gap in the same way he did.

There are hits and misses every season when building a roster, but there were more Chase Budingers and Jordan Hills than GR3s. Whether such mistakes were foreseeable is up for debate, but ultimately it created a Pacers team that George didn’t have faith in, and in turn, a team that didn’t have faith in him beyond last season.

In the end, it created a locker room situation that wasn’t conducive to winning. Last season’s team was arguably more talented than this season’s, but unlike this year’s team, they struggled to play for each other, or even with each other, as Quinn Buckner might put it.

Lessons learned

Perhaps all of this is why the line “guys who want to be here” was uttered so much last summer. Players have to look out for their careers as much as being team players, but having players whose eyes are looking elsewhere can create issues with team chemistry, especially when those intentions are publicly known, or at least heavily sourced rumors.

The current team still has individual motivations — they are human after all — but the focus on the team and being on the same page plays a large role in the team’s chemistry.

Last season can serve as a cautionary tale for holding on too long to the hope that things will turn around. One source pointed to the trade deadline as a point of no return. Once Bird and company failed to find a trade partner to improve the team, it was known George would leave Indiana, the only question was when.

If nothing else, this season’s chemistry stands in stark contrast to last season’s. If team chemistry is what makes the current team so successful, then it was the lack of that which helped break the one that came before it.

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Editors Note: Tony East contributed to this story.