The Long Strange Road

This post started on May 1st, during Game 5 of the Pacers Hawks series when things looked pretty bleak for the Pacers. Needless to say, the post was a little bleak. As things unfolded and the team didn’t disintegrate, I kept adding to it. What follows is some sort of hybrid between a diary and a live blog reliving a weird year for the Indiana Pacers. Enjoy.

The First Round: Started May 1st

“I don’t even know you anymore.”

For the past few months, this has been my overwhelming reaction to watching the (MY) Indiana Pacers. The jerseys were the same. The faces were the same (for the most part). But there was something different. Noticeably, but ephemerally, different. As if they’d forgotten to be who they were. And now they’re flirting, aggressively I might add, with infamy. And I’m here for the first time since November 1, 2012 to try and sort out this painful extended bad dream.

Bird’s Lament

By January 20th 2014, the Pacers had cemented themselves as the best team in basketball. Sure, there were contenders, but the Pacers were at the top of the list. The Pacers! 33-7! A small market team without a draft pick above 10th! That’s a rare convergence of talent evaluation, coaching, luck and success we rarely see, but there it was. They were a historically great defense with a good-enough offense to beat the living crap out of all comers. Times were simple: the team’s weaknesses were turnovers and a really inconsistent bench. But the Pacers kept winning in spite of it. They were chesty, and deserving of it if anyone ever is. Roy Hibbert went from baby-giraffe impersonator who famously couldn’t do a pushup to stuffing Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James on the biggest stage. Paul George went from a nice defensive stopper from Palmdale, CA to a legitimate MVP candidate. Lance Stephenson went from “choke-sign artist” to nice player to “holy shit is Lance an All-Star?” The times, they were a changin’.

On January 22nd, the Pacers were absolutely blitzed by the Phoenix Suns. The kind of beating so rare to a great team that you just write it off as west-coast-roadtrip fatigue, a horrible matchup, and one of those things that just happens. Of course, this wasn’t the start of the collapse, just a convenient endpoint in our minds. Collapses like this don’t have easily identifiable starting points. The seeds of collapse were already sown. But the gears of change were in motion and, as we now know, the Pacers were headed down one hell of a dark tunnel.

Using January 21st as a completely arbitrary endpoint, the Pacers went from having one of the top point differentials in the league and a historically great defense to having the point differential of the 2013-14 Boston Celtics. Yes, that team that’s headed for a top-6 pick. Yes, the team that started Vitor Faverani, played Avery Bradley at point guard, and gave minutes to Gerald Wallace by choice.

Please note that the team still had Danny Granger on the roster at this point and both Evan “Slow Foot, Frantic Hands” Turner and Andrew Bynum were nowhere near joining the team. The team’s precious chemistry was “fine”, though the way the Pacers turned the ball over you’d never guess that chemistry was a strong suit. The only hints of potential rot to this point was a little more bitching to the referees than you’d like. It bothered me when they were winning and I hated it when they were losing. But given the way the Spurs handle officiating and complaining, I’d say it’s safe to classify this as something that NBA players do regardless of the team’s collective mental health.

Time passed; things didn’t get better. They got worse. The offense started to slip from mediocre to hideous and the defense went from phenomenal to average. Why? How? Over the course of a few months the NBA’s best team and the Heat’s only Eastern rival turned into a dysfunctional, broken shell of itself. And now we’re here picking up the pieces trying to figure it all out. For closure. To keep from thinking back on a good time gone horrendously wrong and wondering “what if?

No comment

Let’s start with the reasons thrown around for this collapse that I outright reject.

     1. The Danny Granger Trade Wrecked Their Psyche

This slide started long before Danny Granger got traded and Granger had been mediocre at best, posting a PER of 10.3. I’ll buy a fraction of this argument with regards to being a locker room presence and confidant, but many of these off-the-court and on-the-court issues arose and festered while Granger was still around. He was certainly not holding the whole mess together on his own. You might be able to argue that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was indeed a straw. There’s a much better argument to be made on the Loss-of-a-Confidant front anyway.

Also, let me take this opportunity to say BOOOOOOOOO EVAN TURNER BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

2. Andrew Bynum having any part to do with the problems

Andrew Bynum’s reputation is, to put it lightly, not great. But the idea that he came into what was/is considered a strong locker room and destroyed things Stuxnet-style is pretty out there. He has no supernatural powers. He didn’t make Roy slower or George Hill fatigued like hell. He didn’t make Paul George a little too trigger happy (he has been for a while). He is not relevant to the team.

I’ve seen some stuff recently to hint at potential Bynumite blasts, such as this:

But unless that story is that Andrew Bynum and Paul George slept with Roy’s girl at the same time, filmed it, and made Roy watch for like 8 hours straight, Andrew Bynum has no role on this team. Plus, you think SI would sit on that story if it was really that groundbreaking?

3. “We got a lot of selfish dudes.”

I am, of course, referring more to the idea of selfishness wrecking the team than the quote. But it’s a bit too simplistic. I think there’s something here but casting it as selfishness doesn’t exactly capture what is going on. I think it’s totally fair to point to the picture above and conclude egos play in, but I’ll get to that I promise.

But yeah that picture is pretty terrible, especially for a team that fell apart.

4. The Pacers were never this good and this is just hardcore regression.

I’ll buy that the Pacers were never 67-win good (the pace implied by their 33-7 start), but if you watch this team in December and April and think they’re the same as November, I’d like a prescription for whatever you’re on. Were shots just not falling at an unsustainable rate against the Pacers? Maybe, but not at this magnitude. This is a different team and it’s way more than the natural regression you might expect.

5. It’s Lance’s fault

Definitely not. And while it’s assumed that he was the guy Roy was talking about, he’s probably 4th on the “selfish” rankings on this team. He certainly steals rebounds and is a little selfish about his stats, but when it comes to the actual play on the floor he’s much less selfish than Roy, Paul, or even Turner. Is he erratic at times? Yes. Is he the problem? Not really.

So… what went wrong?


The Pacers Theme Song!

This is the big question and there is no simple answer to it. However, the best take on it I’ve seen was by Tim Donahue at 8points9seconds. If you’ve read the piece, or are about to, you can skip the brief synopsis that follows. The basic premise is this: The Pacers have changed and this time they didn’t adapt to it. Frank Vogel’s biggest strength as a coach has been adjusting to a changing team. He started off building around/inherited a smashmouth defense with Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert. The next season Danny Granger missed time and Paul George had to step up. He did and Vogel adjusted to help him. The team’s athleticism, with George Hill and Paul George on the floor more, started to work its way into the defense while the offense remained post-heavy as George still wasn’t ready to carry the load.

The team changed again this year as Lance and Paul took off. The offense started to shift to the wings,but Vogel didn’t adapt. Why would he? The team was roasting everyone. As touches flowed to Lance and Paul from Hill, Hibbert, and West, and Paul’s midrange jumper wasn’t falling at the unsustainable rates it was earlier in the season, the offense started to become more and more disjointed and fall apart. Some way or another, that crumbling offense started to affect everything. Guys were looking at each other and becoming less and less sure of what the others were going to do. It went from a cohesive and unified team to five individuals doing what they thought they were supposed to do.

Here’s where that selfish claim falls apart a little. Should Hibbert be getting as many touches on offense as Paul George and Lance Stephenson? No. Does this make Paul and Lance more selfish? Not really. Paul’s offensive decision making sometimes falls short (he’s very bad-jump-shot happy and settles sometimes) and it’s easy to call that selfish, but I think there’s something else at play. It’s not that Paul or Roy or anyone is out there for their own selfish purposes. It’s that they don’t know what to do in that previously-untouchable 5-man unit. The offense changed in subtle ways and the players and coaching staff didn’t really grasp that those changes would mean that things had to be done differently.

Rather than selfish, the players simply stopped understanding how to interact in the most productive ways. So their sloppy offense and questionable decision making (already present in smaller doses before the collapse) wasn’t a matter of Lance playing for a contract or Paul feeling himself too much; it was a matter of not knowing what to do and improvising badly. Zach Lowe pointed out in a piece that he came into the Pacers locker room and found Paul and Roy having a heated but civil talk/argument after a game. That’s not a team that’s out there being selfish and playing for themselves. That’s healthy communication that struggling teams need to have. It just turns out that discussing the problems is not guaranteed to fix those problems. I don’t think it’s unfair to call this ceasing-to-understand a chemistry problem, but it’s important to remember that these chemistry issues didn’t arise from locker room scuffles necessarily and that there are concrete things that happened to affect ” on-court chemistry”.

And the offensive woes don’t stop there. Here’s Roy’s offense by month (h/t @netw3rk):

The rebounding by Roy and others plummeted. Screening was an issue too as detailed in this 8points9seconds post. (Very worth your time if you like thinking about what we should/could measure in basketball).

To just put it simply, the offense broke. And it broke hard.

These are measurable things the Pacers just started doing worse. If you were watching the team, these things, generally or specifically, were glaring. But that lurking “why” isn’t answered by all these observations. Since I watch the things on the court and not the things off the court, these are the easiest for me to address without playing omniscient psychologist or speculative dummy. But I’ll risk some dumb speculation here and there and I’m fairly sure that this team was exhausted by the time that first round matchup with Atlanta came around. George Hill. once an outstanding defensive point guard, was getting spit-roasted by Jeff Teague. Roy’s offseason bulk and conditioning seemed to have worn off as he completely fell apart on both ends. He just wore down.

Frank Vogel deserves some blame for this. I’m certainly not on the Fire Vogel bandwagon, but he probably should have limited his players minutes much more aggressively throughout the year, even if it cost him a few close games. This is the easiest explanation for why George Hill turned into Raymond Felton on the defensive end in the Atlanta series. This is certainly not a fire-able offense, but it surely could have mitigated some of the wear and tear on the Pacers right now.

And while we’re on the topic of coaching, let’s talk about the assistants. Assistant coaches are pretty much ignored from a macro perspective until they leave and the media wonders if Mike Malone’s exit will mean the collapse of the Golden State defense (verdict: nope). But Brian Shaw wasn’t the defensive coordinator or anything; he was something bigger. He was the guy that kept Paul George and Lance Stephenson level-headed and focused. He was the “guy who knew what it took” and when he left, the Pacers undoubtedly lost something. He was that confidant that the younger guys lost. If you read this Candace Buckner piece (which you should because it’s outstanding), it’s clear that Nate McMillan is nothing close to Brian Shaw on that level.

And here’s the other thing about the assistant coaches. Dan Burke handles the analytic perspective and helped build this once-ferocious defense with Vogel. Nate McMillan’s reputation comes (undeservedly) on the defensive end where his Portland teams really just played slow rather than being great defenses. Popeye Jones makes sure the after-practice catering is on lock. Vogel got his start as a defensive guy and he’s certainly lived up to that so far. Got any questions about why this offense was ugly on its best days?  Jim Boylen left the Pacers bench for the Spurs bench because who’d pass up an apprenticeship with Pop? Skip the juicy “Fire Vogel” conjecture and get rid of McMillan and Popeye and bring in someone who knows which way is up with regards to an NBA offense.

THIS. IS. IN. A. PLAYOFF. GAME……………….

The Stuff We Can’t See

The off-the-court issues are always harder to nail down since fans don’t get to see those things. Paul George has admitted that his off-court distractions hurt his play, and I think there’s some merit to that. What I don’t think has been acknowledged is that the team as a whole started to feel itself a little bit too much. That’s where the ego and that awful 90’s R&B GQ picture come in. None of this created the mess, it just made it that much harder to turn around and fix the whole “we as a team no longer understand each other” problem. There’s an adjustment period for fame, and few of the Pacers key pieces had been through that (the Candace Buckner piece does a great job with this). Well, they have now.

With Lance Stephenson almost definitely gone, you can bet his agent will be leaking any real scuffles or beef that went down with this team. I’d be a little surprised if this identity crisis and collapse didn’t create any real tensions, but I don’t think any of the big issues pre-dated the identity crisis. So what else is there to point to as far as off-court issues?

Here’s where I wade into the deep murky water of assessing a team’s psyche. Its spirit. It feels outright foolish to say with any sense of confidence that I understand the soul of this team. It is foolish. But I think this team’s collapse started, even just symbolically, the second it became Paul and Roy’s team instead of David West’s team. (Editor’s note: Ya think it got back to being David West’s team against Washington?)

Allow me a moment to shower praise on David West, because sometimes fans of other teams don’t appreciate a player the same way as the “home” fans. It doesn’t make one more right than the other, but it needs to be addressed.  David West is a fucking Man. He takes no shit, he talks no shit (outwardly), he just handles his business and handles it well. When the team is tight, or the team needs someone to calm everyone down, the offense runs through West. He’s as reliable as they come, a valuable offensive cog, and a pretty underrated defender. There was a stretch this year when he was struggling on offense (as 33 year-olds do), but there was never a moment when any Pacers fan wanted him to play much less. The team took on his personality: tough, strong, mature.

At some point during this offseason or during the year, that soul switched bodies. It went from being David West’s team to Paul George and Roy Hibbert’s team. While I think Paul will grow to be an outstanding leader and be the superstar centerpiece of this franchise for years to come, there was something lost in the short term with this switch. When the boat rocked, less-mature 23 and 27 year-old leaders weren’t able to handle things the same way the veteran was.

This is not something that can be applied broadly. Experience is often overrated. Veteran leadership isn’t inherently good. But it was here. And when the boat rocked, Paul and Roy couldn’t keep it from capsizing. Rather, they saw things fall to pieces. I have no idea if David West could have kept things together, and the reality is he probably couldn’t, but that’s the best way I can characterize the switch in the Pacers mentality.

You should probably throw out any notions that Paul and Roy’s leadership caused the collapse. There’s really nothing to support that. But as far as the symbolic switch from a cohesive team that knew what to do and how to do it to a team unable to really understand itself and fix what it saw (or apparently didn’t see) in the mirror, the switch from West to George/Hibbert in leadership is fitting.

And by the way, lest it go unsaid, Paul George was fucking awesome in that almost-infamous Atlanta series.  Jeff Teague murdered the Pacers in Game 1, but whenever Paul George guarded him thereafter, he was pretty quiet. He scored the ball efficiently even while jacking up some bad shots. He attacked more often than not. 24 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2.5 steals (all per game) and a 24.9 PER. He was the reason the Pacers won that series. He picked up the slack of everyone else and I have every confidence he will grow into that superstar label and role.

Bring on the Wiz kids, and if we’re not going to pull out of this nosedive, at least make it a quick death.

 

May 12th, 2014

Awake from your slumber! Arise from your sleep!
A new day is dawning for all those who weep.
The gold team in darkness has seen a great light.
The Roy of our longing has conquered his night.

– bastardization of a Christian hymn

Roy!

The Pacers now sit one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you. Roy Hibbert remembered how to play basketball! Paul George just capped off a truly breathtaking comeback against the feisty Wiz. George Hill looks like a good defender again. Frank Vogel continues to play Evan Turner and Luis Scola. But especially Turner. Yeah, not everything is sunshine and lollipops but damnit they’re alive.

After Game 1, you could have talked me into an easy series win for the Wizards. Hell, Charles Barkley said it would be over in a hurry. Bill Simmons echoed that sentiment, just a little douchier. Fine, a lot douchier. The Pacers looked like crap; the same crap we’d been watching for three months.

Game 2 rolled around and the Pacers won, but it really couldn’t have been much less convincing. Roy went off, laying waste to Wizards post defenders like Andrew Bynum at the bowling alley buffet. 28 points. Coulda been an anomaly. Coulda been a sign. If you’d watched Roy Hibbert the last two weeks or the last two months, the answer was clearly “anomaly”.

But it wasn’t. The point total didn’t hold up of course but suddenly he was back to being the absolute terror in the middle he needs to be for the Pacers to win. In Game 3 he changed shots, he blocked shots and he pushed the entire Wizards offense away from the basket. To quote future star Bradley Beal, “I’m 6-3, 6-4, he’s 7-2. You do the math”.

It really is that simple sometimes.

The defense was turned to 11 with Roy at the center of it all and the Wizards scored 63 points. Or as it’s sometimes called, 7 more points than they scored in the first half of game 1. It made those 66 and 73 point outputs from the early regular season feel like they really happened in this dimension. It made every Pacers fan hope against hope that the team had remembered how to play basketball. Because damnit, we’d waited 3 months for them to figure this shit out. Forgive us for expecting the other shoe to drop.

And it did. For a half. The Pacers offense looked like a real NBA offense in the first quarter but as the bench’s presence snuck into the game, things started to get weird in a bad way. Al Harrington started jumping passing lanes. Drew Gooden started eating up rebounds. Yes, these are things happening in 2014. In the playoffs. The Evan Turribles watched the lead slip, and slip. Then the starting unit came back in and watched it slip a little further just for good measure. It was a 17 point deficit heading into the break.

That’s when Paul George decided he’d had enough. What Paul George did to the Wizards over the next 24 minutes would have been deemed excessive by Hammurabi. 28 points on 7-10 shooting and 6-8 from 3. All told, 39 points and 12 rebounds on 12-20 shooting. The Wizards collapsed and the Pacers went up 3-1.

Suddenly the Pacers look like The Pacers (TM) again, or at least something approaching that team that we had up until mid January. Both versions of the Pacers we have seen are real: both the world beaters and the confounding mess of the last three months. But somehow over the last week we’ve seen the Pacers return to some semblance of glory. They say it was a fishing trip. I have no idea. I honestly don’t care how it happened. I’m just glad to have some semblance of my team back.

 

May 16th

“Time is a flat circle” – Rust Cohle

Miss you, Danny.

Heat. Pacers. Somehow, we’re right back where we were for most of the year. The defending champs against the team everyone loves to hate.

Moreover, they were clearly the two best teams in the Eastern playoffs. For all the hand-wringing about the inconsistent Pacers, they were clearly one of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

But before we look ahead, allow me a few words about Games 5 and 6 against the Wizards. Ok, just one word about Game 5: Embarrassing. That’s a team that gets swept by anyone. Game 6 was the story of David West being a grown fucking man. It wasn’t the best the Pacers have played, but it was awfully gritty. The Wizards came back from down big and the Pacers didn’t (ultimately) flinch. They put them in the ground like they are supposed to on the back of some good defense, perhaps some panic on the part of the Wizards, and pretty fluid offense.

Good work. Now the real work begins.

Roy’s killed the Heat in the past. Shane Battier has attempted to guard the man who just dropped 29 on Nene and the Wiz. The Pacers still match up well with the Heat, and LeBron can’t guard Paul and David West at the same time (probably). On the other hand, the Heat can almost definitely play the way the Hawks did, which is pretty terrifying given the talent discrepancy. They know each other inside out and it’s going to be a bloodbath. A really, really, hopefully, fun bloodbath.

I have no idea how the series will go. The only  results that aren’t happening are a sweep (either way) or Pacers in 5. The Pacers have been maddeningly inconsistent, but if they play 3 out of 6 really good games, they’re likely back to Game 7. It’s wide open. But this 4,000 word post isn’t about that series. It’s about the journey of this Pacers team. Unless they get run out of the gym, they’ve salvaged their season and their soul. They made it to the series they’ve prepared all year for. I’ll be interested to see how home-court plays out given how much better the Pacers have been on the road (irony’s a bitch). That matters a whole lot. Just not to this post.

This has been my hardest season as a fan of a sports team. I don’t think I ever got fully emotionally invested in the 2007 Cleveland Indians. The 2011 Colts (The Curtis Painters) were a letdown from the start and I never expected anything but carnage. But the peaks and valleys of these last 6 months have been like nothing I’ve ever been through with sports fandom. I’m glad I got to throw away my incredibly bleak close-of-the-eulogy of this Pacers team I wrote during Game 6 in Atlanta. Ok, I didn’t throw it away. It’s right below just for fun.

Now it’s over. Perhaps the best shot this franchise will get at a championship is kaput. The ultimate team is dead. This manifestation of the team is dead. Lance is on his way out, West is a year older, and who knows if Roy Hibbert will ever regain his mojo.

The 2013-14 Pacers will get an anonymous burial with an unmarked grave that future fans will whisper about, spinning tales over what on earth happened to them. They will live on as a symbol in the worst of ways unless they come back next year with a renewed vigor, something I very much doubt unless Paul George decides to drink everyone’s milkshake (a real possibility, by the way). And so one team’s failure to see itself for what it has become will haunt Pacers fans, and lurk as a spectre haunting nervous fans from any team showing signs of slipping.

So I guess that quote I started with isn’t really accurate. It’s not that I don’t know them anymore. It’s that I do. That new team I do know? Good riddance.

 

Jesus, cheer up. We made it. Best out of seven for pride, city, and virtue. The Pacers will give it another go at making the NBA Finals against the Heat and that’s about all you could ask for after all of this. Go Pacers: for teaching us that that which doesn’t kill you, may damn near kill your fans. Go Pacers for beating LeBron. Go Pacers, because it’d be incredible and Twitter would collectively die. Go Pacers because it couldn’t possibly get much weirder… right?

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