Frank Vogel

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?