Thursday 17 August 2017 / 11:49 PM

How Far Will The Pacers Slide?

The Indiana Pacers are falling apart, and if something isn’t done to stop the bleeding, King James and the Heat could waltz into the NBA Finals with hardly a scuff on their sneakers.

It’s not too late to stave off complete self-implosion, but the clock is ticking.

Perhaps leading the two-team race in the East for much of the year has led them down a dangerous path of contentment?

A long time ago … in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker cockily chided the Emperor for brimming with overconfidence. And while it was Darth Vader’s decision to no longer be a deadbeat dad that ultimately led to the destruction of Palpatine’s beloved Death Star, Luke made an excellent point.

Extended periods of victory can lead to arrogance. Arrogance can lead to complacency, laziness, and to the underestimation of one’s opponents.

Has too much success gone to the heads of the Pacers? Or are the issues plaguing Indiana far more serious than temporarily inflated egos?

Will Hibbert’s public admonishment of his teammates spark a fire or throw another wrench into already dysfunctional team chemistry?

Recently Roy Hibbert did the team sport “no-no” of going on record as saying some of his teammates were selfish on offense. Statistically his assessment seems to be spot on; the Pacers’ assist ratio is down from 16.1 to 15.2 since the trade deadline and the team is ranking a pathetic 28th in the league in the category.

The problem is that such critiques need to be made in-house … face-to-face and man-to-man. The only member of the organization that ought to be spilling a team’s dirty laundry to the media is the coach. But Frank Vogal’s inability to nut up and say what needs to be said is sending his team into a free fall.

Vogal seems to be taking the happy-go-lucky, “we’re all winners” approach, keeping all of his commentary positive instead of calling out players that need to be called out. This may be the preferred philosophy at his local Y.M.C.A., but to coach professional athletes you’ve got to have the guts to grab even your best players by the balls and let them know that the effort they’re putting out simply is not good enough.

Nobody should be exempt from criticism, not even your superstars. Vogal needs to assert himself before he loses complete control over his players.

He’s got to say what needs to be said so that Roy Hibbert won’t have to.

An offense just slightly better than the Philadelphia 76ers.

 

During their post trade deadline slide, the Pacers have ranked 29th in total offense, just above the team that seemed to be on a mission to lose every single game for the rest of the season. Mediocre offensive production has long been known to be Indiana’s Achilles’ heel, but it’s gone from mediocre to bad to wretched.

The additions of Evan Turner and Luis Scola were meant to provide a boost in bench scoring, but the Pacers continue to rank third to last in the category, placing a lot of pressure on the starting five to put the ball into the hoop.

Something that they’re having a lot of trouble doing.

Since the All-Star break the starters have collectively shot four percentage points lower than during the first half of the season. And it’s not simply a case of cold hands. As a team they’re not working the ball around to get clean looks at the basket. Forced shots further away from the basket will always equate to more misses.

Even the best teams need to take easy shots in order to put points up on the board. The Pacers are making an already difficult situation worse by pushing impatient jumpers from the perimeter before looking to create open lanes or work the ball down into the post.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot more going on here than selfish players opting for bad shots instead of good passes. If you’ve watched the Pacers play at all over the past couple months, it’s as if they’ve completely forgotten how to play the game.

A small decline in defense has led to a huge dip in wins.

 

Playing .500 ball for eight weeks of the season is hardly in itself a sign of total collapse, but the fact that only two of the Pacers’ wins since trading for Evan Turner have come against playoff contenders is disconcerting. Then again, one of these wins was versus Miami, so not all hope is lost.

While we’ve already talked about Indiana’s anemic offense, the truly disconcerting fact is that they are giving up 7.4 more points per 100 possessions than they were prior to the All-Star break.

For a long time the Pacers were able to overcome pedestrian offense with tenacious defense. Now that the team looks bedraggled, tired, and uninterested, the hustle and doggedness seem to be lost somewhere in their dysfunctional locker room.

Speaking of a dysfunctional locker room, did you see the heated exchange between George Hill and Lance Stephenson last Monday in San Antonio? Bringing emotion to the court is one thing, and tempers will flare, but it seems as though frustration is bringing about finger pointing as opposed to compelling players to join forces against a common enemy.

They’ve been unable to fix their offense all season, so the quickest way to bounce back will be to get back on track on the defensive side of the ball, where they once dominated.

Did we overestimate the prowess of Paul George?

 

Probably not. But he’s had runs of games where he didn’t look nearly as dominant as he did earlier in the season, and his 47% shooting percentage on lay-ups certainly has us scratching our heads.

Some analysts point to his unexpected performance in last year’s playoffs as the outlier. They say that he is a great defensive wing who is generally just OK on offense. But I think that he’s a budding two-way superstar who is still learning the ropes of the NBA.

At just 23 he doesn’t have the experience and mental toughness to stay consistent through an 82-game season and playoff run. He’s also not mature enough to prevent off-court issues from affecting his game.

It’s rumored that he plans to reach out to LeBron or Kobe in the off-season for mentoring. The fact that he realizes there’s more to the game than pure talent is a huge step in the right direction.

Come playoff time I think George will be ready to elevate his game once again, but individual efforts are hardly at the core of Indiana’s woes.

OK, the regular season’s almost finished. Will all this over-analyzing be for naught once the playoffs get underway?

 

Even with Indiana’s disappointing (3-7) record over the past ten games, they’ve still amassed 53 victories this season, the same total as the Miami Heat. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

A “sky is falling” article makes for a more interesting read, and every criticism I’ve presented is legit, but until eliminated, the Pacers still represent the best chance of supplanting the Heat as the East’s representative in the NBA Finals.

Momentum is important, and the Pacers’ problems are not something to be brushed off like dandruff before a blind date, but they’ve got the talent to do an overnight reset and the Heat are not without their own flaws.

A first-round series win over the Charlotte Bobcats could provide just enough momentum to right the ship. Even the best of teams earn confidence with every playoff victory.

Indiana’s floundered enough of late to warrant considerable concern, but they’ve played well enough over the course of the full season to have earned at least the benefit of the doubt heading into the postseason.

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Michael Airhart

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