J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez discuss why the Pacers have cooled off after a scorching start.
J.A.: OK, I'll admit I fell hard for that PTI April Fool's prank that Larry Bird was gonna bump Frank Vogel and return to coaching the Indiana Pacers. Like, ready-to-email-the-editors-to-see-how-we're-going-to-cover-this hard. The thing is, the best comedy comes from a place of painful truth. And as much as it hurts the Pacers to admit it, they've been reactionary and short in the public support of Vogel, enough to make that move seem plausible. It's also because there is enough evidence from the quotes coming from the locker room that the team senses this promising season could get away from them unless they do something drastic. So if bouncing Vogel isn't the actual solution, what is?
Israel: I can start with what wasn't the answer. Larry Bird being publicly critical of Vogel and his team. A few weeks ago, when he dropped the old parental "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed" line, he went on to critique Vogel for essentially not disciplining his players enough. At the time, this was a team that was in first place in the Eastern Conference and had been all season long. Since when is that the right time to publicly question anything about the team? That undermines the authority of a coach who's done nothing but help improve this Pacers team since the day he took over that primary coaching seat. That doesn't even bring into question Bird's in-season moves as an executive. The Evan Turner trade felt more like a gamble than a move that definitively improved the team. And so far, that gamble hasn't paid off. Not to say Turner couldn't fit in with this group given time, but the early returns show he has contributed only to this group's decline lately. And those Bird comments appeared to begin an avalanche of public criticisms from within that locker room. I feel like that's as good a place to start when trying to dissect what has gone wrong with Indiana.
The Evan Turner trade felt more like a gamble than a move that definitively improved the team. And so far, that gamble hasn't paid off.
"-- Israel Gutierrez
J.A.: If you're thinking this slump is about bad vibes, you're on the right track. Maybe you should write a book and see if someone will pay you $12 million a year to run their team, like Phil Jackson. The thing about the Pacers is it's hard to find numbers that match the grumblings. Have the perimeter players turned selfish? Well, Paul George's usage rate went down in March. Lance Stephenson averages the exact same number of shots in losses as he does in wins. And despite Roy Hibbert's complaints about the ball not moving enough, he took more shots in March than he did any other month this season. That doesn't mean there aren't statistical culprits. Since the All-Star Game, George hasn't really played like an All-Star; his shooting percentage is down below 40 percent and he's averaging a basket less per game. And Turner's time in Indiana has produced the lowest PER among the regulars in the rotation.
But this team never overwhelmed you with numbers. Even when the Pacers had the best point differential in the league, they ranked only 20th in scoring. They weren't about superior firepower, they were about superior effort. That's difficult to sustain over 82 games, especially now that other teams are ramping up for the playoffs. The Pacers have gone from the league's most focused, driven team to a group that seems to have forgotten what its mission is. That's the vibe I get.
Israel: Perhaps the Pacers reintroduced themselves to their winning formula against the lowly Pistons on Wednesday. For starters, holding the Pistons to 36.6 percent shooting is very Pacers-like. And on the offensive end, George led the way with an aggressive, well-rounded game, while David West, George Hill, Stephenson and Hibbert evenly distributed shots between them. Of course, the challenge is to recreate that against teams that are still actually trying. It'll help now that Vogel has asked his guys to stop airing grievances to the media. He needed to regain control of his team -- something the Bird criticism probably didn't allow him to do easily -- and he started by asking them to shut up. Perhaps without all the noise, the Pacers can realize they just had a difficult month, one that included 11 of 18 games on the road in March. And perhaps they can recognize that even the best of teams suffer unexpected slides.
They weren't about superior firepower, they were about superior effort. That's difficult to sustain over 82 games, especially now that other teams are ramping up for the playoffs.
"-- J.A. Adande
Problem with the Pacers is they haven't really had an experience like this from which they could learn in the past. This felt like the ground crumbling under them, and as a group they panicked. Unlike the Miami Heat did when they hit a crossroads before winning a championship, the Pacers began pointing fingers, which always makes matters look worse than they are. Now the question is: Can Indy fully recover? Unless the Pacers regain that No. 1 seed, it'll be difficult to envision them getting entirely out of this hole they've dug themselves. But I'm betting the urgency that comes with the playoff atmosphere will eventually put this team back in the proper mindset.
J.A.: Sounds like you're talking about the proverbial switch. I believe it exists, and I believe the San Antonio Spurs are currently Exhibit A. But I think the switch usually belongs to teams that already have championship rings in their possession. Once they've acquired that knowledge, they can always draw on it later. What can the Pacers fall back on? Well, there's the world-class defense they exhibited in the first 30 games of the season. There's the swagger they showed along with it. There's the evidence that they're uniquely equipped to go at the Heat, with Hibbert's inside presence, their overall length and George's ability to guard LeBron.
They need that No. 1 seed in the East, though, if they're going to reach the NBA Finals. They've shown that they don't respond well when they're not getting what they want.
Israel: Well, so far, sure. But we're not really certain how the Pacers will truly respond. This is the initial reaction, and no, it's not a good one. But again, put them in a do-or-die situation, as opposed to simply begging them to maintain intensity in mid-March, and you'll see what the actual response is. Will this team fold as a result of its first solid taste of failure, or will it rediscover its early-season passion?
I know a lot of people are looking at the drop in production from George and the uneven performances from Hibbert. But to me, the guy who quietly defined Indiana's March issues was Stephenson. As Jeff Van Gundy likes to say, every championship-level team needs a little bit of crazy. And Stephenson is this team's primary dose. In March, after a stellar January and strong, All-Star-snubbed February, Stephenson has dropped off. He's relying more on the 3-pointer (3.9 attempts per game in March, more than any other month, and a full 1.5 more per game than January, his best month scoring). His field goal percentage was just 46 percent in March (he's 49 percent for the season). And perhaps most important -- based on Hibbert's "selfish dudes" quote -- Stephenson's assists were down to 3.1 per game for March, a significant drop from his 5.6 a game in January and 4.6 for the season. You saw Stephenson provide just the right amount of crazy -- when you win, it's called a "spark" -- against Miami last week, despite being ejected. When the playoffs come around, I'm just guessing that engaged version of Stephenson will be back, giving Indy just the kick in the pants it needs.
By the way, you weren't the only one to fall for the PTI April Fool's joke. Vogel himself had to admit, "I'm really confused," when he caught the bit on television. It might have been a joke, but it was soaked in reality. But hey, better that than Wilbon and Kornheiser predicting Vogel's demise in their Fortune Tellers segment.