A good friend has encouraged me to recognize that the Pacers have hit a giant iceberg. He might be right. My hope is that it's a daylight iceberg. Once seen, a course correction can ensue. Even though you may have to take the long way around, you can still arrive at the destination. That may be the best Pacer fans can hope for.
I’ve been thinking about why the Pacers are in such a state of crisis and the best I can come up with is pretty simple. This is only the second year the Pacers have been good. That’s not usually a bad thing but because of last season’s great playoff run, this year’s early season success and the faltering of the Bulls, Nets and Knicks, the Pacers have ascended to contender status a year too soon. They just weren’t ready for it.
This is supposed to be the growing pain season when teams figure out how to shift from being the hunter to being the hunted but it’s extremely hard to go through growing pains when also being under the championship microscope. Ask Miami. Their growing pains at the start of the Big 3 era were obvious and very public. The biggest differences between the two squads are critical. The Heat had two of the five best players in the world and starred three guys who were very accustomed to massive amounts of attention.
The Heat bumbled and stumbled to the NBA Finals three years ago despite never being a dominant team. They simply had enough talent to overcome the hurdle of outsized expectations. They couldn’t figure out a rotation or a pecking order but they managed to survive the East playoffs because LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were all top 20 players. When they figured out a pecking order, how to handle media scrutiny the next season and how to use their exceptional talent, they dominated.
The Pacers still want to play without a pecking order and have almost no experience with intense media attention. The pecking order will shake out in the playoffs when matchup advantages become obvious but amazingly, I’d guess that Lance Stephenson is the Pacer who has been a ‘high profile’ guy the longest. “Born Ready” got the Big Apple spotlight as a high school standout but none of the other Pacers had that kind of attention, even in college. Now that professional (and importantly, personal) foibles are being scrutinized intensely, everything changes. Paul George has an awesome new television commercial. That doesn’t mean he has a support network in place to help him navigate these new waters.
That goes for the Pacers as a whole. These championship waters are new and the Pacers probably shouldn’t be in them yet. They simply don't have the kind of exceptional talent Miami did when they went throught their growing pains. I think it's clear that this team dramatically overachieved in the first half of the season. That’s what led to the spoiling of the fan base I mentioned last week.
This season the Pacers have been Portland East in some respects. They overachieved so much so early that expectations were raised to surprising heights. Each team's player profile is also similar. Both teams have a marginal top 10 guy, a marginal top 25 guy and 2 marginal top 50 guys. Solid playoff teams to be sure. But that doesn’t sound like a champion’s profile does it?* Do any Pacers fans really anticipate that the Trail Blazers will make the Finals this year?
We shouldn’t realistically expect the pacers to be champs this year but lots of us do. My hope is that the Pacers use the next month to figure out where they need to fix the relationships and scoring issues that seem so obviously problematic.
Against the Spurs, they played timidly. As though they were afraid to shoot and hurt each other's feelings. Playing not to lose instead of playing to win. I’d guess that the media attention is an element of this; no one wants to be “selfish”. But part of that stems from the low pace, high efficiency offense Vogel prefers. One guy missing 3 shots in a quarter is a big deal when there are only 18 shots are taken in the whole quarter.
On the Evan Turner/Danny Granger issue, I think Vogel should experiment with ET starting at the 3 with Lance coming off the bench. That would give the Pacers a giant lineup capable of covering up some of ET’s defensive lapses. Turner would also have a chance to pick up some offensive scraps off double teams of the other guys. He just can't create offense without taking 8 dribbles. As a 5th option in the starting lineup, he won't need to. Then Lance can come in and be the primary catalyst for the 2nd unit. Bringing Lance in with 3 minutes left in the 1st quarter and halfway through the 3rd means the Pacers would never rely on Turner or CJ Watson or Donald Sloan to initiate their offense.
One last thing: Entering the playoffs as the second seed may be the best thing to happen to the Pacers. They don't know how to be front runners because they haven't done it before. In last year’s playoffs they had the element of surprise and that freed them up to play loosely. Now that advantage has gone out the window. I'd love to see them replace it with hunger.
*The champions with a player profile closest to these Pacers has probably been the Spurs but we can all acknowledge that the Spurs have been an aberration in nearly every way.
© Gayle Force Press 2014