Last year around this time, my Dad issued a proclamation that would forever change the fabric of how I watched basketball. While watching the Pacers play relentless, “Blue Collar” basketball against not only the reigning league MVP Lebron James, but also his defending champion Miami Heat team, my Dad smashed both hands on the arms of his chair and said “Jacob we are now Pacers fans. I want that small market success, I want a passionate, tough team that can contend.” After coming off one of the worst two season stretches in NBA history, my Dad was fed up with the Bobcats. My Dad was fed up with the fair weather fans, the bad draft picks, and the constant hopelessness shown in blowout after blowout. Now switching allegiances to a winning team may sound hypocritical but with some background knowledge of my Dad you may understand his reasoning.
Born in Charlotte in 1963, he was forced to cheer for Atlanta sports teams because Charlotte had none. In 1988 though there was hope. Owner George Shinn founded an expansion team, “The Hornets,” who played in “The Coliseum” just miles away from the airport. In that inaugural season the Hornets had a lackluster record of 20-62 but became the first expansion team to lead the league in attendance. The Hornets were Charlotte and many of my earliest memories have to do with being a three year old propped up on his dad’s shoulders for the entirety of a game because nobody sat down. My dad told me that win or lose the team got a standing ovation and watching the Pacers play at home he saw similar passion from Indiana’s fans; and that energy carried onto the court and into the players. Now this long winded introduction does have a point: my Dad didn’t want to cheer for a winning team, he wanted to cheer for one that cared.
In Game Six of the 2013 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, The Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat 91-77 at home. After the game, a reporter notoriously asked Roy Hibbert, “You only finished 10th in defensive player of the year voting. How do you think that’s possible when you alter so many shots?” Hibbert responded in the way any center having a break through season and a career series would have. He said: “y’all mother-f*ckers don’t watch us play throughout the year, to tell the truth…. Imma be real with you, I don’t care if I get fined.”
This raw passion is what pushed the series to a devastating game 7 loss in Miami that resulted in a team so driven and talented as The Pacers to be playing possibly the best complete game in the entire NBA up until the all star break. So, what went wrong? What could’ve turned a surefire contender into a team almost eliminated in the first round by the 8th seeded Hawks?
Water is made up of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. If you were to take away one of the hydrogen atoms or add another oxygen atom it would be a completely different compound. Like a compound, an NBA team needs perfect chemistry among their players in order to reach the level of greatness needed to make a deep playoff run. On February 1st, the Pacers signed free agent center Andrew Bynum who brings with him a media circus. This is the beginning of the end. Although an inconsistent and relatively unproductive player, Bynum’s potential when healthy has kept him in the spot light since his selection in the 2006 draft as 10th overall to the Los Angeles Lakers straight out of high school. When Bynum joined the team, Hibbert’s productivity began to slide. Some people can attribute it to the media spotlight of the competition between one current all-star center and one past all-star center. Others contribute it to him getting fewer touches, but that is a ridiculous argument seeing as Bynum only played in two games for the Pacers this season. I believe though that the addition of Bynum hurt Hibbert’s confidence. The addition of another center with potential to the average spectator appears as a safe move or someone who can give Hibbert a breather. I believe though that Hibbert saw it as a long shot, but nonetheless potential replacement, and simply put it scared him. In the two games Bynum did play, the box score shows Bynum posting better figures in the scoring and rebounding categories.
|Hibbert (3/11 V. Celtics)||32||6||9||2|
|Bynum (3/11 V. Celtics)||16||8||10||0|
|Hibbert (3/15 V. Pistons)||33||12||5||2|
|Bynum (3/15 V. Pistons)||20||15||9||1|
*Statistics per ESPN
As shown in the figure above, during the two games in which Hibbert and Bynum played together, Bynum played significantly fewer minutes but posted higher figures in everything except for blocked shots. Another trend in Hibbert’s game is shown from the limited Bynum sample. In games after Bynum played, Hibbert’s stats (excluding blocks) fell off.
|Hibbert (3/14 against the 76ers)||30 (opposed to 32 the previous game)||4 (as opposed to 6 the previous game)||3 (as opposed to 9 the previous game)||5 (as opposed to 2 the previous game)|
|Hibbert (3/17 also against the 76ers)||28 (opposed to 33 the previous game)||8 (as opposed to 12 the previous game)||5 (no decline from the previous game)||1 (as opposed to 2 the previous game)|
*Statistics per ESPN
As seen here, even with more potential touches, Hibbert underperformed. As most players would be, after having a two game sample in which a perpetually injured contemporary outperformed him nearly every category while playing fewer minutes, Hibbert’s confidence was cracked resulting in him underperforming in the next game as well. Although the Pacers won all four of these games, they were also playing mediocre lottery teams so the correlation of no-Hibbert-no-win wasn’t truly seen until the playoffs.
Even with Hibbert’s productivity falling, and the addition of another ever so literally large ego in Bynum to the already comic Indiana Pacers whom players such as Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert call home, their win-loss percentage didn’t truly begin deviating. Then came the days leading up to the trade deadline. 76er’s star shooting guard/ small forward Evan Turner wanted out of the hopeless, desolate franchise and naturally wanted to land on a contender. As a Charlotte Native I was hoping for him to land on the Bobcats to better spread the floor for Al Jefferson to score inside and Kemba Walker to drive and score more efficiently. When the news broke that the Pacers were trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner I was still excited. The Pacers, being my alternate team as declared by my father, added a younger, higher scoring, more athletic and versatile small forward than Danny Granger and if he could successfully slide into the rotation the Pacers could have found their golden ticket.
It was a very big “if” though. The Pacers are a young team who at the beginning and end of this season find themselves in a predicament most teams would love to have: too many young stars. With young stars though come the biggest egos. Evan Turner, a player accustomed to the offense running through him often and being a star was turned into a role player. Evan Turner, a player with a big ego did not handle it well. Turner and Stephenson, who have similar games, were often speculated to have clashed frequently in practice. Because of his clear inability to gel and seeing his playing time dwindle to around four minutes a game during the eastern conference finals, Turner has likely put on the Gold and Blue for the last time. He will be a restricted free agent this summer. Not only was Turner’s ego the straw that broke the camels back, but the departure of Granger doomed the team as well.
Danny Granger, a 31-year-old eight-year veteran of the league was the Pacers 2005 first round selection and the cornerstone of the franchise as a versatile swingman until the emergence of Paul George. Even with Granger getting fewer touches and minutes as Paul George began to climb the ladder to being an elite player, his presence was still felt as a leader, a teacher, and a rock. In Matt Dollinger’s February 21st Sports Illustrated online article, he wrote, “that he’s been a mentor to Paul George and selfless leader.” With hindsight being 20/20, Larry Bird and the rest of the Pacers front office should feel as though trying to trade an older player for a younger and potentially better new one was too good to be true. In an offense centered around him, maybe Turner would’ve been a great scorer, and better teammate, but he’s not the leader that Granger was, or the missing piece of the puzzle Bird thought he was.
Finally, the bad guy of the NBA. The young point guard so brash as to talk trash, shove, and even “blow” onto the best player in the leagues face while still getting scored 25+ points on routinely (exclude game 5): Lance Stephenson. After game 6 this year Paul George was the man making the controversial comment, not Roy Hibbert. Following the blowout loss in Miami this year that bounced the Pacers from the playoffs, a reporter asked George, “Do you want to see number 1 (Stephenson) by your side next season?” George, after taking a moment to think, responded, “I don’t know…” and then turned the corner by saying it was the front offices decision. In a world of SoundBits and tweets though, Georges true message before projecting the decision on to the front office rang true: he may not want his point guard back. Stephenson’s antics were originally seen as competitive and reasonable until the team started losing. He soon lost his support, mistakenly targeting the best basketball player since Jordan hung up his jersey, and only stopping when Celtics legend turned Pacers GM publicly came out and told him to stop.
In the right environment, Stephenson could be a star and top-five point guard because of his triple-double potential, but unless he mellows out the Pacers aren’t the team for him. Hibbert is another player who may be departing this season for a team with a stronger bond who can keep his confidence up and his game solid. With the departure of those two players George Hill could get the nod to start but has not truly established himself as a good enough passer to be a go to NBA point guard. Paul George’s only true support would be combo forward David West.
The talk of a Pacers dynasty or an elite Pacers team is still a few years away, and the Pacers play after the all-star break and through the playoffs has just fueled Pacers detractors.
Whether Hibbert and Stephenson stay or leave, the Pacers will go into this offseason as the most talented team in a rebuilding process ever. In 2014 they had two all-stars, Hibbert and George, who were also recently named to the NBA all defensive team, and two more potential all stars in Stephenson and West. With this much talent on one team and to not win a championship, Frank Vogel, if retained as coach, needs to admit that this season was a disaster and start from scratch.
If Vogel wants to be the coach of an elite team, he needs to go back to the drawing board and redesign an experiment for long-term success. Create an experiment that results in a team with four potential all-stars that reaches full season success rather than stuttering to a stop at the all-star break. If Vogel wants an elite team, he needs roll his sleeves up and accept that a long summer lies ahead. If Vogel wants an elite team he needs to take notes from Greg Popovich, the coach of the most consistent team in the last 15 years who makes every player fit perfectly. If Popovich can get Danny Green to consistently have 20 point nights in the playoffs imagine what he could do with a player like Paul George. If Vogel wants an elite team he ultimately needs to put sustainability and consistency over home court advantage because once the prior two are established, the third flows naturally.
Written by Jacob Levinson, George Washington University