Before this long, winding road of a season began, NBA Hall-of-Famer and Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird confidently stated that his team had the potential to win a championship, saying the team was “all in.”
After a terrible month of March, the only thing the Pacers are in is trouble.
The slide began with the New Year, as Indiana went 10-5 in January, 9-3 in February and a pathetic 8-10 in March, ending the month with a 103-77 blowout loss on Monday night to the San Antonio Spurs.
And, for the first time all season, the Pacers find themselves looking up from the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference standings.
What’s happened to the Pacers and, moreover, can they turn it around in the postseason?
Scoring That is Truly Offensive
Here are some alarming statistics that put Indiana’s historically-poor offense into context (via Twitter):
Pacers: 1st team in NBA history to score fewer than 90 points in 6 straight games after reaching the 50-win mark http://t.co/hTnKfblRcK
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 1, 2014
And this one:
Pacers: averaged 89.2 PPG in March, worst in NBA
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 1, 2014
This is a contender?
Indiana has an offensive efficiency rating of 101.1, good for 22nd in the league. To put it in perspective, their Eastern rivals, the Miami Heat, lead the league with a rating of 109.5.
In simple terms, the Pacers have trouble scoring, but the exact reasons are complicated and varied.
Among them is Pacers big man Roy Hibbert’s regression this season. After a strong showing against Miami in the playoffs, it was expected that Hibbert would develop into a stronger offensive force. But, at just 11.2 points per game (the second lowest total of his career following his rookie campaign), it’s clear that he hasn’t taken the leap. Hibbert’s reason for the drop-off? “Selfish” basketball, as he explained to David Aldridge of NBA.com:
“Some selfish dudes in here. I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve been talking about it for a month. We play hard, but we’ve got to move the ball. I don’t know whatever our assist ratio, or whatever it is, is in the league, but it probably isn’t up there.”
Hibbert’s right, as the Pacers are the third-fewest assist totals in the NBA. As a team, Indiana is shooting only 44.7% (20th) and ranks near the bottom in terms of team field-goal attempts. The Pacers don’t the pass the ball much, take few shots and have trouble knocking down the ones they do make; that much is evident. But Hibbert bears some of the responsibility as well, fading late in games and being unable to hit shots in the paint, inexcusable for a 7’2” behemoth.
But the biggest reason for Indiana’s offensive woes in 2014? Paul George.
The team’s leading scorer (at 21.7 PPG) is struggling mightily and Indiana can only go as far as PG takes them. His shooting percentages have dropped as the season goes on, and his shot selection has been suspect, as seen in this video:
For a player that was expected to contend with LeBron James and Kevin Durant for the MVP trophy, George has a long way to go.
The Volatile Nature of Also-Rans
The Pacers chemistry has been, frankly, non-existent. From public outbursts to private team meetings (“player-only” discussions as well as with Head Coach Frank Vogel), the team has lost its composure, with the exception of strong performances against the Chicago Bulls on March 21 and versus the Heat on March 26 – their only two wins in the past eight games.
Again, the reasons are many. Some believe that losing former Pacers Assistant Coach Brian Shaw (now the head coach in Denver) is a factor. Shaw’s tough-love seems to be missing and Vogel’s optimistic approach – with a team that may be going soft – won’t solve the problem.
Trading longtime Pacer Danny Granger earlier this season upset George and others, although his lack of productivity was enough reason to replace him with the unproven Evan Turner.
Strangely enough, as per forward David West, their goal of being the top seed of the East may have been too much to handle:
“I just don’t know if we’re handling success and being out front the right way.”
This is the frail nature of this team, one that has always taken pride in being stronger than the rival team down in South Beach. They Pacers have challenged Miami’s assemblage (through free agency), their lack of teamwork, their “flopping,” and what they perceive to be the Heat’s unfair advantage when it comes to officiating. But, despite their often-repeated goals of a top-seed in the East and an NBA championship, the Pacers lack the understanding of how to absorb the bumps-and-bruises that come throughout the long regular season and playoffs.
Chris Bosh, the Heat’s versatile All-Star, explained it to the ESPN’s Michael Wallace:
“When the Pacers were talking, ‘Hey, No. 1 seed, home court,’ I was like, ‘It’s August. Let’s calm down a little bit. We know how it is. It’s a marathon. That’s one of the conversations you have to have amongst yourselves. And it’s a reason to go out there and play hard every day. But, you know, saying to everybody, shouting it from the mountaintop, that’s not our style.”
The Pacers, ironically enough, remind one of the great New York Knicks teams of the 90’s. They always thought they could contend with the championship Bulls teams of that era but never got quite past that Jordan-shaped hump. Condemned to the shadows of Not-Good-Enough, they always seemed to implode under the pressure of un-met expectations.
Nearly 20 years later, that cycle of Easter Conference dominance – and the lamentations of the Also-Rans – seem to be repeating themselves.
The End Is Near
The Pacers have made moves, during the offseason and at the trade deadline, to challenge the Heat. They started off stronger than any other team and are limping to finish line. They’ve had clear goals, stated loudly and publicly, and have failed at this point, losing the top seed in the Conference to a team that is indifferent to the final standings.
Can they get past their myriad problems and find success in the playoffs? Their defense, still among the best in the league, can get them past lower seeded teams like Charlotte, Atlanta or the Knicks, whichever of these three winds up being a first-round opponent for Indiana.
But against Chicago, Brooklyn and especially against Miami? The Pacers don’t have that extra gear to get them past those teams.
Like a tourist in Playoffs City, they’ll make the most of trip but will miss out on the very best attractions – the places only a native champion like the Heat or Nets (with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) know about.
The problem with being “all in” is that you have to know how to get there first.