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Intriguing offseason for Pacers after disappointing finish

If you had said before the season began that the Indiana Pacers would finish with 56 wins, capture the East’s top seed and make the conference finals for the second consecutive year before losing in 6 to the Miami Heat, I think most Pacers fans would not be disappointed. Not necessarily happy, though no one would be in tears.

But after the way the last three or four months have turned out, “bitterly disappointing”, as Frank Vogel put it, is the only way to describe the Pacers’ tumultuous 2013-2014 season.

After starting out 33-7 and becoming the darlings of the NBA, this happened:

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They were never the same afterwards. And so began the downward spiral, the inexplicable lack of effort and urgency, the stagnant offense, and the disappearance of the NBA’s best defense. To stop what the front office recognized as a slippery slope, they traded away the former face of the franchise, Danny Granger, in return for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. They took a gamble and signed mercurial free agent Andrew Bynum.

However, the losses continued pile up amid flashes of brilliance mixed with long periods of futility. Turner and Allen turned out to be non-factors for the majority of the remainder of the season (and virtually the entire playoffs), and Bynum played a grand total of 2 games before his knees gave up for good. No one knew what was wrong with the team, but it didn’t stop the speculation from flooding in. There was Roy Hibbert’s mental breakdown and “selfish dudes” comment; Paul George allegedly impregnating a stripper and getting “catfished”; David West losing his authority in the locker room; Lance being Lance and getting into fisticuffs with Turner in practice; and George Hill’s perpetual lack of aggression — the story lines were endless.

Despite all the turmoil, the Pacers somehow still backed into the first seed in a depleted East — with Miami opting to rest Dwyane Wade, Chicago losing Derrick Rose again, and Brooklyn losing Brook Lopez. They may have attained the goal they talked about all season, but no one felt good about the way they got there in the end.

For the Pacers, the first two round of the playoffs were intriguing for all the wrong reasons. All those hoping they would steer their ship back in the right direction once the postseason began had their expectations dashed as the Pacers had to come from behind against both the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards. They did just enough to win when their backs were against the wall but were often downright abysmal in getting blown out against clearly inferior opposition.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that the Pacers were thoroughly outclassed by the Heat for the third consecutive year. This time, however, the bad taste left in their mouths will be the worst they’ve ever experienced. On paper, the Heat were not supposed to be as good as they were last year, while the Pacers were supposed to have bridged the gap, or perhaps even overtaken their rival. And yet this series was arguably the most lopsided of the three, with the 117-92 annihilation in game 6 providing a true reflection of the difference between them.

I said before game 6 that I didn’t expect the Pacers to win, but I hoped they would go out swinging. I would have been OK if Miami played out their minds, but I didn’t want the Pacers to lay an egg. The thing is, I can’t fault the Pacers’ effort tonight. They played their hearts out. Miami played well, though frighteningly, not as well as they’re capable of. It simply came down to the stark contrast in execution at both ends, the ability to adjust, and of course, LeBron James.

This Pacers team was said to have been “built” to beat the Heat with their size and defense. They went “all in” with the Turner trade and the Bynum signing. They even had home court advantage. But at the end of the day, none of it mattered. The Heat crushed the Pacers with small ball and used their finely-tuned offense to turn the Pacers’ once-touted defense into cheese. Turner barely saw the court and Bynum was gone before the series began. Having home court in a game 7 turned out to be moot. The painful truth is that the Heat were just flat out better, leaving the Pacers, who don’t have a 1st round pick in this year’s loaded draft, with a long summer of questions ahead of them.

Lessons learned

Shut up

When the Pacers lost game 7 in a landslide last year, the lesson they supposedly learned in the locker room was that not playing game 7 on their home floor was the difference, thereby shaping their entire focus for the upcoming year. This year, there are multiple lessons to be learned.

The most important lesson, perhaps, is to just shut the hell up and play basketball. The Pacers did way too much talking this year, and ultimately it proved to be their undoing.  They talked about beating the Heat and earning the No. 1 seed even before the season began. They kept talking when they raced off to the best start in franchise history, about PG being an MVP candidate, about Roy Hibbert being DPOY, about Lance being a deserving All-Star. They talked when things started falling apart, about the lack of focus, the lack of touches, the lack of unity, and eventually began pointing the finger at each other.

In the playoffs, Lance’s antics overshadowed the whole team in the Miami series. For all the talk about getting into LeBron’s head, it seems Lance got into the heads of his teammates more. No matter what happens in terms of personnel changes from here, expect the Pacers to come out with a more mature attitude next season, with a focus on letting their play doing all the talking.

Staying humble

When things were going well, the Pacers appeared like a humble team working towards a common, bigger goal. They talked about each other positively and wanted to share the spotlight together. At some stage, that changed. Some say it was when Lance was snubbed form the All-Star team, after which he went on a personal rampage of revenge against all the coaches who overlooked him. Roy Hibbert trashed his teammates with the “selfish dudes” comment while complaining about lack of touches, quietly fuming over Bynum’s signing and Lance stealing his rebounds. Paul George started forcing his shots and taking more isolation plays, and his field goal percentage plummeted.

Admittedly, early success got to their heads, both individually and as a collective unit. It’s what Pat Riley coined “the disease of more” after a team wins a championship — except in this case, the Pacers haven’t won anything yet. A lot of people point to the Granger trade as the turning point, but that could not be further from the truth. The team had been sliding leading up to that point, which is actually what prompted Larry Bird to pull the trigger. Those close to the Pacers locker room were also unequivocal that Granger was never a leader or a huge presence in the locker room. Turner and Bynum were not core guys and were not the disruptions they’ve been painted to be. The Pacers’ evolution from a cohesive, humble unit to one plagued by the disease of more was a total team effort.

It’s a lesson learned the hard way, and hopefully next season the Pacers will use this humbling experience to embrace the underdog, “chip on the shoulder” mentality that made them the best team in basketball for a couple of months — except this time, extend it for the whole season and playoffs.

Making adjustments

Much has been made of the mental elements of the Pacers’ collapse down the stretch, but perhaps the answer has a lot more to do with Xs and Os than we’ve been led to believe, especially in the playoffs. Frank Vogel has been criticized, and perhaps rightly so, for his stubbornness and unwillingness to make adjustments in all three of the series the Pacers played in. And when he finally did make lineup changes, the Pacers were better off, though it’s arguable that he made things a lot more difficult for his team than they should have been. In the Heat series, it was a matter of too little, too late.

Commentators have scrutinized Roy Hibbert’s inefficiencies and the multiple goods eggs he has laid in these playoffs. Part of it is effort and mental toughness, part of it is the opponents figuring out ways to limit Hibbert’s effectiveness. He may well be the best rim protector in the league, but the fact of the matter is that he lacks mobility and lateral quickness. Whether it’s Antic, Nene or Bosh drawing him out to the perimeter or guys like Teague, Wall and Wade/Chalmers/LeBron exploiting his slow reaction times, opponents adjusted to neutralize and exploit Hibbert. At the same time, defending Hibbert became easier and easier. Deny him the entry pass by fronting, body him if he gets the ball outside the paint, and strip the ball if he gets it inside the paint. The rest of the time he’ll just miss point blank shots on his own.

Hibbert is a big part of the Pacers, but Miami did an excellent job of adjusting to the entire team in this series. The Heat beat the Pacers last time because of superior pressure defense in game 7. This time, they shredded them on offense all series long. Did you know that the Heat shot over 45% in each of the six games and over 50% in four of them? They knew the Pacers were the best defensive team in the league, and they planned and executed their offense to perfection against them. Everyone knew their role, where to be and when to be there, and guys hit their open shots whenever LeBron drew two or three defenders on every drive.

On defense, they knew Paul George struggled with double teams, which is what they threw at him to essentially limit him to one good game (game 1) and one exceptional quarter (the fourth quarter of game 5). They knew George Hill struggled with on-the-ball pressure, so they kept trapping him in the back court. They knew Roy Hibbert is a weak rebounder for a 7-footer, so they kept using their quickness to sneak in front of him for offensive boards, or draw him out so that others can take advantage of David West’s occasional laziness in boxing out, one of his few weaknesses. And they even knew when to flop to draw fouls, which is why the Pacers had at least two guys get in early foul trouble in games 2, 3 and 4 (all losses), and earned three flopping fines this series (two to Lance, one to Hibbert) when the Heat flopped arguably just as much, if not more.

Vogel’s substitution patterns were also frustratingly rigid. Everyone talks about Chris Copeland’s lack of minutes despite his unique skill set, and the criticisms are not without merit. As bad as Copeland is defensively, he’s not much worse than Luis Scola or Evan Turner, but offensively he adds lethal firepower from the outside. Nobody’s talking about starting him or even giving him 20 minutes a game, but at least give the kid a chance. Putting him out there exclusively in blowout situations is a dick move, and Cope doesn’t deserve that type of treatment.

It’s more than just Copeland, however. Vogel stuck with Hibbert for far too long during long stretches of inefficiency. He put Luis Scola out there when he kept missing mid-range jumpers and took him out when he was making them. He was too afraid to use the West-Scola front line for anything longer than a minute or two. He never dared to roll the dice with Evan Turner, whose versatility could have thrown a spanner into the Heat defense despite how bad he’s been overall in Indiana. Even Lavoy Allen could have helped in bringing some much needed energy, but we’ll never know because Vogel was so convinced by his “system.”

Vogel thought the Pacers could win if they just stuck to what they know best, irrespective of what the opponent threw at them. Erik Spoelstra proved him wrong.

Looking ahead

The last three years the Pacers were eliminated from the playoffs there was a sense of overachieving and optimism. Given the expectations heaped onto them this year, however, there is now an overwhelming sense of disappointment, and for the first time in four years the Pacers enter the postseason with plenty of uncertainty.

Re-signing Lance Stephenson

The biggest question mark hanging over the Pacers this offseason is whether they can and will sign Lance Stephenson, who will soon be an unrestricted free agent. Based on production alone, Lance should command big bucks, but his potential damage to team chemistry and his distracting antics will make bidders wary of handing him a long multi-million dollar deal.

David West said Lance is a big part of the team’s success and would like to see him back, but Paul George didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement in his post-game comments. Lance is a Larry Bird guy and said he wants to be back, but at the same time the Pacers front office must be seriously weighing up the pros and cons given they’ve repeatedly said they won’t go over the luxury tax threshold under any circumstances.

The Pacers’ ability to re-sign Lance will depend partly on whether Paul George triggers the Derrick Rose rule by making another All-NBA team, which would technically entitle him to 30% of the team’s cap as opposed to 25% as part of his max deal (they reportedly agreed on a compromise of 27%). If so, they might have to get creative, including getting rid of guys like Luis Scola and Chris Copeland. Right now, the Pacers look like they could offer Lance something in the ball park of $8-10 million a year, but if teams decide to grossly overpay him then there’s not much the Pacers can do to match.

The bigger question is if the Pacers trust Lance enough to keep him around. His skill set, effort and energy is never a question, and he gives the Pacers an edge that could cut both ways. He’s come a long way since his rookie season, though he’s always going to be that irritating guy who might get under the skin of his teammates as much as his opponents. If he already thinks he’s the man when he makes less than a million a year, what might happen if they give him 10 times that? It’s a gamble the Pacers have to think through very carefully.

Roster changes

Apart from Lance, the Pacers have a whole bunch of other roster decisions to make. Unlike last year, when the Pacers were happy with what they had in the starting lineup entering the offseason, there is now a question mark hanging over every one of them.

Paul George is their franchise guy so he’s not going anywhere, but after a sizzling start to the season he’s shown that he’s not quite at the superstar level of LeBron and Durant — just yet. No one doubts he is one of the best wing defenders on the planet, so the concerns are mainly with his inconsistent offense and will to take over a game. With the exception of game 1, when the entire team played out of their minds, and that fourth quarter explosion in game 5, PG had a relatively poor conference finals, never managing to affect the game offensively like LeBron or Wade can, or the way Durant and Westbrook can, or even the way Tony Parker, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul can. That’s the level he needs to aim for. We didn’t doubt he would get there earlier in the season, but after his off-court “issues” and struggles on the big stage, the confidence has certainly waned.

David West will be 34 by the time next season starts and with a player option the season after. He’s been the team’s most reliable player and its voice inside the locker room, but he’s been far from perfect, and his authority inside the locker room has not worked its magic like it used to. Of course the Pacers would love to keep him, but at what stage do they start fielding offers for younger, more athletic bigs?

Roy Hibbert is the team’s defensive anchor, but his disappearing act in the last few months of the season has been downright baffling. At times it seriously looks like he’s just flinging shots up and hoping for the best, and when his offense struggles he becomes less involved defensively. And let’s face it: it’s not the first time his mental toughness has been questioned. Considering his physical limitations and how teams have been able to exploit that in the playoffs, should the Pacers possibly contemplate going for someone less flimsy? We know he’ll never be much more than he is now, and at the moment nobody even knows if he can manage to get it together again after what he’s been through. Even if he does, do the Pacers want to put up with someone who can lose it out of the blue when they need him the most?

The most likely to get moved out of the starting five is still George Hill, who has not only peaked statistically but appears to be in decline as a 28-year-old. No one doubts he is a baller (albeit one who can completely disappear and become the most passive player on the floor), though it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Pacers are in desperate need of a playmaking point guard who can create for teammates. Hill’s an average passer at best; he’s not good enough of a ball handler to cope with intense ball pressure. While he can hit the open jumper, he’s far from a knockdown shooter, and his free throw shooting has been suspect in crunch time. His only true value is on the defensive end with his peskiness and long arms, but his size is often exploited when he’s forced to guard bigger players.

On the bench, changes are definitely coming, except the Pacers are limited in how much they can do due to salary restrictions. For all the upgrades the Pacers supposedly made last offseason, from the costly acquisition of Luis Scola to the signings of Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, the reserves underperformed again. I think it speaks volumes that promising guys who come to Indiana’s bench struggle, while those essentially abandoned by the Pacers (DJ Augustin, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, etc) flourish on other teams.

The only guys the Pacers will want to keep are probably CJ Watson and Ian Mahinmi. Neither are sixth man of the year material but they are at least serviceable. The Luis Scola experiment has largely failed because his mid-range jumper abandoned him and his defense is as bad as it’s ever been. They can’t give away Evan Turner (qualifying offer) quickly enough, Lavoy Allen and Rasual Butler are unwanted free agents, and Donald Sloan has a team option that probably won’t be exercised. We haven’t seen much of rookie Solomon Hill, but when he’s been on he’s been worse than advertised, and Chris Copeland deserves to get minutes elsewhere if Vogel refuses to use him.

So chances are we’ll see a different Pacers team next season, at least around the edges, but it’s difficult to envision major changes because so much money is locked in the starters. If I were the front office I’d try to keep the core (the starters + Watson and Mahinmi) in tact and hope that they grow from this season’s experience. Yes, I’d try to keep both Lance and Hill, but I’d definitely dangle Hill out there if there was a chance of getting a playmaking point guard in return (unlikely). If Lance can’t be re-signed then I’d use the space to go after a playmaker and shift Hill to shooting guard, even though his ideal role would be a combo guard off the bench like he was in San Antonio. That said, $8 million a year is far too much for a backup guard, and it’s also the reason why the market for Hill will be very restrictive.

My dream Pacers team next season would have Paul George taking the next step towards becoming a reliable superstar on the offensive end, Roy Hibbert (after undergoing intensive counseling) finding his mojo, David West not regressing much, and Lance Stephenson reaching a new level of maturity after being rewarded with a reasonable contract. George Hill is either gone or preferably the sixth man, with a dynamic playmaking point guard replacing him as starter. On the bench, the Pacers will sign or trade for an athletic big man, a deadly stretch shooter (not named Chris Copeland), a guy who can create offense off the dribble (a la Jamal Crawford), and an energy/rebounding guy (like Tyler Hansbrough, except with the ability to play basketball).

Totally likely all of this will happen too.

Coaching adjustments

I don’t want to say fire Frank Vogel, but I’d be lying if I said the thought never crossed my mind. I like the idea of rewarding Frank for all the good he has done with the team, though I’d like to see him undergo an evolution as well. That starts with cutting out the eternal optimism BS and holding the players accountable. Be less obstinate, learn to make adjustments. Learn some Xs and Os, or hire someone who does, preferably someone who has been near or under the tutelage of Greg Popovich. In fact, just be more Pop-like in general.

In all seriousness, the Pacers need an offensive coordinator — badly. They have too much offensive talent to be this horrendous at scoring on a consistent basis. Much of the problems can probably be alleviated with a better playmaking point guard, but the Spurs have been lethal without one, so there’s no reason why the Pacers can’t emulate that. I’m also in the camp of people who think the loss of Brian Shaw was a big one that affected team chemistry and had something to do with the locker room egos spiraling out of control, so an assistant coach with some experience dealing with players would be welcome too. Based on results alone, I don’t think Popeye Jones has done an acceptable job with the team’s bigs or its rebounding, so a change there might be necessary too.

The Future

I’m disappointed in the end of the Pacers’ 2013-2014 campaign and excited about their future. While it hurts to lose to the Heat for the third consecutive year, the fact is that the Pacers still captured the first seed in the East and pushed the two-time defending champs to 6 games in the conference finals. When all is said and done, they’re not ready yet, and this season can be chalked down to a valuable learning experience that will only make them stronger.

Next season will bring new challenges. Miami will be a year older, but chances are they’ll still have LeBron. Brooklyn will get Brook Lopez back and Deron Williams could return to his former brilliance after double ankle surgery. The Bulls will get Rose back and could sign Carmelo. The Raptors and the Wizards are rising, and Al Horford will return for the Hawks. Will the Pacers be able to keep up? Stay tuned to Pacers Pulse to find out.

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