The Indiana Pacers are a very good basketball team.
Despite what the Internet might lead you to believe, they even spent a good chunk of the season as the best team in the NBA. Over the last several weeks, however, they have become Twitter’s favorite whipping dog.
While they certainly deserve to be criticized, there are more numbers that support them as one of the best teams than as one of the most disappointing. The Pacers had more regular-season wins (56) than all but three teams. Two of those clubs, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, are battling it out in the Western Conference Finals. The third, the Los Angeles Clippers, enjoyed a run to the semifinals despite the overwhelming shadow of Donald Sterling.
Indiana had the NBA’s best home record (35-6) during the regular season and tied San Antonio for the best record in conference.
Defense was the main reason the Pacers were so successful and why they are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second-straight year.
The Pacers ranked first in defensive rating (99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) and in opponent’s true shooting percentage (.501), effective field goal percentage (.460) and points per shot (1.12). They did so while playing at a pace that ranked in the bottom third of the league. They forced teams to take tough shots and didn’t allow them to compile enough possessions to make up for poor percentages.
Frank Vogel, defensive-minded since he took over for Jim O’Brien during the 2010-11 season, leaned on his defense because his team often slipped into periods of atrocious offense. The Pacers had a 104.1 offensive rating during the season, which ranked 23rd overall and was worse than only two playoffs teams (Charlotte and Chicago).
Indiana’s advanced shooting percentages were middling, but a high turnover rate (14.3%) compounded their offensive problems. Playing at a slow pace keep the Pacers from scoring in the same manner that it limited their opponents.
The Pacers haven’t been quite as stingy in the playoffs, but they have the lowest defensive rating (103.1) among the remaining teams. The offense has been through peaks and valleys, but at a rate of 103.5 points per 100 possessions it’s only a fraction of point worse than what they posted over the regular season.
So why have the Pacers struggled?
They needed seven games to get past the Atlanta Hawks, who entered the playoffs with a losing record. The Wizards took Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse before the Pacers won four of the next five to win the series in six. After thumping the Miami Heat in the first game of the conference finals, three straight losses put them in the unenviable position of having to win three in a row to advance.
Vogel’s crew has endured uncharacteristic defensive lapses, especially in the first round and against the Heat, who saw their offensive rating increase in each game (from 108.2 in Game 1 all the way to 125.1 in Game 4) before Indiana’s win on Wednesday night. They’ve also scored fewer than 90 points in six of their 18 playoff games. Their overall offensive rating hasn’t dipped significantly because they’ve scored more than 100 points twice.
For these Pacers, the biggest reason for their inconsistent play has been startling immaturity and a lack of mental toughness.
Lance Stephenson (immaturity) and Roy Hibbert (fragile psyche) have been the poster children for what is wrong with the Pacers, but in truth the problems are much more deep-seeded.
They were one big happy family when cruising through the first half of the season, looking like a band of brothers while sitting at 20-3 in mid-December. Running off so many wins early on may have done more harm than good in hindsight. Perhaps these Pacers became too good, too quickly. Maybe they were never quite as good as their record looked early in the season. It’s feasible that they figured they had punched to a ticket to the NBA Finals back in the first month of the season.
It’s disturbing that a team with so much experience as a unit -- the starting five has tallied roughly 3,500 minutes together since the start of the 2012-13 season, nearly double the next most common lineup -- can’t handle adversity. They are young, with a two starters that began the year at 23, but not cripplingly so. The average age of Indiana’s starting five is 27, greater than Oklahoma City (25.6). Miami (30.8) and San Antonio (29.4) are significantly older.
While it’s clear that the mental state of the team was never as strong as it looked, things started to come unglued over a three-week period at midseason. Larry Bird, seeing that a championship was within the team’s grasp, signed Andrew Bynum and traded the beloved Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner.
The moves were universally lauded, including by yours truly, but before long they became unquestioned failures.
Bynum’s troublesome knees limited him to just two games, but Hibbert still seemed frazzled by the addition. The All-Star center, who averaged 11.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on 46.4% shooting before the break, posted just 9.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on 40.5% shooting after Bynum was signed.
When the Pacers announced on May 7 that Bynum would no longer be with the club, Hibbert responded a few hours later with 28 points, nine rebounds and two blocks on 10-for-13 shooting against the Wizards.
Turner has been a non-factor for the Pacers, especially in the postseason. He has logged more than 12 minutes in just five games and sat out entirely on six occasions. More upsetting than his lack of production on the court, his new teammates have put undo blame on Turner for the departure of Granger.
Shortly after the Pacers sent Granger to Philadelphia for the former No. 2 overall pick, Paul George posted an Instagram photo of him and Granger sitting together on the bench laughing. Granger had been in Indianapolis longer than any other player, enduring losing seasons as the roster was rebuilt. Injuries and age had limited his on-court role, but Granger’s presence in the locker room was more valuable than Bird estimated.
This has been more a case of the Pacers missing Granger than Turner being a bad seed, but it was a mistake nonetheless. Bird made the deal, but it was the team’s responsibility to act like professionals. In a lengthy conversation I had with George Hill nearly two weeks after the trade, it was clear that he was still coming to terms with the change. He alternated between saying the right thing and refusing to let Granger go.
“It sucks to see a teammate leave, you never want to see that. It’s a business though, and it can happen to anybody, any of us. It shows that in the league these days you have to come to work with a purpose and make the most of it because it’s not promised,” Hill told me in Boston. “We wished him well and we hope that he has a great career after this. But it just sucks; you never want to see a teammate leave. Especially a guy that’s close to you.”
An indication that even Bird was beginning to panic came on March 11 when he told Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star that we was “disappointed” by the team’s play. The Hall of Famer was absolutely right in criticizing his troops for lacking urgency, but they weren’t the only ones caught in the line of fire.
Vogel, perpetually positive, has maintained a “stay the course” approach throughout Indiana’s lowest moments. Bird, the yin and Vogel’s yang, called for the coach to be tougher on his players.
“I’m sort of going to Frank’s side because he's had so much success by staying positive,” Bird told Kravitz. “We do have to stay the course. But I also think he’s got to start going after guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. And stay on them, whether you’ve got to take them out of the game when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasn’t done that enough.”
A few weeks after Bird critiqued his coach, the players started to air their dirty laundry publicly.
“Some selfish dudes in here,” Hibbert told the media after taking eight shots in a 91-78 loss in Washington on March 28. “Some selfish dudes. 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," he added. "Is it obvious, or what? I don't know whatever our assist ratio, or whatever it is, is in the league, but it probably isn't up there. I'm really trying hard not to spaz out right now, but I don't know. We've been talking about it for a month. I'm not handling the rock. I don't know. I've made suggestions before and we do it for, like, one game, and then we revert back to what we are. I don't know. I'm not the one to answer that question. It directly affects me and the bigs. We're just out there and it makes us look bad."
Soon after Hibbert took his gripes to the media, it was revealed that a series of players-only meetings were held after the All-Star break when losses started to come as frequently as wins.
“We’ve had plenty of players-only meetings,” Hibbert told reporters. “We’ve had plenty of sit-downs with the team and coaches, some with upper management listening in. Maybe we should all go to group therapy and have an airing of grievances.”
A few days after Hibbert gave us all a peek into the team’s psyche, Vogel expressed a desire for things to be kept in-house by saying Hibbert’s comments “bothered him.” Putting a positive spin on things becomes much more difficult when everything coming from the locker room is negative.
Despite a near free-fall in March and April, the Pacers held onto the No. 1 seed and achieved their season-long goal of home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Once again, they took their foot off the gas as they lost Game 1 to the Hawks at home. They would fall down 3-2 in the series and need a pair of season-saving wins to avoid a historic disaster.
As they battled Atlanta, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that Stephenson and Turner fought during practice on the eve of the playoffs. The Pacers deflected the story with the precision of a defensively focused Hibbert, but the damage was done. Of all the negative attention this team has garnered in the past few months, this story seemed to carry the least weight. Stephenson gets under everyone’s skin and Turner just isn’t as well versed at ignoring him than the rest of his teammates.
As the Pacers continued to alternate between focused and lost, rumors floated around that women were dividing the locker room. One rumor, that Paul George slept with Hibbert’s fiancée, made enough of an impact that George took to Instagram once again. This time he posted of picture of himself with Hibbert and Hill smiling during a fishing trip. He outwardly denied the rumors, while Hibbert choose not to comment on the odd situation.
The reports piggybacked an admission by George to Candace Buckner of the Star that he may not have handled stardom and a few embarrassing off-court situations as well as he should have.
"It was a bit of a learning curve," George told Buckner. "I just felt like I took that big step of just being an average player to, you know, someone who everybody recognizes. My Instagram taking a big hit with people following. With Twitter, people following.
"There was really no in-between, so everything was like new to me."
That seems like a reasonable mistake by an athlete that turned 24 on May 2, but he proceeded to throw Stephenson under the bus this week when the guard’s goading of LeBron James backfired.
Stephenson told reporters he felt he was getting in LeBron’s head in Game 3 and prior to Game 4. Stephenson, who has since admitted fault, had “no regrets” after James put up 35 points and 10 rebounds in a dominant Game 4 win by the Heat.
"Well, you know, Lance is young," said George, who is just a few months older than his teammate, after Monday night’s loss. "You know that's teaching point, it's a learning lesson for him. Sometimes you just gotta watch what you say. You're on a big stage and everything you say is bulletin board material. It's really going to have a powerful meaning behind it. We've just got to be smarter with situations and voicing our opinions sometimes."
After coughing up chances to win the second and third games against Miami, George’s criticism of Stephenson wasn’t the only display of immaturity. Almost to a man, the Pacers blamed the referees for a wide free throw disparity. George earned himself a $25,000 fine for suggesting that the Heat enjoyed some home cooking. The lack of accountability following a loss that featured a 23-point deficit in the second half was startling.
Hibbert, who is a completely different player when he makes his first shot attempt, added to the negativity following Game 4 by openly complaining about his touches again.
“The game plan really wasn’t to utilize me as much; I’m just trying to be effective as I can,” Hibbert told reporters. “Would I like a little bit more touches early on? Yeah. But that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.”
Hibbert was right when he added: "I just need to be a good teammate if I don’t get looks.” However, if that is how he feels, why is he complaining to the media with a once-promising season slipping away?
The Pacers earned themselves a short break from ridicule with a narrow win in Game 5, but they still have a huge hill to climb if they want to avenge playoff losses to the Heat in each of the last two seasons. Stephenson made some big plays in the victory, but flirted with disaster while trying to irritate Miami once again. He forced his way into a huddle between Erik Spoelstra, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole late in the third quarter and provided fodder for bloggers everywhere when he softly blew into LeBron’s ear during a stoppage in play.
After Game 5, LeBron went out of his way to call the Heat “professionals.” Ray Allen called Stephenson’s antics “buffoonery.”
No matter when this season ends for the Pacers, it’s clear that they have some serious growing up to do. True character is revealed through adversity and these Pacers haven’t dealt well with hardship. Avoiding elimination on Wednesday night was a step in the right direction, but there is still little public confidence that they have the fortitude to pull off an epic comeback.
They are all mostly solid citizens, but at least the Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal teams, who aliened the team’s fan base, fought on the court with as much fervor as they did off it.
The late John Wooden might as well have been talking about these Pacers when he said, “Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.”