Why It’s Time To Worry About the Indiana Pacers
It seemed like just yesterday that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers meeting for a chance to reach the NBA Finals was merely an inevitability. However, there has been a wrench thrown in that date with destiny, not only with the emergence of the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets as legitimate contenders (more on this in a bit), but more so, the seemingly complete implosion by those aforementioned Pacers. Even after a rock-bottom loss at home to the Atlanta Hawks, where they were down by as many as 32 points at home, many still believe that the Pacers and Heat will battle it out in a seven-game slug-fest to determine the Eastern Conference champions. Personally, I have been on record as off that bandwagon for a few weeks now, as I have serious doubts that the Pacers will live up to their end of the bargain.
Before the season even began, most people didn’t see the Pacers exploding out of the gates and competing for the one seed with the Miami Heat. Furthermore, the popular pick to challenge the defending champion Heat were the Pacers division rival Chicago Bulls, especially with the return of star point guard Derrick Rose. Unfortunately, Rose suffered yet another crippling season-ending injury, opening the door for the young Pacers to emerge this season, and they took full advantage, behind an MVP-caliber first half of the season by Paul George.
Life after the all-star break hasn’t been as friendly, as the Pacers haven’t adjusted from being the hunters to the hunted. A team that is built on defense and intensity has failed to grasp the concept that they will now be getting every teams best shot on the court, and they are no longer the young up-and-comers. Specifically, teams have started to game-plan around George, and he has not adjusted. That is the true symbol of a superstar, and the reason why George was crowned prematurely. Real superstars like LeBron and Durant have teams key in on them to no avail, still having the ability to make opponents pay no matter what they’ve drawn up.
Bill Simmons had an interesting breakdown of George’s season in his mailbag this past week on Grantland:
George’s 2013 hot streak (October 29 through December 31, 30 games): 23.8 PPG, 47% FG, 40% 3FG, 86% FT, 17.3 FGA, 6.6 3FGA, 5.8 FTA. And it happened: We thought, PAUL GEORGE IS MAKING THE LEAP!!!!!!
George’s shooting slump (January 25 through March 31, 33 games): 19.2 PPG, 37% FG, 32% 3FG, 87% FT, 16.5 FGA, 5.8 3FGA, 5.8 FTA.
It has been a tail of two seasons for George, as documented above, and dealing with success can be a contributing factor, aside from Simmons’ argument that George may have just possibly have been on a hot streak to begin the season, and the player we are seeing now may be more representative of who he truly is as a player right now. Maybe more troubling has been George’s off the court “incidents” (I use the quotations because, in fairness, there has been no legal trouble.) George, rightfully so for someone his age, has shown some immaturity in handling success, which isn’t necessarily uncommon, yet still concerning. Whether you believe the reports that he impregnated a stripper and offered her a million dollars to abort the baby, or that he was catfished into sending nude photos to another male isn’t really important, but the mere fact he has put himself in these situations, exaggerated or not, is enough to worry about his ability to handle the spotlight.
More importantly, the only chance the Pacers have at succeeding this season, and in the future, is with George undoubtedly being their best player. With George falling back to the pack with his teammates, the Pacers essentially become a rich man’s version of the Denver Nuggets teams from the past few years; an extremely talented team without a superstar to realistically compete for a title.
Though a major contributor to their second half downward spiral, George isn’t the only problem. Roy Hibbert, the main cog of the Pacers defensive personality, has been a severe disappointment as well. Hibbert hit a personal rock-bottom against Atlanta as well, being benched by coach Frank Vogel in the second half, and sulking on the bench the entire team, even as the team was attempting to mount the improbable comeback. Hibbert’s struggles are more concerning than George’s, since what most people conveniently forget about Hibbert is that before last year’s dominant playoff run, he wasn’t seen as one of the elite NBA centers. More than George, Hibbert may be the player whose success during the playoffs last year, and the start of this year was an aberration. Hibbert’s disappointing numbers this season of 11.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks a game is actually pretty close to his career average of 11.2/6.8/1.9 compared to his playoff run last year of 16.8/9.8/1.9. It’s possible that his playoff run last year was the best Roy Hibbert we will ever see.
With the struggles of George and Hibbert, the team has to rely on guard Lance Stephenson more than ever, and in a playoff series, that is an extremely dangerous proposition. Stephenson is one of those irrational confidence guys. You ask him right now if he is a better player than LeBron James, and he will say yes before you can even finish the question. That confidence is a gift and a curse for the Pacers, as Lance can easily take over a playoff series, or completely blow it. If George does not have the ability to put the team on his back, Stephenson is next logical option, as he is the only other creator that the Pacers have to keep a defense rotation through penetration. If you are a Pacers fan, relying on Stephenson is walking a very tight rope… just ask Knick fans who had to rely on JR Smith last year.
Combining all of these factors with the questionable personnel moves at the deadline of signing Andrew Bynum, who is again stealing money on the bench, and trading away Danny Granger, who was not only an important contributor off the bench, but also one of the most popular players in the locker room, and you have the recipe for a disaster come playoff time.
Then again, the last 1,000 words would be completely irrelevant if the East was as putrid as it was just a couple of months ago when the Pacers were atop the conference. It wasn’t only the talent of both the Pacers and Heat that had people thinking they would eventually meet, but equally as important was the lack of challengers among the rest of the east. However, that story-line has changed drastically with the emergence of three possible contenders in Chicago, Brooklyn, and the Toronto Raptors. Personally, the Raptors, the team currently slotted to meet the Pacers in a potential second round match-up, would be Indiana’s best case scenario. Though the Raptors are arguably equally or more talented than Chicago or Brooklyn, they lack the experience in the playoffs to beat the Pacers, in my opinion.
The other two teams could really make Indiana sweat, though. The division rival Bulls, unlike what the Pacers have shown since the all-star break, will never fold under pressure. Consistently out-manned, but never out-matched behind the grittiness of Joakim Noah and coach Tom Thibedeau, the Pacers will have to go out and beat the Bulls because the Bulls won’t shoot themselves in the foot with silly turnovers and mental mistakes. The glaring flaw in Chicago’s roster, their inability to score, averaging a league worst 93.4 points per game, would potentially be the difference maker in a seven-game series. However, the previously stated struggles of George in particular could make that series just a plain ugly seven games to watch. We are talking the kind of games where the final score of 77-74 won’t take anyone by surprise (I can sense your excitement through my computer.) In THAT kind of series at the Bulls pace, it is really anyone’s game, and with the Bulls’ mental stability, I may even give them the edge.
Basketball is more of a mental game than any other sport, and playoff basketball only intensifies that fact. You are face to face with the same guys on both sides of the court, and inexperience in this matter is what costs most young teams in the end. Enter the Brooklyn Nets, who have completely turned things around after a horrific 10-21 start to the season. Not only do they sport the best record in the East since 2014 began, they have a deep group of veteran, playoff-tested guys who could easily get into the struggling Pacers heads. Unlike the Bulls, the Nets have a plethora of guys who can not only score, but create their own shot; the starting lineup only features one player (Garnett) who cannot do so. The Nets depth would be especially valuable, as the Pacers, after those aforementioned questionable roster moves, lack a definitive second unit to help out the starting five. Luis Scola is probably their only reliable bench option at this point, and he won’t be enough to compete with the Nets, who could easily go 9-10 deep, especially with the emergence of rookie Mason Plumlee during Kevin Garnett’s absence due to injury. The Nets, despite losing all four games to the Pacers this season (three of those games before the Nets turnaround), are an extremely dangerous match for the Pacers.
Overall, it wouldn’t shock me if the Pacers pull this thing together, and get through to the Eastern Conference Finals at all. But, there is no denying that this stretch they are going through is not just a phase, and it has exposed potentially fatal flaws in the team construction. If I am a Pacers fan, I would be extremely worried that not only is this team getting bounced early this year, but the first half of this season may have truly been an anomaly.
By: Frank Santos- Sports-Kings Co-Founder