The 2013-14 Indiana Pacers should go down as one of the more infamous flameouts in NBA history. The squad didn’t have the indignity of being tossed out of the postseason in the first round as the 1994 Seattle SuperSonics, 1999 Miami Heat or 2007 Dallas Mavericks did, but needing 13 games to dispatch the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards after a 56-win season runs nearly along those upset lines.
Indiana eventually fell to a Miami Heat team in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference finals, a game they more or less expected to lose. It was an embarrassing effort, as the Pacers lost 117-92, and one in line with a months-long swoon that saw the team run up a 33-28 record (postseason included) after a 33-7 start.
It was an ungodly meltdown. The Pacers lost home-court advantage in each of their three playoff series. The team’s defense dipped from the realm of the dominant into the ranks of the mediocre, and both the scout- and stat-test documented an offense that was embarrassing to behold at times. The Pacers were absolutely rudderless, a shocking turn after such a fantastic start to the season.
Back home in California, Pacers All-Star Paul George recently discussed his team’s failure to sustain its early season play. In a talk with the Los Angeles Daily News, George blamed a change in attitude and an inability to keep up intensity after putting so much into the first three months of the season:
“Before we were hungry,” he said. “We started the year off hungry, the bad taste from the year before was in our mouths and everyone was on a mission. Once we started to win, the game was coming too easy. We were running away from our opponents and we just kind of forgot that edge.”
And that doomed them.
“It was a point where we came into games thinking we could just turn it on, regardless if we started bad or not. And I think that kind of put us in a funk to where teams were starting to really play us and get ready for us,” he said.
“We weren’t the team chasing opponents. We were being chased and we couldn’t find that balance between getting that edge back we started the season with.”
“We were still a great team. We still had pieces, despite the year we had. We had the pieces to win a championship,” he said. “Ultimately we couldn’t put it together at the right time. Had we started the playoffs in November or December we’d probably be holding up a trophy. We peaked too early.”
George is not wrong, but it’s rare to hear an NBA player be so right about such things on the record. And it speaks to the borderline cruelty of a long NBA season, and how the league is covered by both fans and media alike.
The long-held stereotypes that have fans and media ignoring the league until the snow starts to melt, and until the postseason hits, is true to a certain extent. Winning a championship involves a 100-plus game, 7 1/2-month commitment, not including the month-long exhibition season, which moves from Halloween until mid-June. Fans pay huge amounts of money for seats and/or NBA League Pass subscriptions, and they’d like their dollars to count just as much for games on a Wednesday in December as they do the stretch run. The notion that teams can and should pace themselves as the season moves along has slowly become more and more accepted – those good guys from San Antonio, leading the charge, helped in that regard – but it still seems sacrilege for a player earning millions off a game we all played as children to cop to minding his minutes and effort level.
Indiana’s issues weren’t driven by fatigue, though. Their problems weren’t something a night off was going to help, though everyone recalls that Pacers coach Frank Vogel certainly tried that approach. Yes, Indiana’s depth was lacking even after a flurry of 2013 offseason moves, but the team’s real issues were mental. Players clearly weren’t enjoying working together, the ball wasn’t moving offensively, and the sense of gusto that led them to an absolute stunner of a season defensively waned as the months moved along.
Playing from behind as opposed to ahead – whether that’s reflected in an in-game score, a standings rank or image as a group – is a real thing. Indiana’s three-time season-enders, those Miami Heatles, were notorious for needing the spark of being the perceived underdog at times as they worked toward titles in 2012 and 2013. It is normal to approach certain games certain ways when dealing with the hunter/hunted conundrum. It’s human.
Those same Heat lost the game’s greatest player to Cleveland over the 2014 offseason, and though the Cavaliers have an enviable mix of youth and talent, it’s no sure thing that LeBron James and his new teammates will immediately jell and vault to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. On paper, the Chicago Bulls have put together a fantastic roster, but age, injuries and rust have to be considered as they attempt to get back to the top of the Eastern standings. Washington, Charlotte and Atlanta have potential, but their respective rosters aren’t worth losing sleep over.
This would seem to leave Indiana, even after losing Lance Stephenson to Charlotte and replacing him with an approximation in Rodney Stuckey, as the favorites in the East. The problem behind that designation is the Pacers played absolutely terrible basketball while working as the leaders of that conference last season. The team’s offense is almost certainly guaranteed to be miserable next year even as George, Roy Hibbert, George Hill grow a year older (and presumably better), and the team’s defense was worryingly inconsistent for over half the season in 2013-14, counting playoffs.
It’s quite true, as Paul George pointed out, that the Indiana Pacers peaked too early last season. What’s worth wondering, at this point, is if that particular crest was the best we’ll ever see this team play.
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