With the Chicago Bulls undergoing an unfortunate waiting period with star guard Derrick Rose on the shelf, and the Boston Celtics seemingly rebuilding on the fly after watching Ray Allen take his senior act down to South Beach, the Indiana Pacers were everyone's pick to take the East's mantle as The Second Greatest Thang Besides the Heat. After all, the Pacers gave Miami a good show in last May's second-round loss to the Heat, and internal development combined with a full year of workhorse coach Frank Vogel's machinations seemed to line all the breadcrumbs toward a second-seed season.
Just nine games in, the Pacers might still be well on their way to that spot come spring, but the start to the 2012-13 season has been an absolute miss. The squad has lost six out of nine games to begin the campaign, and even with 73 to play that record hardly seems to resemble how awful the team has looked. Yes, it is holding its own defensively, and we're all mindful of the fact that scoring swingman Danny Granger will be out for a while due to some worrying knee issues, but the Pacers reek.
And with Granger away from the media's glare, and Paul George too green to take on all the slings and arrows, max contract-outfitted Roy Hibbert is left to answer for his team's slow start. True to form, and somewhat making up for the dodgy start, the All-Star big man is holding his own in terms of explanation. From NBA.com's Steve Aschburner:
" […] 23 minutes he spent on the Pacers' bench, compared to his 25 in the game, were just as bad. Hibbert rolled his eyes at calls and non-calls, slammed his towel to the floor when Bucks' shooters got friendly bounces and covered his face time and again. At one point, his 7-foot-2 self was folded into the open chair next to him, face down, anguishing through a butt-kicking that got to 32 points at one juncture against Milwaukee.
Then, the Pacers center beat himself up pretty bad in the visitors' dressing room, too.
"It's very frustrating," Hibbert said, cooperative but looking a little tortured. "It's very hard to get into a rhythm … personally. I think I'm doing good defensively, but offensively I need to get going and help the team out. I want to do more than I have been. I have to figure out a way to get that done."
Based on the eye test alone, Hibbert is doing well defensively. Heck, the entire Pacers team appears to be holding their own on that end, even down to the routinely in-air Tyler Hansbrough, as they rank fourth out of 30 NBA teams in terms of defensive efficiency. It's a remarkable stat considering the group is last, per-possession, in causing turnovers on that end; but the combination of stout field-goal percentage defense and good enough rebounding keeps teams scratching for air as they attempt to claw their way toward 91 points.
The problem is that the Pacers are often left having to claw their way toward 88 points. The team's 87.8 points per game ranks last in the NBA, and this isn't a case of blue collar-pace altering how we judge this squad, because Indiana is 28th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. The team looks as bad as Washington, the Andrew Bynum-less Philadelphia 76ers, and Orlando. And because the Pacers were expected to win as many games as Washington, an Andrew Bynum-less Philly team, and Orlando; the viewing experience is all the more shocking.
There is no movement — none — to this team's offense. The caveat that Danny Granger (hardly a Hondo Havlicek in terms of moving without the ball) has been out for each of these nine games doesn't really go a long way towards absolving the team of looking like it has absolutely no clue what to do once it bothers to cross the half-court stripe. It's true that George Hill is far from a pure point guard, and the recently acquired D.J. Augustin hasn't even made a quarter of his shots on the season, but this doesn't for a second explain the offensive confusion this team can't seem to work its way out of.
That "work" is sticking point amongst Pacer fans. The fair-weather locals have yet to notice — I re-located to Indiana a few years ago and the typical sports fans in the area won't pay attention to this team unless it goes up 2-1 in a series against Miami again — but Pacer diehards were apoplectic on Twitter during Wednesday night's loss to the division-leading Milwaukee Bucks while complaining about the team's lack of hustle and interest. And this wasn't some group of pull-up-yer-bootstraps gym teacher-types, but knowledgeable NBA observes who don't rely on clichés to make a point.
Chief among them is the great Jared Wade at Eight Points, Nine Seconds. He's not one to overreact to players taking it easy during one of 82 regular-season games, nor one to obsess over a season seemingly without rehabilitation just two weeks into a months-long campaign, but there is a reason he only gave Hansbrough (a player he hasn't paused in criticizing quite a bit in the past) and little-used guard (as in, "played four minutes all season") Orlando Johnson anything more than a failing grade in the team's performance on Wednesday.
It's early, to be sure, but none of the players on this team have been proven to do anything more than surprise away from the glare of the spotlight and also take advantage (briefly) of a hurting Miami Heat team last May. The issues are obvious — the team doesn't move away from the ball, it does miserable work in screening for big men like Hibbert and David West to work from their comfort zones, and its sub-40 percent shooting ranks it last in the NBA. It's a lack of everything — continuity, movement, spacing, touch, precision and confidence — that marks a great or even good NBA offense.
And it's not just Danny Granger's absence. The Pacers have quite a bit to work out if they ever want to resemble the hopeful unit that made Miami's life so worrisome six months ago.