With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Indiana Pacers.
The Miami Heat are good enough to win this year’s championship. They are good enough to beat the Indiana Pacers in six games during the Eastern Conference finals, and they are good enough to do so in one-sided fashion. They are the two-time defending champions, they earned this conference finals win, and the Indiana Pacers did not completely give them a conquest in this year’s third round.
They sure gave them Game 6 on Friday, though. The Pacers showed up woefully unprepared to compete; it was clear from the outset that the Pacers nearly to a man expected Miami to end Indiana’s season on Friday night, and the Pacers showed no interest in falling back on the sort of play that allowed them to race out to an impressive early regular season run during 2013-14, and attack the Heat where it hurt the most.
I am not a Pacers backer, nor do I enjoy falling back on these sorts of angry sportswriter’isms. Indiana, though, should be embarrassed with the way it composed itself both in Game 6 and throughout most of these playoffs. And if you think I’m referring to Lance Stephenson’s various attempts at annoying the defending champs, understand that his handiwork ranks far, far down the list of Where Indiana Went Terribly Wrong.
Looking back on Indiana’s failure (the technical outcome is not a failure, mind you, but the way they worked toward that Conference finals loss was) in the days following the Game 6 defeat in great length is pointless, as you already know the hallmarks. Indiana failed to defend to the sort of standards it had set both last season and earlier this season. Its interest in establishing both good passing angles and quick shots toward the hoop completely dissipated against a Heat defense that could have been taken advantage of. And too often the Pacers were more than happy to let the Heat define the terms of engagement, rather than playing with the same panache that made them Miami’s top combatants from 2012 through earlier this calendar year.
Anyone attempting to get into this team’s head beyond what we saw on the court is in for a fruitless exercise. Outside of perhaps David West, just about every prominent member of the Pacers rotation is to be blamed for abandoning the smart, energetic play that made the team so tough to score on for so long, while creating good enough opportunities on the other end along the way. Whether that is the fault of decaying personal relationships between teammates, an inability to get fired up from the words of coach Frank Vogel, or a result of being burned out by treating games in December like a Game 7 in early June – a month Indiana failed to get to after playing into it during 2013 – that’s anyone’s guess.
For now, what we have to figure out is how to fix the issues behind perhaps the most disappointing top overall seed since George Karl’s Seattle SuperSonics of the early 1990s. Recent Mavericks and Spurs teams may have gone out in the first round in 2007 and 2011, but like Seattle this Indiana crew is an entirely more flammable beast, one that could really make a mess of things should the same roster and coaching staff come to camp next fall.
Seattle stuck with Karl and the team’s top two young players in Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, but they traded angry locker room types like Ricky Pierce (for next to nothing) and Kendall Gill (for a better complementary player in shooter Hersey Hawkins) and were able to grow together until it won 64 games and made the 1996 Finals.
These Pacers? Nobody is lining up to take their Pierces and Gills. In fact, the team’s most tactless tempest in a teapot, one Lance Stephenson, will serve as the tipping point for their entire offseason.
Trades involving a frustrated Hibbert, or (Indiana prays) the lacking George Hill could eventually pop up as the summer creates more and more alternately desperate and giddy trade partners, but for now the entire offseason will key in on the extent in which Stephenson harmed his worth on the free agent market. For the bulk of Lance’s near-All-Star season, it was assumed that the Pacers were going to have to enter an uneasy bidding war for the unrestricted free agent, what with actual All-Stars staying with their incumbent teams, and frustrated clubs turning Stephenson into a potentially overpaid Plan B.
Our Dan Devine already expertly summed up Stephenson’s team’s reaction to his permanence and impermanence with the Pacers. Teammates had tired of his act, which seemed to grow and grow even as more and more attention was focused on it, throughout these playoffs. The team respects his game, but it's also sick of his stuff.
Due to the confines of the roster, though, the Pacers have little room for their own growth, and may have to talk themselves into hoping for the best with Lance. While he sorts out offers, his rather miniscule cap hold makes it so the Pacers can at least engage in trades when the free agency period starts without too much fear of rubbing up against the NBA’s luxury tax.
Should Stephenson stick, the Pacers may have to end up paying that tax next season for the first time in franchise history, an absolute killer for a team that plays in one of the league’s smaller markets, averaging middle of the road attendance (not turnout percentage, just raw numbers) along the way. Luis Scola disappointed greatly in his first season in Indiana, but the Pacers would have to pay him nearly $1 million to go away next year, and then attempt to sign his replacement (or his replacement’s replacement), which could blow up in their face should the potential pickings head to other teams for more money. George, Hibbert and West will all be working on eight-figure contracts, and the team won’t get any help from a first-round pick this season, as it’s already been traded to Phoenix in the deal for Scola.
(I remain steadfast in my defense of that deal, as presented at the time, which saw Indiana sending Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, and a first-round pick to Phoenix last summer for Scola. The first-round pick addition was a misstep, but Plumlee looked awful even in his short rookie stints last year, and his poor numbers reflected how uneasy he appeared. Green, meanwhile, had basically contributed just six weeks of good basketball in 2012 for New Jersey in the years leading up to the summer of 2013, and there was no reason to think he’d play as well as he did in Phoenix this year. And there was no reason to think Scola – who could pass, shoot, and spell David West – would fall off as he did. A terrible trade in the end, but reasonable – save for that draft pick in exchange for paying Green – at the time.)
Any other team in this predicament would rely on internal development. It would hope that Stephenson and George could grow and add to their games over the summer, Hill less slightly so, and that Hibbert could work his way out of his funk – as he did partway through a disappointing start to the 2012-13 campaign. Any other team would recognize that replacements with Vogel’s smarts and expertise aren’t usually spinning around on the coaching carousal, that David West’s game continues to age well, and that this remains a very young team in spite of its third straight loss to the Heat. After all, the Chicago Bulls ran up the same second- and then third-round losses against Detroit in the years before its title, even one loss with Phil Jackson in charge, and eventually they got it together.
These Pacers are different, though. This team is combustible, and this team has financial concerns, while potentially working its way toward paying four different players eight figures a year, four players in George, Hibbert, Stephenson and West that may not like playing with each other on most nights.
Pacers personnel el jefe Larry Bird told the assembled media on Monday that while he’d like everyone back next year, he’s always open for trades, and deals are still within the realm of the possible. The memories of Indiana’s playoff collapse will soon fade as the months roll into July and August, teams could forget about Hill, Hibbert, or Stephenson’s struggles, but Bird would still be selling at his absolute lowest with these players should he pull the trigger on a deal. To shake up this roster, he’d have to deal from a position of absolute weakness.
After this spring, though, could you blame him?
- - - - - - -