If there’s one NBA story I have been baffled by this year other than the Kings’ relationship DeMarcus Cousins before they dealt him to New Orleans, it’s why the Indiana Pacers haven’t been very good. So today, I want to dive in a little deeper and figure out why and what that may mean to fans in Indianapolis going forward.
The reason I am so surprised by the Pacers’ lack of success this season is because before the season started, they looked really good on paper. I had them finishing 2nd in the East behind Cleveland before opening night. Indiana added a lot of really nice pieces in the off-season. They were able to acquire point guard Jeff Teague from Atlanta, Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn, and Al Jefferson from Charlotte. Those are three perfectly serviceable players. Teague and Jefferson are former all-stars and Teague is a hometown native, playing his high school ball at Pike High School. Aside from those two, center Myles Turner had some more experience under his belt and was on track to become one of the best all-around bigs in the league. And of course, star forward Paul George is a player who is still maybe a top-10 player in the association. So with all of this, it begs the question: why are the Pacers struggling so much?
This is something that Indiana has been trying to improve for years. The modern NBA is generally favorable to teams who play a quick up-and-down pace. In past years, this just wasn’t a viable option partly because the Pacers had Roy Hibbert on their roster, who might be the least mobile or athletic player I have seen in recent memory. Not to say that Hibbert wasn’t important, because for a while he was a defensive anchor and solid 2nd option to Paul George those years Indiana got to the conference finals. But eventually Hibbert regressed and Indiana traded him to the Lakers and drafted Myles Turner, a 6’11” athletic big from Texas who could run the floor and shoot out to the three-point line. Indiana knew they wanted to play faster and Turner was the perfect fit to do so.
In 2013, Indiana finished 25th in the league in pace of play, far worse than any of the other teams contending for a title that year. As of this season, they have gotten better but they still stand at 17th in pace.
The only thing consistent about this year’s Pacers team is their inconsistency. Almost every group of wins they’re able to string together seems to be undone by a losing streak of as many games. They have swept their season series against a Rockets team who could contend in the West, but they just got swept in their own season series against Boston the other night. Dunk contest champion Glenn Robinson III hit a game-winning shot earlier this month against Atlanta but then Indiana fell flat the next game against Charlotte.
This team is hard to figure out. When they beat good teams they look like contenders, but there are other nights where they lose to sub-par teams and look like a franchise bound for the lottery this summer.
I think what this Pacers team really lacks is an identity. I look at them and I don’t really know what they are. Memphis has the tough defense, grind it out mentality, Houston has pace and space with long range shooting, and even New Orleans has the identity of a strong inside attack. I just think Indiana has conflicting personelle for what they’re trying to accomplish. If they’re trying to run and play fast, guys like Al Jefferson and Lavoy Allen aren’t built for that. If they’re trying to pound it inside, Myles Turner probably hasn’t built up enough strength to play on the block consistently yet. If they’re trying to play with space and shoot from outside, I just don’t think they have enough talented shooters to play like that. Everyone seems to have conflicting styles to the point where they’re not really sure how to play together.
The face of the franchise isn’t the problem in Indiana but Paul George has had some complaints that have caused Larry Bird and the Pacers front office to act with some urgency. George was one of the names that kept coming up around this year’s trade deadline. He ultimately ended up staying put but Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Boston, and Denver reportedly put enticing offers on the table to try and pry George from Indianapolis.
George’s contract expires in the summer of 2018 and there is serious doubt about whether George would be willing to sign an extension to stay with the only team he’s ever known. There has been lots of talk about George reportedly wanting to join his hometown Lakers if he were to become a free agent next summer, which essentially means unless the Pacers can get enough talent around him that translates to wins next season, George could very well walk. Clearly though, by not dealing him at the deadline, Bird either has some confidence he can convince George to stay, or he is waiting for a better trade package.
You know the Pacers have had chemistry problems all year and really haven’t fit together when your star player expresses his frustration about it to the media. Here’s Paul George talking about the Celtics after they swept the season series against George and the Pacers the other night:
“If you look at (the Celtics) roster, everybody knows what to expect out of everybody. There’s never a moment where a guy is like ‘what kind of shot are you taking?’ Or ‘what are you doing?’. They are beyond that. And that’s the chemistry we’re trying to make. To where when guys are playing we’re comfortable with their play style and we know what they’re going to do within our offense. We’ve got a little way to go.”
There’s no scenario where you can be content with still trying to find where guys fit in your offense when the playoffs are less than a month away. It’s not that this team doesn’t have talent, because they certainly do. But they’re currently 36-35 and in the 7th spot in the East. More than likely, they’ll have to see either Boston or Cleveland in the first round and I’d be willing to bet a lot of money they won’t get out of the first round if that’s the case. One thing does remain clear, this upcoming off-season could be the most important the Pacers have ever had.