Mind-numbing. Scary. Frustrating. Unnerving. Those, plus numerous NSFW adjectives described the Indiana Pacers’ collapse in the 2013-2014 season.
A 9-0 start turned into a 15-1 start, which turned into a 25-5 start. Then, the cracks in the foundation started to show a little even before the All-Star break, when the Pacers just weren’t playing as sharp and post-game interviews more and more frequently started to include answers such as, ‘we’ll figure it out,’ ‘we’ll be alright,’ and ‘we have to get back to playing for each other.’
And at times, they did. As the late-season swoon was in full effect, encouraging victories still came against the likes of Miami and Oklahoma City, but mixed in there were snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory losses against Orlando, double-digit losses and straight up blowouts against Houston, San Antonio and Charlotte, and victories where the team squeaked by league bottom-feeders Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. That all resulted in an 8-10 record in March and the season-long goal of attaining the No. 1 seed being in real danger. (The Pacers wound up getting that top slot, in no small part because it seemed like whenever the blue and gold hit a slump, the eventual No. 2 seed Miami Heat also had troubles of their own.)
The question that set up shop in the mind of Pacers fan was simple: Why and what happened?
Was it, as Roy Hibbert put it, “selfish dudes” starting to play for stats? Was it an internal issue between players and/or coaches? What about the stunning deadline trade that sent out former franchise cornerstone Danny Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen? After all, there was a reported fist-fight between Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner during the post-season.
While in Southern California for his youth camp, Paul George talked with the Los Angeles Daily News and gave his take.
“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.
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 play us and get ready for us,” he said.
We weren’t the team chasing opponents. We were chased and we couldn’t find that balance between getting that edge back we started with season with.”
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 play us and get ready for us.”
There you go, no ground-breaking insight, but there’s a first-hand account from the team’s star player (and as of tip-off to the 2014-15 season, the team’s newest max contract player). But, if there is any dirty laundry in the cycle, good on Paul George for not airing it.
In one way, I hope the explanation for last season’s tumble is that easy. It’s more easily correctable and the players and coaches can draw from this experience, have a new bad taste in their mouth and not let it happen again. In another way, I also hope the explanation isn’t that simple, because that does not inspire a ton of confidence in Frank Vogel and his coaching staff. Vogel is obviously more of a rah-rah coach who doesn’t like to put down his players (publicly anyway) and former Pacers’ assistant and current Denver head coach Brian Shaw has frequently been referred to as being willing to play the “bad cop” role on the bench. Without Shaw’s presence for the first time this past season, maybe that was the missing personality that newcomers Nate McMillan and Popeye Jones didn’t fill. Nonetheless, while the players have to be accountable for themselves as well, it falls on Vogel’s shoulders to keep his team’s foot on the gas during the marathon that is an 82-game regular season.
Watching the Miami Heat the last two years, you frequently heard how difficult it is to keep the exhausting mindset of going for three-peats and four-peats. The frustrating part of the Pacers’ situation is they are “peat-less” and they haven’t earned anything yet. This coming season, the Pacers will have a tiny sliver of a cushion, if that. The vast improvements of Chicago and Cleveland mean that the Pacers are in a three-way fight to avoid starting the post-season on the road. Each of the three division winners is guaranteed home court advantage in the first round, meaning that at least one of the Pacers, Cavs, or Bulls will get the short end of the stick.
The Pacers’ fan base is starving for a title, and the only way to quench that starvation is for the players to stay hungry. If they sustain their hunger, the reward can be a feast of champagne, stogies, and gold.