There’s a saying that stands the test of time and transcends changing cultural landscapes, eras or situations; “If it ain't broke, don’t fix it.” It’s probably the truest advice a person can receive. When it pertains to the delicate chemistry of winning sports teams, too many have tried to improve upon near perfection and in the process ended up destroying team chemistry by making one change too many. Instead of putting their squad over the top, it acts in reverse and actually lessens the potency of that well-functioning, cipher or group.
The Indiana Pacers are in the midst of what experts are calling one of the most remarkable collapses in recent history. The Pacers are 3-7 in their last 10 games and after having a lockhold on that No. 1 conference seed for most of the year and riding a "high" of being everybody's hot pick, are now in a dogfight with Miami for crucially important homecourt playoff advantage.
In the NBA it's all about "the superstar" and it's obvious that H.N.I.C. Paul George has let his off-the-court child-custody battle and other problems affect his game. That's simply no excuse for George. If Kobe can drop 81 with rape charges pending and Magic can play knowing he has HIV, then George should be able to be a professional too.
Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland dropped some serious science about George’s precipitous decline in performance and dominance:
“Through December 31, George was making 46 percent of his midrange jumpers — better than Chris Paul. He was hitting 41 percent of his 3s — better than Kevin Durant. And he was making 60 percent of his shots inside 8 feet — better than Kevin Love and Tim Duncan. He was a machine…”
“Since January 25, his numbers have plummeted and George has morphed into a mediocre NBA scorer. The slumping Paul George is converting only 45 percent of his shots inside 8 feet — worse than Ricky Rubio. He’s making only 37 percent of his midrange jumpers — worse than Michael Carter-Williams. His 3-point percentage is down to 34 percent… worse than Jeremy Lin.”
Defensive stalwart and center Roy Hibbert – an eccentric character of sorts – has called out his teammates for being selfish and hasn’t exactly been that Patrick Ewing, rock-in-the-middle a true championship contender usually needs.
Lance Stephenson appeared on his way to all-star status, but his flashy-but-nasty, Larry Legend-inspired BK game has also flamed out a bit in recent weeks. All of this media scrutiny, unrest, janky play, the distractions and the losses, combined with the droves of Pacers fans seen pacing the ledge of the 48-story Chase Tower in Downtown, Indianapolis, has coach Frank Vogel feeling like he’s in an oldschool episode of the Twilight Zone. One minute his team is on a serious rise like Harlem was when Puff Daddy and The Family dropped.
The next minute these cats are falling to disgrace like Mase when he left the rap game to preach.
Nobody in Hoosier Town could have seen this coming. The Pacers have been the class of the NBA all season and Vogel’s squad had people really riding on Indiana's NBA bandwagon, even predicting that they would handle the two-time defending champs and King James for real this time. The Miami Heat haters were hoping for the same thing. There was reckless talk on radio and cable stations boosting the Pacers as the class of the East.
Then the Pacers traded veteran leader Danny Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner and that perfect Pacers mixed drink became a non-alcoholic beer. Paul George was vocal about his displeasure with the move which seemed to shift Indiana's fortunes more than anyone expected. It seemed like no big loss at the time, as a younger, more athletic Pacers team was crushing squads without Granger. When the forward was in the plan, however, providing leadership and the positive locker room influence he’s lauded for, the Pacers were functioning like a well-oiled machine and seemed more than primed for a legit c’hip run this season.
Whatever problems they may have had were obviously masked by his veteran niche for keeping everybody balanced and committed, even when he wasn’t contributing much on the court. People tend to focus on talent when analyzing a team’s potential, but often ignore chemistry. How the pieces fit together often matters more than what the pieces look like.
The Pacers were already experiencing some “exterior” distractions and once Granger was gone – almost simultaneously – the games and attitudes of his former Pacers’ teammates started deteriorating and snowballed into Vogel having to bench his five starters on Sunday against a lowly Milwaukee Bucks team, in the midst of fighting Miami for the No. 1 seed in the Conference.
Said Vogel, prior to his bench pulling out a buzzer-beating 104-102 victory over the Bucks: “The starters are not going to play tonight. All five of them. We’re going to rest them and try to heal up some various bumps and bruises involved with all five guys. We’re not playing well as a basketball team right now — our starters aren’t playing well, our bench is not playing well. We want to try to get the starters on track by getting their legs back under them and getting them healed up. And we want to get the bench on track by giving them extended minutes in tonight’s game. That’s the plan. We’re going out to try to win this basketball game. We still have our sights on the No. 1 seed but the most important thing for our team is fixing our team. This is a plan to try to do that. ”
It was either a message that Vogel felt he needed to send to the world to wake and shake this band of walking dead ballers. Or a sign of mercy for a team that looks like they have overloaded the system and peaked earlier than expected. With the playoffs around the corner and a battle with Miami lurking, it’s yet to be determined if the benching held any weight. The Pacers did pull out the victory to creep 1.2 game back in front of Miami, which is the most important part of the equation. They also were reminded that Chris Copeland can still shoot it.
Speaking of Miami, despite having a star-studded starting cast, the defending champs seem to appreciate the value of a respected veteran presence on their bench and in the locker room. An April 4th piece by probasketballtalk.nbcsports.com supported the possibility that the Pacers’ nose dive is directly related to the deadline deal that saw them trade Granger:
A Miami Heat official pointed to Indiana’s struggles as the reason they chose to keep their longest tenured player as the trade deadline passed.
As one Heat official recently put it, “Now you see why we didn’t trade U.D.” …
How would that have gone over?
“That’s a tough question,” Mario Chalmers said, measuring his words. “U.D., besides Dwyane and Bron and CB, he is the heart and soul of this team. He is one of the captains, one of the leaders on this team. He sets a good example for everybody else. I don’t know. It wouldn’t have been a good thing.”
Haslem has found himself in the starting lineup as of late and Miami has needed him on the court when it didn't look like that would be the case when the season first began. He will undoubtedly be missed tonight, along with D Wade, who is resting a hamstring.
Similiarly, with Granger now healthy, most Pacers fans felt his court presence would only enhance Indiana’s depth, especially in the playoffs where bursts of potent offensive bench play can transform a series. Maybe Bird & Co. were uncomfortable with the extent of Granger’s influence on the team, and with Granger no longer the All-Star centerpiece, decided to get rid of him. Indiana brass could have felt his presence was stifling guys like George from becoming the locker room “leader” that his billing requires him to be and the Pacers would prefer him to be.
In any event, what a mess, huh?
Fast forward to Friday night, and the Pacers have made their game against Miami more meaningful and urgent than it ever should have been. It seemed Miami was content to let the Pacers win the regular season marathon and were focused on taking it easy, resting up and then turning up come playoff time. It seems they still are. The Pacers would probably be the favorites in a game of this magnitude just two months ago, but now most people don’t give Indiana a shot to win a meaningful game against a Miami.
What exactly is happening in Indy?
Seems like a combination of a lot of things. It just goes to show you that predictions and assertions about who the best team and players are don’t really mean a thing. Everyone was anointing George as the next big thing, but he can’t get his sh#*t off a little these days. The Pacers have never been an offensive juggernaut, but the way they distributed the ball and deftly executed specific roles allowed them to create offense when needed. Now that it seems the team’s continuity and trust in each other has been fractured, the court hustle just isn’t the same.
People want to blame Vogel for losing the squad. Some suggest he be fired and Bird should step out of the executive office, takeover sideline duties and save the Pacers. I blame the players. The players such as George and Hibbert; who have been anointed superstars because they gave Miami some run the previous two playoffs. Sometimes young players can be given too much too soon and when you start anointing cats who really haven’t accomplished any superstar goals, an attitude of entitlement can develop.
Ego fits well with success and adulation, but it can also crush your spirit when people stop praising you and the addictive nature of being on top is flipped upside down.
The Indiana players – those studs that so brashly proclaimed their Eastern Conference superiority as Miami party rockers at the beginning of the season and reveled in the hyperbole and high expectations—need to get their panties out of a bunch and re-establish their dedication to winning this c’hip. That can start tonight with a win over the guys they are supposedly built to handle come June.