In watching the Indiana Pacers get absolutely manhandled by the Miami Heat in their Game 6 showdown of the Eastern Conference Finals, one could only think about where the Pacers, with their questions and controversies abound, go from here.
And to be honest, it’s not really a fair question. This Pacer team is about two years removed from being the NBA’s little darlings. That being a team with no discernible superstar, but more a collective blue-collar theme throughout: hard-working, defensive-minded players and coaches with an “us-against-the-world” mentality.
And the people talked, and hoped, that they could dethrone the mighty Miami Heat and prove that a so-called “superteam” could be undertaken by a homegrown group that had fairy tale-like faith in each other and in the process.
But after falling in the conference finals once again to the Heat, there are concerns coming from every angle. Can Frank Vogel push a team over the top? Is Paul George good enough to be the lead dog on a championship team? Is Roy Hibbert the NBA’s greatest enigma? Can George Hill really be an effective point guard with shoulders that broad?
So if the Pacers’ honeymoon period isn’t over, it is definitely on a bit of a hiatus right now. The enthusiasm has been tempered and their plans with pending free agent Lance Stephenson will be a curious window into how they view their future vs. LeBron James. No need to scoff; in reality, that’s what it is.
In the recognition of the Pacers turning from the exciting young upstarts to a team at a crossroads, it brings me to the Toronto Raptors, who I cannot help but think is burning their own trail, albeit successful so far, in that Pacer likeness. It’s a young group that looks a little wide-eyed at the surprising success they had this year, sort of like the Pacers did of a few years ago.
Toronto is led by a talented guy who is straddling a stardom fence in DeMar DeRozan, much like Indiana’s George, regardless of the wild “elite” hyperbole that was thrown around him during the first half of the season.
They both have talented young big men who should cause havoc when motivated (Hello Roy Hibbert?) or when actually given the ball with some regularity (Hello Jonas Valanciunas?). While I like Valanciunas’s long term potential more than Hibbert’s, the parallel is noteworthy given the lack of good centers in today’s NBA.
And they both have emotional wild cards that make them fun to watch. Stephenson’s school yard ball antics left me gasping for air on more than one occasion during the season and his fiery passion is a joy to watch, even if I did state in a column earlier in the year demonizing his potential All-Star berth over DeRozan’s. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry had a bulldog’s mentality the entire season and his playmaking, while not as flashy as Stephenson’s, was often the heart of the Raptors and made the players around him better and hungrier. Lowry had a questionable reputation but seemed to be able to overcome that with both his play and heartfelt concessions about his past attitude and approach. Who knows if Stephenson is willing, or able, to be frank, to mature like Lowry apparently has.
Of course the Raptors aren’t the Pacers, but my worry is that they will make a make the leap next year to a sort-of “assigned” challenger to the Heat, assuming that Kyle Lowry returns. Then, two years of success, but not enough success will have everyone questioning the direction or the potential of the team. Maybe I’m getting remarkably ahead of myself in surmising any of this, but having LeBron in the conference just makes me assume the worst for every franchise he isn’t on. How about the West, LeBron? I hear the Twolves are looking for a new face. No?