May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel court side against the Miami Heat in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 102-90. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers: Now, a World of Ambivalence

Take a trip down memory lane, and try to recollect all the past offseasons the Indiana Pacers have experienced.

Antithetical with what some may think, Larry Bird and the Pacers haven’t had a disastrous summer in the past three years that’s been gut-wrenching.

If anything, they’ve had satisfactory, or adequate, offseasons since drafting Paul George in June 2010.  Arguably the most superb came at this time last year, as George inked an extension with Indiana for five-years, $90 million.

He achieved the goals of reaching the All-NBA team twice and having himself an unforgettable 2013-14 season, which kicked in his escalator clause for more money.  Known as the “Derrick Rose rule,” this granted George 30 percent of the salary cap for his max deal, instead of just the standard 25 percent.

Topping off their summer last year, the Pacers also retained veteran David West on a three-year contract, which kept the starting lineup intact.  Pulling off the huge trade with Phoenix to send young, athletic talent to the Suns in exchange for veteran power forward Luis Scola seemed to be the perfect move at the time. 

Before the team hit the All-Star break, the moves they made appeared to be the smartest, launching them into the role of “best in the Eastern Conference.”

We know a wrecking ball hit the city of Indiana to end the regular season and their hopes in the Conference Finals.  Not only did help drill in their heads that they can’t dethrone a LeBron James-led team, but it lined them out a checklist for this 2014 offseason.

Indiana Pacers

Mar 14, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) is defended by Philadelphia 76ers forward Hollis Thompson (31) during the second quarter at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Something had to be done.  They had one important re-signing to convert on, and a bench to massively upgrade.

Lance Stephenson felt a stinging sensation from being slapped in the face by Bird’s contract offer of five-years, $44 million.  It wasn’t an unreasonable offer, his gargantuan ego just perceived it that way.  Stephenson spurned Indiana and took Charlotte’s three-year, $27 million deal, which comes out to $9 million per season.  Indiana’s offer per year?  $8.8 million.  Obviously, he just wanted a change of scenery, and a more substantial spotlight.

Remember the sentiment down in Miami, Florida on July 11?  Around 12:30 EST, LeBron James had switched teams and the atmosphere was silent, full of distress and desolation.

Take that tenderness, multiply it by 20, then bury it into a hole.  You’ll get exactly how Indianapolis sensed last Friday night, when George completely snapped his leg in half.

One unappetizing fall during a USA Blue vs. White scrimmage changed the character of an NBA organization.  Director of USA Basketball, Jerry Colangelo, believes the goal’s stanchion isn’t the main issue we should be focusing on with George’s career-threatening injury.

He’s 75 years old and I understand the old-fashioned thinking here — these accidents happen in any sport that requires tons of physical activity.  However, to undermine the importance of how close the stanchion — the over-sized black portion that supports the goal — was to the court is unsound and blatantly dishonorable.

Everything needs to be moved back, or the board of directors needs to assign the team a different arena to scrimmage in while visiting Las Vegas.  During a game in the NBA, the stanchion and even cameramen are too close for comfort.

Indiana Pacers

Aug 1, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; USA Team Blue guard Paul George (29) loses the ball after it is tipped away by USA Team White guard James Hardin (32) during the USA Basketball Showcase at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Since when have human beings been blessed with the brakes of a Porsche?  How is it possible to control where your body lands when you’re running at a full sprint, jumping two or three feet in the air, all while being asked to avoid materials and men with cameras?

Critics constantly find themselves begging for professionals to lay it all out on the line, play for more than the paychecks, run the floor with speed, and eliminate laziness from the equation.  It’s not possible when a substantial number of basketball athletes are becoming frightened to leave their feet or dive for a miraculous play near the baseline.

There’s no strong ambition for George to return for the 2014-15 season, since you have to look down a long-term lens with this injury.  Rushing such a serious bone fracture at age 24 would equal a hindrance on his career if one thing went awry.

Thus, the pulse of Indianapolis is going to be mixed with the group they currently have.

“They’re going to squeeze into the playoffs!” will be the optimist at the Tin Roof bar downtown.  “There’s no shot, wouldn’t it be wiser to cross out this year and land a Top 10 center in the draft better than Roy Hibbert?” will shout the rational person walking through the Circle Centre Mall.

The team, community, and sports universe is now left with a state of ambivalence, wondering how in God’s magical powers the Pacers have went from a 56-win, defensive stranglehold … to clawing their limbs toward a final playoff spot.

From a season full of questions regarding the No. 1 seed and how much they need  it, to a season where getting their fingers on a No. 7 or 8 seed will feel as it it’s an accomplishing endeavor.  It’s the dramatic turn of events Indiana now faces, and has to deal with … over one fall in a scrimmage that never mattered.

Those anticipating a playoff appearance by these Pacers are in for a wake-up call next April.

This is no longer the (L)eastern Conference, brimful of waste and rubbish squeezing into the playoffs with horrible records.  It’s much tougher, and the league finally made steps to re-align itself with the many offseason transactions this summer.

One squad with no major lineup transaction — the Atlanta Hawks — aren’t going to barely make the cut this season for an eighth seed.  Their most formidable frontcourt player in Al Horford is returning from the pectoral injury, and Mike Budenholzer figured out first hand exactly what could happen if you stretch the floor with power forwards and centers.

Indiana Pacers

Dec 6, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) looks to pass around Cleveland Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum (21) in the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 108-89. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Now, Horford moves back into the starting lineup and Pero Antic’s outside attack comes off the bench, making them head and shoulders better than last season.

It’s about time Horford receives the praise and respect he deserves, don’t you think?

Of all centers that hit the court last season, Horford ranked fourth in scoring, averaging 18.6 points per game.  Only DeMarcus Cousins (22.7), Al Jefferson (21.8), and Brook Lopez (20.7) were better from that perspective, although Lopez went down with injury as well.

Out of those four, who was the most efficient from the field?  Horford, who nailed 56.7 percent of his attempts during 29 games, owned the best field goal percentage.  The combo of he and Jeff Teague won’t linger around until March to make their playoff push.

Why is that significant?

Well, you can already see the landscape of the East painted at this point.  Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Washington, Toronto, Charlotte, and Atlanta are presumably locks for the postseason.  Of course, this is a sport that is contingent on various health factors, which doesn’t make anything certain.  But, if everything holds up and the season is played out, there’s seven of your teams filling out your bracket.

From my math, that leaves how many spots for a team to creep in?  Not two, not three, not four …. just one.  How did we get from an eighth seed needing just 37 wins to make the East bracket to now needing to be on top of their game for the whole 82-game schedule?  It’s fun, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The options remaining for that final spot will now include Indiana, New York, Brooklyn, and in all likelihood, Detroit.  Others could surprise us and come from the bottom of the dumpster, but it rarely happens.

Phil Jackson’s Knicks have some work to do and need one thing that will help them figure out how to work a team around Carmelo Anthony:  Time.  As my good friend used to say, “You gotta give me my time!”  The Triangle Offense takes at least a full schedule to master all the nuances of it and evaluate it’s effectiveness with all the lineup combinations Derek Fisher plans to use.  They’re not going to be anything but an offensive showcase next season, and one that doesn’t rack up a ton of wins from it.

Indiana will own their own destiny as it relates to the final playoff spot.

This could work one of two ways — on both ends of the floor.  The Pacers could falter due to losing their two leading scorers, or they could use their increased depth in outside shooting to become a faster, more balanced offense.  Defensively, they’re going to miss that perimeter nag that George was on the top players in the league (LeBron), but is that going to hurt their rim protection?

Roy Hibbert has to respond to pressure.  That pressure will come from having to be the shot deflector/changer he was during last November-February, and David West has to put age on hold for one season.  They have to be the same body-bruising defense if they hope to remain in the top five of defensive rating and points allowed, which is the only way the playoffs are ahead of them.

On offense, Vogel has to stress the use of flare screens for their new shooters (C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez), and continue using mixtures of the flex offensive sets we witnessed last year with George.  All of it has to come with Hibbert getting more touches to build that broken confidence, and letting him test out his newly re-invented post moves from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

We could see a starting unit of George Hill, C.J. Watson, C.J. Miles, West, and Hibbert.  Or, perhaps Vogel wants to keep speed and outside shooting on the bench and replace Watson with Rodney Stuckey, who they signed this summer as well.

Either way, it has to be a three guard lineup, and that was brought upon them immediately after George’s leg break.  No longer are you looking at this team finishing 20th in “Pace,” since they’ll encourage shots to be taken at a quicker volume, creating more possessions.

The loss of George hurts more than the team even wants to believe.  They’ll remain confident the production can be picked up elsewhere to give them a shot, but evidence has proven he means everything to their style:

Pacers George

Without George erupting in numerous games last season (vs. L.A. Clippers, at New York, at Sacramento, at Washington in the playoffs), Indiana would’ve been in desperation to find ways to score in fourth quarters.

Now, that’s disappeared, at least for another 14 months.  George won’t return to game action until October 2015, when he expects to lace up for the 2015-16 season.

By then, it could be too late.

All LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love need on their side is momentum and experience.  Once they build those, there’s no realistic way this current Indiana core can overcome those stacked odds.  Not in the postseason.

Whether or not this season is a bust and if they should “stand pat” is not the question.  Larry Bird has to make a major shakeup by February’s trade deadline, and bring in a play-maker that will give them a chance to compete for the future.

The worst thing to do in this industry is to stay in the middle of the boat, and be “mediocre” as it pertains to battling for a title.  With the conference gaining competitiveness, Indiana has to improve upon George’s return.

It likely means finding yourself a point guard that takes pride in facilitating an offense, making things easier for their All-Star forward who will need time to get re-adjusted.

Told you it was a world of ambivalence.



Tags: C.j. Miles C.j. Watson David West Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson Paul George Paul George Injury Roy Hibbert Team Usa USA Basketball

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