At nearly eight months from opening tip to the finals, the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint.
The Miami Heat know this. The San Antonio Spurs live by it. The Los Angeles Lakers—in better days—begrudgingly accepted it. But it’s a fact of life the Indiana Pacers, the newest member of the elite fraternity of championship aspirants, are still learning.
In the NBA, no one keeps their edge for 82 games.
Things have gone sideways in the Hoosier State of late. The Pacers clinched a playoff berth on March 5—and became the first team to do so—by getting shellacked by the Charlotte Bobcats 109-87. It was their third-largest loss of the season. Two nights later, it was pushed to fourth when they fell to the Houston Rockets by 28.
It was an instructive sequence, drawing attention to concerns that had cropped up around a team that, for much of the season, was the class of the Association. Even as the Pacers held the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, a dismal consensus developed: Something was rotten in Indiana.
This marked a drastic shift from the season’s opening weeks.
The Pacers stormed out of the gates in October, of course, bludgeoning teams with a defense that was stingier than an Austrian economist to the tune of 9-0 and 16-1 records. In the waning days of 2013, the praise for Frank Vogel’s surprising juggernaut was lavish and constant.
“As early as it is, such dominance requires us to consider whether the 16-1 Pacers might have the best defense in NBA history,” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote in December (subscription required).
“The Pacers have gone about building a contender brick by audacious brick, connecting on mid-first-round picks and moderate free-agent signings to devise a roster of uncanny fortitude,” Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney echoed a week later.
“The ‘best ever’ tag isn't something that should be thrown around lightly in the NBA,” Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal began in January, “but it's time we start at least thinking about applying it to the suffocating defense boasted by the Indiana Pacers during the 2013-14 season.”
The Pacers had the best record in the NBA and possessed what looked, statistically, to be the greatest defense in a generation. Indiana was allowing 86.5 points per game through Dec. 2, which, if it held up, would have been the best mark in the Association since the 2003-04 season. And all the better, the Pacers were accomplishing this in a league that, due to the increased pace of play, was scoring points in bunches.
But the luster, as it often does, has worn off.
At the All-Star break, the Pacers were outscoring opponents 99-90.5, a differential that was tops in the sport by a full point, per NBA.com. Since then, Indiana has been a mediocrity, playing opponents to an effective draw, 97.9-97.5. An average offense has been worse and a superlative defense has fallen toward the middle of the pack.
A look under the hood shows that the component parts of the Indiana machine are also showing signs of wear.
Roy Hibbert, despite career-high minutes, has seen his scoring and rebounding figures steadily fall during the season. In March, the center is averaging a meager 8.7 points and 4.6 rebounds a night. His defense is still stout, but a Defensive Player of the Year award that seemed a foregone conclusion is now very much in question.
(Whether it should be in doubt is, again, another question. According to NBA.com, opponents are shooting 41.2 percent at the rim against Hibbert, which is third in the NBA among players who have faced more than five such attempts per game. That’s really, really good.)
Paul George has similarly stumbled. Since the calendar flipped to 2014, George has averaged 21 points on 40.8 percent shooting, including a 34.1 percent mark from three-point land. Before the New Year, the nascent superstar was posting a 23.5 point-per-game average and shooting 46.8 percent, 39.3 percent from three.
George was once in the MVP conversation. Now he’s in the “Huh, what happened to Paul George?” conversation.
The two linchpins of Indiana’s success simply haven’t been the same, nor has the team. The picture is one of a tired, enervated group.
There are a few ways this stumble can be understood.
One is that analysts simply overrated the Pacers’ start. While Indiana was blowing the doors off teams at the beginning of the season, in hindsight, it’s clear that some of those doors weren’t quite as well reinforced as was widely believed at the time. Big wins over the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks now look much less…well, big. Indiana just happened to play its best basketball against a soft slate, and hey presto, a 16-1 record.
And so a very good team came to look like a great one.
A second is that none of this means anything. Teams wax and wane, and the media is waxing hysterical because the Pacers happen to be waning. The NBA season is a long one, and championship teams go on losing streaks. Usually a few of them, as C. Cooper of Indy Cornrows reminded us earlier this month:
With the exception of the 2007 San Antonio Spurs (who only lost multiple games once), the 2005 Spurs lost consecutive games on five separate occasions, the 2006 Heat (8X), the 2008 Boston Celtics (3X), the 2009 Lakers (4X), the 2010 Lakers (5X), 2011 Dallas Mavericks (5X) the 2012 Heat (6X), and the 2013 Heat (3X).
Additionally, there’s not a great deal of evidence that there’s such a thing as peaking too soon in the NBA. In the regular season, it might not really matter when a team plays its best basketball.
According to There’s a Stat for That, championship teams don’t uniformly peak at the end of the season and carry it in to the playoffs. In fact, they seem to top out all over the place. The 1993-94 Houston Rockets wrapped their best 20-game stretch of the season in game No. 23. For the 1997-98 Bulls, it came at No. 78. The 2001-02 Lakers—also coached by Phil Jackson—played their best 20 games of basketball between No. 2 and 22. The 2004-05 Spurs closed their finest stretch at game No. 31.
The public is, simply, overacting.
But there’s a third possibility. It’s that, maybe, the Pacers’ goals are too narrowly defined, or rather, they’re too focused on a single aspect of their ultimate goal. The Pacers, in their quest for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, might be missing the forest for the trees.
“We're trying for that No. 1 seed. We're going for it," Vogel told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst in November (h/t B/R's Dan Favale) after the team’s scintillating start. "We believe in this locker room that we can get the No. 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude," forward David West added.
This might not be the right goal. Yes, other things equal, it’s better for a team with championship aspirations to get a higher seed, but that seed is a means to an end—not an end in itself. The goal is winning the championship. And there are times when a monomaniacal pursuit of a No. 1 doesn’t merely fail to advance the pursuit of a title, but actually undercuts it. This may be one of them.
The purpose of the regular season for a team that fancies itself a contender is to put itself in the best possible position to win four best-of-seven series in May and June.
There are a melange of factors that go in to this, one of which is obviously seeding and home-court advantage, but that’s just one. For instance, there’s health—both the avoidance of catastrophic injuries and the management of the day-to-day fatigue that, in aggregate, can wear down even the most expertly conditioned players.
Now consider this: George, West and Hibbert have not been given a single night off this year. Not one. This workload might be especially problematic for George, who, while 23, has gotten banged around a little this year, has an extraordinary amount of responsibility on both ends of the floor and, according to NBA.com, has run a total of 167.6 miles this season, the fourth-most in the NBA. And he hasn’t exactly looked himself lately.
This is unusual.
In Miami, none of the Big Three have played in each game. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka have each gotten a couple of nights off. In Houston, Dwight Howard, James Harden and Chandler Parsons have each enjoyed downtime. Steph Curry, David Lee and Klay Thompson have each sat out for the Golden State Warriors. In San Antonio, Greg Popovich, as usual, has his guys sitting often.
Granted, George is only 14th in minutes played—and Lance Stephenson is 19th—but it’s not only the total volume of minutes that counts, but their distribution. The NBA regular-season schedule is a bear. Eighty-two games irregularly spread over six months—a West Coast night game here, a three-in-four-nights stretch there, an afternoon start once in a while—with cross-country flights and performance-sapping sleep-deprivation thrown in for good measure.
Putting George, West and Hibbert on the floor for each of these contests might maximize a team’s regular-season record, but will it make that team more likely to be at its best in June? Unlikely.
Vogel and the Pacers would be wise to loosen their grip a bit. To think of the regular season not as a series of contests to be won—as an end in itself—but as a process. To accept the old truism that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. To forget the No. 1 seed and focus on a championship.
Tom Thibodeau's Bulls won the top seed in each of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 regular seasons. One gets the sense that Thibs doesn't think he's won anything.