What's Gone Wrong for Struggling Indiana Pacers?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 20, 2014

Jan 22, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (left) and center Roy Hibbert react in the second half against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Pacers 124-100. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

All is not well for the Indiana Pacers.

Still battling their own offensive demons and now seeing the arrival of some at the opposite end, the formerly powerful Pacers look uncharacteristically vulnerable:

With the Miami Heat mired in a similar skid, the damage has been largely controlled. The Pacers still hold a three-game edge over the two-time defending champions—the only Eastern Conference club within 11 games of Indiana.

There are no sirens in the Circle City, but head coach Frank Vogel might have sounded the silent alarm. Potential pitfalls have tripped up the Pacers and could lead to a premature postseason exit if not rectified soon.

The Rising Stars Are Falling

With NBA championship credentials measured both by the quality and quantity of a superstar collection, the Pacers had tried to be the exception in the contender ranks.

Fueled by a blue-collar approach, the Pacers compensated for their lack of star power with grit and determination. With a devastating combination of muscle and heart, Indiana rode its everyman identity to 49 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

Once this team established itself as a full-fledged contender, though, the basketball world grabbed a copy of its roster and went on a star search. If the Pacers were going to be running the championship race, they needed a few superstar sprinters—even if that worked against everything they had built.

Paul George climbed to the top of the MVP ladder early in the season. Roy Hibbert walked away with midseason Defensive Player of the Year honors. Both were selected for their second consecutive All-Star Game, George handpicked by the fans for the East's starting lineup.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 15: Paul George #24 and Roy Hibbert #55 of the Eastern Conference All-Stars sit in the lockerroom during NBA All-Star Practice at Sprint Arena as part of 2014 NBA All-Star Weekend at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Feb
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The blue-collar narrative was broken. Clearly, these were top-shelf, white-collar talents.

At least, that's how it seemed then. Now, it looks like hoop heads were right all along—there are no superstars on the roster.

George has taken over the offense, and not in a good way:

He's trying to do too much, as if he feels the need to validate those early-season headlines.

Since the All-Star break, his stat sheet has suffered tremendous hits both in offensive efficiency and defensive effectiveness:

Paul George's Post-All-Star Skid
PPGFG%3PT%Def Rtg+/-

Hibbert found himself on a lower pedestal than his All-Star teammate, yet his fall has been even more dramatic.

Offense has always been an afterthought for the mountain in the middle (unless the Heat are on the schedule), but he's managed to drop what were already low standards.

He's failed to hit double-digit points in five of his last eight games and only once topped the 15-point mark over that stretch. He's averaging just 9.3 points on 46.4 percent shooting in his last 20 appearances, finishing with four or fewer points seven times in that period.

"His confidence right now is not there offensively," Pacers assistant Popeye Jones said, via Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star. "I thought his confidence (hasn't) been there offensively or defensively since the All-Star break."

How much damage was done on Bourbon Street over All-Star Weekend? George came back without a shot, Hibbert returned sans two-way confidence.

Unfortunately, George's offense and Hibbert's production haven't been the only things missing in action.

The Defense Is Leaking Uncontrollably

This was supposed to be the tightest ship in the NBA.

For the first three-plus months of the season, it was just that. A historically stingy group, in fact.

Those defensive walls have started to crumble, though. While the stat sheet says this is still the best defense in the business, it bears almost no resemblance to the suffocating club that opened the year.

Breaking Down a Breakdown: Indiana's Sudden Defensive Issues
PeriodDef RtgRankFG% AllowedRank
Pre-All-Star Break93.91st41.01st
Post-All-Star Break101.87th43.8T-5th

The Pacers kicked off the 2013-14 campaign by holding 10 of their first 16 opponents to under 90 points. They've done that just once over their last 16 games.

Hibbert, a roadblock earlier in the year, now looks very movable.

His defensive rating prior to the All-Star break was a minuscule 95. In his 16 games since, he's seen that number climb all the way to 105, via Basketball-Reference, finishing as many games with a rating over 120 as he has with one under 95 (three each).

Mar 1, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics center Kris Humphries (43) drives on Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) during the fourth quarter of Indiana's 102-97 win at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

"His inability to switch and provide high-quality help defense has been quite problematic," B/R's Adam Fromal noted.

Since the All-Star break, Indiana has actually posted a better defensive rating when Hibbert is off the floor (101.8) than when he's on it (102.5), via NBA.com. On/off splits can be impacted by the other players on the floor, but Hibbert is the only Pacers starter who has helped this defense by grabbing a sideline seat.

He's also losing his impact on the glass. While never a particularly dominant rebounder, he did track down at least eight a night in each of the past two seasons. He's corralled just 5.2 over his last 16 games.

The same tenacious plays that powered the Pacers' early-season surge are the ones they no longer seem willing to make.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

“A lot of times, we don't take the fight to them (the opponent),” Pacers president Larry Bird said earlier this month, via Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star. “A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. … We've got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we're playing again.

This season could be unraveling if not for a needed break in the schedule. Indiana has gone 12-8 in its last 20 games, despite beating just one team with a winning record over that stretch.

While the standings don't reflect a catastrophe, the seams are certainly coming undone.

The Foundation Is Cracking

Defensive collapses and offensive struggles can be corrected.

The Pacers didn't stumble into their torrid start. This is an elite-level team.

While Bird ripped his team's lack of aggressiveness and bemoaned the putrid production of his reserves, the only cautionary flag he raised during that interview had nothing to do with either area.

"One thing I'd be nervous about is pointing fingers,'' he said, per Kravitz. "'Well, so-and-so isn't doing this or that.' I haven't seen that, yet, but that's a sure sign you've got a problem."

Well, Indiana, we have a problem:

"We've fallen in love with the jump shot for a while," Hibbert said after Indiana's 92-86 loss to the New York Knicks Wednesday night, via Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star. "People feel like they have it going and they want to do it themselves sometimes. That's just how it works."

And this is how a championship dream gets shattered.

The Pacers can't survive on talent alone. They need to outwork and outmuscle their opponents—they aren't built to overwhelm with offense:

Indiana has to dominate defensively, an exhaustive task in today's NBA that's only possible when a roster finds complete cohesion in pursuit of a common goal.

The Pacers need to trust one another, to know that proper rotations will be made and assignments won't be missed. That's not a flip they can switch at half court, either. There has to be a belief in one another at both ends of the floor.

It existed at the beginning of the season, and the Pacers looked every bit like championship contenders. They've resembled part-time playoff participants of late, and that won't change until that chemistry returns.

There is no quick-fix option available. The Pacers need to figure out if they're willing to put in the work needed to salvage what was such a promising season not so long ago.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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