When people speak of NBA teams taking on a coach's identity, the connotation tends to be a good one. Think Pat Riley’s New York Knicks of the 1990s or Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls—two squads whose grit and fire were stoked in their skippers’ image.
The Indiana Pacers and Frank Vogel would certainly fit that description. Since taking over for Jim O’Brien midway through the 2011 season, Vogel has helped forge one of the most staunch, steely teams in recent memory, typified by a defense-first, take-no-prisoners ethos.
But like a grunt unit dug too far into a trench, Indiana has suddenly become a cautionary tale for how badly that can backfire.
Indeed, even Vogel has begun to recognize the gravity of the situation:
More from Coach Vogel, "I think we're playing against ourselves right now... We're not close to where we need to be."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 30, 2014
Following their 90-76 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday afternoon, the Pacers have now lost nine of their last 15 games, putting them at just one game ahead of the similarly stalling Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
Indy has failed to crest the 90-point mark in six of its last seven games and eight of the aforementioned 15—as clear a sign as you’ll find for an offense running on fumes at precisely the wrong time.
Since March 4—the day Indy began its recent hard slide—the Pacers are registering the second-worst offensive rating in the league (96.6), per NBA.com (media stats are subscription only).
Moreover, their effective field-goal percentage (which takes three-pointers into account) has been the lowest in the NBA (45.8 percent), behind even the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.
Worse still, Indy has lent a whole new meaning to the idea of NBA road woes:
The conundrum here is all too obvious: Given their struggles on the road, the Pacers are likely looking at securing their conference’s top seed as more necessary than ever. That, in turn, might behoove Vogel to employ his starters—already somewhat lacking in bench production (per Bleacher Report’s Joe Flynn)—toward heavier minutes in service of what should be shoe-in wins.
Perhaps no player better personifies the Pacers’ profound struggles than Roy Hibbert, a one-time MVP candidate mired for weeks in the basketball rut—a trend that’s been well-documented here at Bleacher Report.
For a team that began the year looking like the East’s heir apparent and a legit title threat to boot, such a statistical swoon would seem beyond the mean-regressing pale.
Recently, CBS’ Ken Berger offered his take on why the Pacers—seemingly stout and mettle-tested during the season’s opening salvo—have so abruptly hit the wall. In two words: “tired legs”:
But there is a dilemma that the Pacers may have to confront before it is too late. Indiana's Big Three of George, Hibbert and West have played in every one of the Pacers' 68 games this season. Not a single game off for any of them. This is in stark contrast to how Gregg Popovich has handled the Spurs for years. Erik Spoelstra has strategically scheduled nights off for his stars, too.
Thibodeau, long known for his leave-nothing approach to minutes management, is no stranger to such speculative handwringing. Citing a pair of well-known legends in the field, Thibodeau—speaking to the Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson—argued there was much more to the calculus than what gets filtered through the live-action lenses:
[Gregg Popovich] Pop' and Phil [Jackson] are two of the best, maybe the greatest of all-time. How you pace your team is important. It's easy to look at a box score and say, 'Oh, that's too much.' But what you don't see is the days off in practice. You don't see what you have a guy do in practice. You may not have contact in practice. You may do shooting. You may do film. There's a lot that goes into it.
But lest you believe the thoughts of Thibs somehow vindicate Vogel, consider: Since March 4 (the day Indy began its recent sordid stretch), the Bulls have charted a better offensive efficiency (99.5) and defensive efficiency (95.7) than their Central Division foes while tallying an admirable 7-5 clip—all minus Derrick Rose (injury) and Luol Deng (trade), mind you.
Without the benefit of 24-hour surveillance, it’s impossible to say how big an impact Vogel’s coaching chops—sharpened as they’ve been on a distinctly Midwestern wet stone—have had on Indy’s bogged down basketball.
Still, Indy won’t have much time to lick its wounds, why with the San Antonio Spurs—winners of 17 straight, paragon of crafty rotational strategy—in town for a much-anticipated showdown Monday night.
Three months ago, this would’ve been the must-see game of the week, a potential Finals matchup brim-loaded with interest and intrigue.
It’s still very much that, in some ways. Indeed, for all their ill-timed miscues, the Pacers have the talent, experience and defensive fortitude to reassert themselves as legitimate championship threats.
At a certain point, however, Vogel’s insistence on short rotations and starter moxie might have to take a much-needed backseat to sheer physical preservation—even if it calls for ceding the No. 1 seed.
So far, he's failed on that front, however temporarily.
Enacted straightaway, a more cautious approach to minutes management might risk jeopardizing Indy’s short-term prospects. But if Vogel has one lesson to learn in the realm of power dynamics, it might be the most well-worn of them all: Sometimes, the ends justify the means.
All stats from NBA.com and current as of March 30, unless otherwise noted.