The Indiana Pacers’ 103-77 loss to the visiting San Antonio Spurs on Monday night marked the ninth time in 10 games the home team failed to hit more than 40 percent of its first-quarter shots, as noted on the Pacers' home television broadcast.
A compendium of Indy’s basketball woes would most certainly include that passage, indicative as it is of the Pacers’ cringe-worthy struggles on the offensive end.
The first chapter, however, might begin with remarks made by center Roy Hibbert following his team’s 91-78 fleecing at the hands of the Washington Wizards this past Friday, via NBA.com’s David Aldridge:
Some selfish dudes in here. Some selfish dudes. I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month. We play hard, but we've got to move the ball. Is it obvious, or what? I don't know whatever our assist ratio, or whatever it is, is in the league, but it probably isn't up there. I'm really trying hard not to spaz out right now, but I don't know.
Seldom do players on a conference-leading squad step out on such delicate limbs, which should tell you just how quickly Indy’s once iron-taut chemistry has turned to tatters.
Hibbert’s body language toward the end Monday’s defeat—the team’s third in a row and sixth in eight games—was in keeping with the theme: walking off the floor to the sounds of resounding boos, rage written in furrowed brows, a few choice words even a first-time lip-reader wouldn’t have much trouble deciphering.
Afterward, Hibbert and West offered their own solemn remarks on the Spurs debacle:
Hibbert when I asked him about the postgame discussion in the locker room: "None of your business."— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 1, 2014
West: We barely recognize ourselves when we watch the film from months ago. …We’re at the bottom & we’ve gotta figure out a way to climb out— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 1, 2014
Just one day earlier, it was West’s no-nonsense analysis, in the wake of Indy’s 90-76 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, that emerged as the caustic call to arms:
Asked David West if this loss was rock bottom. "Yeah, I would say" "We can't get - I don't know what else we can do."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) March 30, 2014
It’s hard to argue that losing to an upper-echelon team—and having won 18 in a row, the Spurs are nothing if not that—constitutes a level lower on the drill-down. The way in which it happened, however, is far more telling than even the lopsided score.
Every time the Pacers threatened to bridge the gap, the Spurs had an answer—sounded, it seemed, always to the beat of Indy's too-slow feet. Shoulders slumped, accusatory glances flashed and a team once considered the paragon of stability suddenly looked a shattered shell.
When they weren't busy trying to separate one another, that is.
@WindhorstESPN reports GHill and Lance traded words and had to be separated by teammates during huddle in 2nd half.— Conrad Brunner (@1070Bruno) April 1, 2014
All of this demands the question: What, really, is at the root of Indy’s indolence? Head coach Frank Vogel’s cavalier minutes management, George’s curious crash-landing, Hibbert’s offensive ineffectiveness: These all have played real roles, to be sure.
According to NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan, another rancid root might lie in what most everyone at the time agreed was a savvy deadline trade, when the Pacers shipped longtime cornerstone Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen:
A team that didn’t lose it’s seventh game of the season until Jan. 8, is just 11-7 since dealing the former All-Star. They’ve ranked 26 in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency, allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions, up from 93.9, No. 1 in the league, prior to the trade.
Caplan also had this from Granger, who hinted the deal may have compromised the Pacers’ psychological foundation:
It may have. You mess up the … it’s not messing, you change the chemistry of the team. It can have different effects that are unforeseen. I think that may have had something to do with it. The fact they added two new players, it’s hard to come in in the middle of the season with a new team regardless of how good you are, that’s very difficult to do.
The more context-insistent would argue the trade was made as much for Indy’s future as the here-and-now. Could Granger—a player who struggled to recover from chronic knee ailments for much of the past two seasons—really have been that critical to the equation?
Last year’s Pacers compiled an 11-5 record during the month of March before swooning a bit down the stretch. In that time, Indy asserted itself as one of the league’s most intimidating two-way threats—a serviceably patient if unspectacular offense combined with a peerlessly pernicious defense.
That Indy’s sole major move in that span happened just two months ago throws into even starker relief just how devastating a difference one year makes:
Clearly something is afoot—something beyond the pale of simple basketball strategy. Were Hibbert’s veiled barbs intended for someone in particular? To prove as much would require a double dose of stats-sleuthing and game-tape observations.
Still, it doesn’t take a basketball detective to discern the chief difference, in terms of shot distribution, between Indy’s teams these past two seasons: Paul George and Lance Stephenson—hyper-athletic, high-upside wings both—are commanding more offensive touches.
Hibbert admitting as much, even given his status as a kind of organizational elder statesman, seems highly unlikely.
Perhaps the Pacers—or the most vocal among them, anyway—are banking on their media bluntness being enough to breach the unspeakable. The cause isn’t lost, after all, even granting Indy’s ill-timed slide behind the Miami Heat in the East playoff race.
But if Hibbert is bold enough to dish the dirt for everyone to read, being able to say it straight to a player's face ought to be the next logical step.
Otherwise, the only thing they’re liable to be reading is their own basketball obituary.
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