The Indiana Pacers' recent slump looks as anomalous as it is baffling, but there's a much simpler explanation we're all too reticent to admit—we had them pegged wrong all along.
This isn't a bad team to be sure, but it's one that suffers from fatal flaws, vulnerabilities that the strains of a long season are oft to reveal. The IndyStar's Bob Kravitz correctly argues that the problem's lying before these Pacers go far beyond the traditional contours of a "slump":
No, what the Pacers have going right now is a full-fledged collapse, a gag job down the stretch that doesn't look fixable between now and the start of the NBA playoffs. Forget about worrying about the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, something we all thought was a fait accompli as the Pacers were rushing out to a 33-7 start.
Yes, these Pacers may have peaked too early. These Pacers peaked long before we should have been paying attention, securing premium seeding that may end up never mattering.
Indiana's Achilles' heel is threefold, and that's a bad sign indeed.
The Pacers have scored 86 or fewer points in six of their last seven games. Since the All-Star break, they rank 29th in offensive rating.
In a league increasingly defined by offense, the Pacers look like a nostalgic glimpse into the NBA of yesteryear—in all the wrong ways. The most recent loss to San Antonio was a microcosm of what's gone wrong according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst:
After there's been a dearth of passing in recent weeks, the Pacers were overpassing at times against the Spurs, which just played into San Antonio's ability to help-and-recover. Hibbert, frustrated by a lack of touches recently, forced some shots. George, who has been criticized for not acting like the superstar he is, tried too hard to take over and found himself going 1-on-3 as he tried to will himself into making plays in what turned out to be futile second half.
It was the perfect storm of offensive impotence.
Those problems start with George. Forced into trying to solve problems on his own, Indiana's best scorer shot just 37 percent from the field in March. He was wildly inconsistent in the process, going 0-9 against the Charlotte Bobcats, 3-13 against the Chicago Bulls and 2-10 against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Good defenses are rendering George obsolete, and that will be all the more problematic in the postseason when teams generally turn their defensive pressure up a notch. It's not that we overestimated George, but we should be honest with ourselves. He's streaky. He's not a pure shooter. He's a versatile scorer who can get hot.
And at the moment, he's not.
While Indiana's problems begin with George, they certainly don't end there. This isn't a team with a classic Big Three, certainly not in offensive terms. While Roy Hibbert is as talented as anyone in the post, he's not going to put up 20 points a game. Lance Stephenson has proven himself one the league's most versatile talents, but he's not a dominant force. David West is what he is—a fine pick-and-pop player you can't leave open.
To make this work, the Pacers' system has to be working to perfection. That's when average scorers tend to look better than they are. At the moment, they just look average. To the extent that Indiana's chemistry has remained defunct for so long, you have to question what this team's made of.
It's not the stuff of champions.
The mid-season acquisition of Evan Turner was supposed to make the Pacers deeper, giving them the kind of dynamic sixth man who contenders absolutely depend upon. Never mind that Turner's production was massively inflated by his play with the woeful Philadelphia 76ers. Surely he could make the transition, bringing a diversified skill-set to a second unit that needed a spark.
The problem isn't that Turner's failed in that endeavor—though he's looked completely lost on the defensive end and is only shooting 41 percent from the field. The problem is that he was never going to be enough. The Pacers need improved depth at multiple positions, the kind of depth a lone sixth man can't provide.
On the season, Indiana's bench ranks 29th in scoring and dead-last in assists according to Hoopsstats.com.
C.J. Watson's recent absence due to injury certainly hasn't helped. But more to the point, neither Luis Scola nor Chris Copeland has emerged as a credible seventh or eighth man off the bench. That's where Indiana's running into problems.
Besides the second unit's propensity to let games slip away, Indiana's lack of depth has also put significant pressure on the starting five. According to NBA.com, George ranks eighth in minutes played and Stephenson ranks 17th. After a long postseason push, it reasons that the wear and tear are starting to take their tolls.
That's not changing anytime soon, either. This bench simply doesn't have the pieces it needs. Whether that's on president of basketball operations Larry Bird or head coach Frank Vogel is open to interpretation. All that matters is that it's a systemic flaw, one that could well derail any chances the Pacers have of chasing a title.
When things go poorly, the buck has to stop somewhere. But the question in this instance is where exactly. Indiana has long succeeded on account of its ensemble approach to just about everything, but the team-everything ethos has worn thin at a time when someone needs to stand up and take the reins before it's too late.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst details the Pacers' collective failure to do just that:
The Pacers are experiencing a leadership void at the moment and the only thing they're racking up faster than turnovers and bad shots is finger pointing. During a timeout in the second half, George Hill got into a verbal confrontation with Lance Stephenson on the bench and they had to be separated by teammates.
Paul George has battled some negative attention and has turned away some teammates' offers for support during it. Hibbert has gone on the record calling his teammates selfish. Team president Larry Bird has gone on the record essentially calling his coach, Frank Vogel, soft and his players not committed enough.
The Pacers aren't in a funk. They're in utter disarray, and there's no end in sight—largely because there's no leadership in sight. It's probably not fair to blame Vogel. He's stood up time and time again to defend his troops, and he may just not have the personality to hold them accountable in times like these. It's not in his DNA, not where his toughness comes to the fore.
It's also worth noting that Vogel is just 40 years old. He doesn't possess the kind of capital you might expect from a veteran coach who's been around the block a few times. This is new territory for Vogel, and his players know it.
While Paul George is a leader in all things statistical, he's still just 23 years old. The extent of his vocal ire has been more directed at referees than his own teammates. Those kinds of excuses aren't going to turn the strong tides setting Indiana up for epic playoff disappointment.
The most logical choice to take control of this mess is 33-year-old David West, by all accounts the grittiest of Indiana's core. West has been through good and bad times, alike. His teammates respect him. He should be the natural recourse in times like these—only he's been anything but.
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
A descriptively accurate assessment, yes, but nothing to build upon—no forward-looking solutions, no constructive criticism. Just a downtrodden restatement of the obvious.
The consequences of Indiana's leadership vacuum become more apparent by the day. Emerging stars like Lance Stephenson are showing their true strips.
Lance Stephenson walking back to the timeout huddle barking at everyone and no one in particular. #Spurs extend the lead back to 14— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) April 1, 2014
And borderline stars like Roy Hibbert are grasping at straws.
What’s next? Roy: "Maybe we should all go to group therapy or something. Sit down with (team psychologist) Dr. Carr to air our grievances."— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 1, 2014
Real contenders don't suffer from these kinds of mental breakdowns. Adversity becomes an opportunity for growth, not an insurmountable head-scratcher. The Pacers didn't need an Evan Turner. They needed a veteran leader with credentials, someone to do the dirty work the rest of this team appears ill-equipped to handle. Someone to say the things Frank Vogel can't.
Until Indiana adds that kind of presence, it will remain a contender in name only. The Pacers will finish their regular season with a record deserving of respect.
And they'll finish their postseason far too soon.