The Indiana Pacers are one of two Eastern Conference teams looking like NBA elites this season. That alone might buy them a return ticket to the conference finals and the chance to exact some revenge on the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
But it's been a while since the Pacers carried themselves as such—a long while.
A defense that was once historically strong is now simply good (101.8 defensive rating since March 1, sixth overall). An offense that's been problematic all season has become crippling (97.6 offensive rating over the same stretch, 29th).
A season-long transparent pursuit of the conference's top seed has been abandoned:
Hibbert on losing the No. 1 seed to Miami: "Good for them. We don't deserve it."— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 1, 2014
There are caution flags flying in the Circle City like the Indy 500 ran through a torrential downpour.
Minor stumbles don't raise any eyebrows over the course of an 82-game season. This is not a minor stumble. Eyebrows are raised and panic alarms are ringing as the Pacers are crashing and burning toward a potential premature playoff exit:
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
Notice Pacers forward David West's word choice there. The use of "months" is key.
That's how long it's been since the Pacers looked capable of achieving anything remotely significant this season.
They carried a 40-12 mark into the All-Star break. They're 13-12 in the 25 games since, and even that number is deceptively high. Eight of those wins came against teams with a bottom-six winning percentage (.329 or lower). Only two were over teams with a winning record (Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat).
The good times haven't been all that good. And the bad ones? Absolutely brutal.
It hasn't been so much of a spiral as a straight drop. That aforementioned defensive decline doesn't seem like much, until you realize just how punch-less this team has become at the opposite end.
In some ways, this isn't entirely Indiana's fault. This franchise had thrived with a blue-collar mentality, but that success led to a frenzied rush to anoint some of this roster as white-collar stars.
Paul George, the league's Most Improved Player in 2012-13, made his first All-Star Game start in February. Hibbert was named an East reserve for a second consecutive season, and Lance Stephenson garnered his fair share of snub talk.
Maybe the players bought into their own hype. Maybe it should have never been made to begin with.
Whatever the reason, those "stars" haven't shined here lately.
|Player - Period||PPG||FG%||RPG||+/-|
|George—through Feb. 28||22.6||44.0||6.4||Plus-7.9|
|George—since Mar. 1||19.5||38.1||7.7||Minus-2.9|
|Hibbert—through Feb. 28||11.6||46.3||7.6||Plus-7.5|
|Hibbert—since Mar 1||9.9||41.8||4.4||Minus-2.6|
|Stephenson—through Feb. 28||14.2||50.0||7.3||Plus-6.1|
|Stephenson—since Mar. 1||13.3||46.2||6.8||Minus-0.8|
Even when this team was winning, there were concerns about whether it had enough offense to contend. The defense-wins-championships theory has been ingrained in the minds of sports fans, but the history books say it takes a two-way balance to win a title.
It's a balance the Pacers haven't found all season. They've scored more than 78 points only three times over their last eight games.
"Offensively we're just not getting the job done," George said following his team's 76-point effort in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, via Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star. "I feel like teams when they play us, they're real comfortable."
Again, impeccable word choice by the Pacers. If there's one thing this team is desperately missing, it's comfort:
@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
To outside observers, this looked like the most tight-knit team in the business for the longest time.
The Pacers all seemed to be on the same page, an entire organization chasing one common goal. They weren't so much an NBA team as a brotherhood, or so it seemed.
Early on during Indiana's slide, Pacers president Larry Bird admitted he was "disappointed" with his team, but he also said the on-court problems didn't appear to have reached the locker room.
He made those comments near the middle of March. By the end of the month, cracks in the foundation were all too apparent.
"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," ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst wrote.
Hibbert said there were "some selfish dudes" on the roster, via David Aldridge of NBA.com. The offense seemed to shift based on the competition: free-flowing against the top teams, hero ball against the rest. "We get up for the high games, and we kind of maintain in games we think we should win," West told Aldridge.
Clearly, the Pacers have problems. But what are the potential ramifications? Could this apparent power actually be in jeopardy come playoff time?
The Pacers, for now, have lost control of the Eastern Conference's top seed. Even if they can't get it back, they won't fall below the No. 2 seed.
None of these matchups are too concerning—the Pacers are 9-4 against those teams—but Indy's offensive issues could be detrimental should a scorer like Charlotte's Al Jefferson (21.7 points per game), New York's Carmelo Anthony (27.7) or Cleveland's Kryie Irving (21.0) catch fire.
The Pacers could lose to one of those teams, but it's hard to say they would.
Once the competition stiffens in the second round, though, that's where Indy's wild ride might come to a crashing halt. If the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets or Toronto Raptors show up on the schedule, the Pacers will have issues worse than anything they've encountered to this point.
The Bulls can match the Pacers' toughness. The Nets have more experience. The Raptors boast a potent backcourt (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) and have surpassed so many expectations, they're free from any pressure moving forward.
None of those three teams can match Indy's ceiling, but it's hard to say whether the Pacers themselves can even hit the level anymore.
The Eastern Conference Finals matchup isn't set in stone. The best teams don't always advance in the NBA.
That's especially true when that team is so far removed from its best days, and it has no guarantee of ever getting back to them.