Did We Crown the Indiana Pacers Too Early?

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Did We Crown the Indiana Pacers Too Early?
Darron Cummings/AP Images

Most of us screwed up.

Yes, most of us. Maybe all of us. On some level, a majority of us believed in the Indiana Pacers, crowned them regular-season Eastern Conference favorites amid early stretches of insuperable basketball founded upon gilt-edged defense and much-improved offense.

Touting the Pacers wasn't impulsive. It was just the opposite. Their dominance was convincing, spanning nearly half the season. The defense was battle-tested and NBA playoffs approved. The offense was good enough, far from topflight, but worlds above the stagnant, pallid mess that betrayed them often one year ago.

Put simply, their brand of basketball for much of this season wasn't a mirage, a figment of imaginations desperately seeking for reasons to believe in the Pacers. It was real, it was legitimate.

It just wasn't sustainable.

 

Onset Signs of Regression

People are quick to violently point fingers in the direction of Andrew Bynum's arrival and Danny Granger's departure/Evan Turner's arrival when referencing the Pacers' demise. 

Disregard the brave faces. Chemistry, both on and off the court, was compromised for marginal depth and—despite what team president Larry Bird said—grabbing a psychological advantage over the Miami Heat

Both points are true to an extent. Fiddling with a winning blueprint is always dangerous, and the Pacers are paying the price. Bird, as Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley explains, went too far:

Indiana Pacers team president Larry Bird was only looking to tie up a few loose ends. He may have pulled one too many strings, though, and now the whole thing is unraveling.

It's been a while since the Pacers looked elite, longer still since they've deserved a spot on the short list of NBA championship contenders. Bird's tinkering, well-intentioned but misguided, set off a chain reaction that has rocked the Pacers' structure and threatened to collapse their championship ceiling.

Indeed, Bird picked a curious time to start fidgeting, exhibiting the kind of impatience and impetuousness big-market teams tend to embody during the offseason. But Indiana is neither a big market nor was this the offseason. More than half the year was in the books when Bird began yanking strings and whacking buttons. Could he have been any more reckless? 

Or was he just reacting to the Pacers' underlying frailty?

As good as the Pacers were through their first 40 games of the season, a drop-off was always within the realm of reason. Their defense-heavy dynamic is fragile, a slave to their offense continuing to play above its head.

The Pacers' regression has been more gradual than many credit. They weren't perched atop a pedestal one day, then on the ground, sifting through dirt, scratching and clawing at their lost dignity and identity the next.

After beginning the season 33-7, the Pacers went a middling 17-10 to start 2014. Then they went 3-8, leaving them 53-25. Such a fall from grace wasn't blatantly apparent, nor did it necessarily feel inevitable, but the makings of a flawed team were there before the New Year.

Imperfect Pacers
When Off. Rtg. Off. Rank Def. Rtg. Def. Rank
First 40 Games 102.5 14 93.4 1
Next 27 Games 102.7 22 97.3 1
Last 11 92.4 30 101.6 5

NBA.com.

Even when the Pacers were at their peak, we should have always wondered about their offense. Ranking in the top half of efficiency was incredible for a team that finished 19th just a year ago. It was astounding for a team that ranked 17th in assists per game at the time.

Little about their performance on the offensive side of the ball made sense. They weren't prolific, yet they were hanging awfully tough as a unit despite infrequent ball movement, absence of a primary playmaker and scant production from an allegedly deepened bench.

That performance wasn't sustainable, as we've now seen. The offense has progressively declined since the turn of the calendar. The Pacers are predictable and imbalanced, which is a dangerous combination for any title contender.

Infogr.am.

Balance matters in the NBA. Top-notch defense is tailor-made for the playoffs, where rotations are shortened, individual minutes increased and fatigue sets in, and the pace lessens as a result. But you still need to score, especially in the regular season, when superlative reserves can buoy even the most elite teams (see: San Antonio Spurs).

There is nothing symmetrical about the Pacers' attack. Since the ABA-NBA merger, only three teams have won an NBA title while ranking in the bottom half of offensive efficiency—the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, 1993-94 Houston Rockets and 1978-79 Seattle Supersonics. The Pacers have been toiling away in similar territory the entire season—again, even at 33-7—yet most of us still saw a polished product.

We were wrong.

 

Worked to Exhaustion

Also wrong: Head coach Frank Vogel's minutes distribution.

Almost the entire starting lineup is averaging 30-plus minutes per game. Roy Hibbert is the lone exception...kind of. A recent downtick in minutes has him at 29.9 per game for the season. So, basically 30.

Paul George and Lance Stephenson, meanwhile, are logging over 35 minutes per night. While young, they're entitled to rest. Players burn out. Stamina becomes an issue. Over-exertion comes full circle.

Like, right now.

Indiana's starters are so tired, Pacers.com's Scott Agness brings word that they were given a day off from practice:

Certain players have also requested time off:

Shortfalls of energy are a pet peeve of mine. NBA players need rest. I get it. But now? When first place is on the line?

The Pacers have made a big deal about finishing atop the Eastern Conference all season. Now, when everything is hanging in the balance, they're lost for puissance? Few could have seen this coming.

Then again, maybe we all should have.

Minutes wear on a team that prides itself on physical and pace-eroding defense. Rest was always going to be essential with the Pacers expending so much effort trying to run away with first place. 

Vogel, while definitely at fault, though, was put in a precarious situation. His team needed rest, but it hasn't been running away with much of anything for some time now. The second unit has also been disappointing. Benching key players would be something of a double-edged sword. It would always come at the expense of staving off the Heat.

The same Heat who are now looking down at the Pacers.

 

Still Second Best

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Looking back, there was always one wrench in our outright support of Indiana: The Heat.

Every season, whatever obstacles the Heat are facing are used as a means to cut them down, to humanize a team built around the supernatural talents of LeBron James. This year, skepticism has increased tenfold as Dwyane Wade's rest and relaxation program has been kicked into high gear.

Unlike the Pacers, though, the Heat can aptly weather these storms. Wade can sit when he needs to, be out indefinitely when the team sees fit. The Heat are 17-8 without him, so they have the luxury of adjusting, playing "below" their ceiling and still winning 55-plus games.

LeBron's Heat are also more inherently balanced than the Pacers. They rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Their defense isn't what it was last season—when they checked in at seventh—but there isn't a 21-spot drop-off between their best side of the ball (offense) and inferior end of the floor (defense), like there is with the Pacers (defense/offense).

But while we were busy cloaking the Pacers in robes and crowns made of gold, we neglected to adequately acknowledge and weight this. We failed to recognize that the past matters. And in the past, the Heat have shown an ability to play proportional basketball amid intermittent struggles for an entire season.

The Pacers haven't. These Pacers have never superseded the Heat for an entire year. Not in the regular season, not in the postseason. 

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

"People think the sky was falling on this team," George told USA Today's Zak Keefer. "We were No. 1 (in the East) for almost the whole season. We lost a couple of games, went through a bad week, a bad month, but our record is still pretty sound."

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Not sound enough to win the Eastern Conference. Not like this. Not even after they were prematurely dowered favorites.

To the incumbent champion must go the faith, the crown, throne and royal mace. All challengers must be met with doubt, no matter how optimistic their outlook once appeared—including these Pacers.

Especially these Pacers.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise attributed. 

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