Too little, too late.
That’s how skeptics will view Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s decision to rest key players down the stretch, should his charges continue their much-publicized slide into a possible premature playoff exit.
And yet, if writers like ESPN’s Mike Wells are to be believed, Vogel—facing a fragile, potentially fractious situation—has little choice but to heed his team's needs.
[We played] 18 games in a month, 11 road games. I probably should've chosen some games in March to give them days off. I didn't. I think there was a consequence to that, and I think our guys look worn down.
Following a crippling home loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, when all five Pacers starters were benched in the first frame, Vogel admitted that All-Star center Roy Hibbert looked “worn down” (per ESPN.com).
Indy’s war-weary travails aren’t news, of course. As far back as March 20, CBS Sports’ Ken Berger was openly questioning whether the Pacers—for months seemingly a title contender-in-waiting—hadn’t forsaken their four-letter root.
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.
Vogel has never been one to take that approach, until now.
The way the Eastern Conference has shaken out—top-thin and middle-heavy—the Pacers are guaranteed to finish with no worse than the No. 2 seed. So it stands to reason Vogel could strategically rest his starters down the stretch, to preserve whatever energy is still left for the long playoff march ahead.
According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman, Vogel indeed intends on holding out all five of his starters for Wednesday’s tilt against the lowly Milwaukee Bucks. Said Vogel to Pacers.com (via Winderman):
It's well-documented that we're still interested competing for the one-seed, but how you play and how you prepare for the playoffs is the most important thing right now. I think getting them some rest will make them fresher going into the playoffs. It's not the answer, but I think it's part of it.
Will Vogel’s ploy be a cure, or merely a shot of cough medicine—something to mask the symptoms, rather than eliminate them?
It’s hard to believe Indy’s recent antagonism—the comments about “selfish dudes” in the locker room, the bad body language and, above all, the bad basketball—are purely a product of exhaustion. After all, it’s not as if the Pacers were the one team to draw a straw and wind up with 20 extra games on their slate.
Indeed, though the Pacers do boast two players in the top 20 for raw minutes played this season—Paul George (ranked sixth at 2,283 minutes) and Lance Stephenson (17th at 2,676)—so to do the Toronto Raptors (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan), Golden State Warriors (Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry) and Los Angeles Clippers (DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin).
Fatigue might indeed be a factor, but there must be something else afoot.
A little while back, we examined Indy’s considerable offensive struggles. One of the findings: Between March 4 and March 30, the Pacers are registering the second-worst offensive rating in the league (96.6), per NBA.com (media stats are subscription only).
While it’s never wise to put too much stock in small sample sizes, it’s worth noting that, in the four games since, the Pacers have charted a slightly improved—but still fourth-worst—mark of 99.3.
More alarming has been Indy’s defense, which, after registering as the undisputed best for most of the season, has plummeted to a woeful 111.9 over the last 10 days.
Thanks to these and other statistical observations, the explanation becomes much simpler: The Pacers aren’t salty and sniping because they’re tired; they’re salty and sniping because they’re playing terrible basketball, due in part to said fatigue.
Here’s the good news: Once the playoffs begin, there will be no more back-to-backs, no more late night cross-country flights that virtually nullify any notion of a road-trip day off.
The question is whether all of this—the stabilized schedule, a coach’s capitulation—will be enough to jumpstart a team that has gone from world-beating media darlings to outright mess over the course of mere weeks.
Rest alone simply won't be enough. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Pacers can't use it to rekindle their lost fire. Indeed, no team as dominant as Indiana was for the first half of the season is liable to go down quietly. It could be that all Indy needs is a couple of games—blowouts over its first-round opponent, perhaps—to recapture what it's lost.
NBA history is rife with stories of elite teams turning it on at the exact right moment. Say what you will about their recent slide, the Pacers remain one of the most talented teams in the league—a dangerous wounded animal about to enter the most dangerous of basketball wilds.
Now that Vogel has shown his hand, the Pacers have to hope they can make the most—strategically, performance-wise and from a chemistry standpoint—of their few remaining tune-ups.
Because if the postseason finds the newly rested Pacers playing how they have over the past few months, they might be getting far more rest than they ever thought possible.
Most NBA.com media stats are subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 9, unless otherwise noted.