Normally, it would be crazy to talk about making wholesale changes to the Indiana Pacers after seeing just one playoff loss to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. But that one loss offered a nearly perfect checklist of everything that has gone wrong with the team over the past couple of months.
It was a frightening reminder that Indy's issues are real.
If the Pacers find their pride and lean on a defense that should still be functional amid a total offensive collapse, they can certainly recover to avoid the shame of losing a playoff series to one of the least-accomplished No. 8 seeds in NBA history.
But in watching the Pacers' embarrassing 101-93 loss to Atlanta, it was hard to see a path toward redemption. If Indiana can't get up for a playoff game—if it can't fix its terrible body language and clunky offense in a do-or-die circumstance—when can it?
Per CBS Sports' Zach Harper, Game 1 proved that the regular-season problems plaguing Indiana had followed it into the playoffs:
Everything was on display there. Every miscue was followed by shoulders dropping, frowns forming, and exasperated stares coming out of their eyes. Any semblance of chemistry was a distance wish and the fear of not living up to expectations seemed to be saturating every moment they had on the court.
We'll proceed with potential plans for the Pacers' future with a big "if they lose in the first round" qualifier. Unfortunately for Indy fans, that's a result that looks likelier than ever.
So, what should Indiana do if this thing bottoms out in the worst way?
The Easy Calls
Evan Turner has no future with the Pacers.
He's a ball-stopper who takes away from everyone else's game and replaces it with his own grossly inefficient offense. Good teams simply don't employ players like him, and it's no coincidence that his post-trade insertion into the rotation synced up with Indy's offensive collapse.
He has never had an offensive rating above 100, and his PER in 27 regular-season games with the Pacers was a putrid 9.7, per Basketball-Reference.com. That's a small sample, but we've got enough information on Turner from his previous three years in the league to know he does far more harm than good.
Turner is due a qualifying offer this summer, and the Pacers would be wise to pocket that cash and let him become somebody else's problem.
In what will be a much tougher decision, Indy should take the same approach with Lance Stephenson.
The Pacers' off-guard read too much of his own press and tasted just enough individual praise to lose sight of what made him an early-season breakout star in the first place. He's too cavalier with the ball and, like Turner, grinds Indiana's offense to a halt whenever he touches the rock in half-court sets.
Worse, his attitude is overshadowing his play. There's no shortage of bad body language on the Pacers' bench these days, but Stephenson's is some of the worst.
Most damning of all, he's gone from a dangerous piece of Indy's limited offensive system to a guy seemingly determined to operate outside of it. If you squinted over the past couple of months, you might not have been able to distinguish Stephenson's game from that of renowned team-killing gunner Jordan Crawford.
Digest the gravity of that comparison for a moment.
It's eerie how similar the two players look when pounding the dribble or taking the ball to trouble. The difference, of course, is Crawford gets about five short-leash minutes for the Golden State Warriors, while Stephenson starts and handles the ball as much as anyone for Indy.
If the Pacers want to remedy their chemistry without fundamentally altering the roster, they could do worse than letting Stephenson sign a big offer with another team this summer.
Oh, and as an aside, that they need to sever any and all ties with free-agent-to-be Andrew Bynum this summer is so obvious as to warrant almost no mention. Bynum is the poison in the well of team chemistry. He won't be back.
The Point Guard Situation
Indiana's biggest problem (among many) on offense is its lack of penetration. It simply doesn't bend opposing defenses by getting into the lane off the dribble.
Some of that is owed to the poor spacing Indy's two-big lineups create, but there's also a glaring lack of accomplished drivers on the Pacers roster. George Hill, we're looking at you.
Put simply, Hill never gets to the rim unless he's running out in transition, and that's a huge issue for an offense that desperately needs a way to put pressure on the defense. We can blame the Pacers' horrible screening lately, and it's admittedly difficult to penetrate in an offense that is a chronically stagnant, jumbled mess.
But Hill is almost unfathomably poor in this regard.
According to SportVU tracking data provided to NBA.com, Hill averaged just 2.6 drives per game this past season. He drove the ball from outside 20 feet to inside 10 feet at a rate that ranked him well outside the top 100 in the league.
For reference, lightning-quick Kirk Hinrich and noted ball-handling savant Tony Allen both drove more often and effectively than Hill.
Aren't point guards supposed to attack once in a while?
Hill will collect $8 million per year through 2016-17, which makes it tough to trade him. But with the NBA salary cap reported to rise by as much as $5 million next year, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com, and the potential space created by letting Turner and Stephenson walk, Indiana could go out and find a guard capable of getting into the lane.
This is, after all, the golden age of point guards. Surely there'll be somebody on the market who can put some pressure on the defense for a reasonable rate.
A long, rangy defender who is probably a net-positive player when he's at his best, Hill just isn't getting the job done as a starter. Indiana must seek out someone who will.
Patience with the Big Man
One roster tweak the Pacers shouldn't make pertains to their most perplexing player. They simply can't give up on Roy Hibbert—even if he's admitting he's the weak link, per Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star: "I'm sure we'll look over film ... if I'm the main culprit in terms of being the weak link on defense because they have a spread-five lineup. I guess we'll have to adjust."
Hibbert is an imperfect player, one for whom stamina and offense will never be strengths. His abject awfulness has been well-documented lately, as has his poor attitude and body language.
However, we know his upside is immense. He's essentially the league's best defender when he has his legs under him, and you don't just give that away without trying every possible fix first. There's a good chance that with smarter minute management, he'll survive the grind of a season. And with better ball movement and more penetration, he could get the offensive touches he needs to stay involved.
Hibbert is integral to everything the Pacers are, and moving him would amount to changing the team's entire identity. Granted, his moping is now a deeply ingrained, negative part of that identity. But a few tweaks and a fresh start could remedy that.
Besides, moving Hibbert after a potentially disastrous playoff upset would be foolish. You don't sell an asset when its value is at its lowest.
The prospect of firing Frank Vogel is, perhaps, the hardest decision the Pacers could face if they can't survive the first round. But it's one that will be on the table.
You can blame various players on the roster for Indiana's bad chemistry and worse offense, but the buck ultimately stops with the head coach.
It's clear now that Vogel rode his starters too hard in pursuit of the East's No. 1 seed. And whatever myriad causes led to the dissolution of the locker room, it happened on his watch and he hasn't come up with fixes in scheme or personnel to address the issues.
2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year George Karl got the ax after a first-round out last season, and Karl's Nuggets were a mere No. 3 seed when they were upset by the Warriors. If the top-seeded Pacers lose this series to the 37-45 Hawks—especially after a horrible second half of the regular season—Vogel's job could (and probably should) be in danger.
He'll almost certainly get another head-coaching chance after a year or two as a top defensive assistant somewhere, but he'll have to go through a period of purgatory if he catches the blame for what could be a truly epic failure this season.
As is always the case with potential coach firings, the "Who'd be better?" argument arises here. It's a good one.
Unfortunately for Vogel, it might not matter how many better options are out there if the front office, led by the notoriously impatient Larry Bird, feels its current head coach has lost his team.
Ultimately, if the Pacers lose, things have to change.
It might seem hasty. It might seem silly. It might even seem stupid to ignore the success Indiana enjoyed between last year's Eastern Conference Finals and the first 50 games of the 2013-14 season. But something looks broken right now, and if the Pacers fall to the Hawks, we'll have definitive proof that a fix is in order.
An overhaul will be necessary.
If there wasn't already enough pressure on the Pacers, there's even more now. Forget the embarrassment of losing to a No. 8 seed. Forget the shame of wasting one of the best defenses the league has ever seen.
Now, the very existence of the team as we know it hangs in the balance.
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