The slide the Indiana Pacers are on has been inexplicable. Because of that, there may be a rush to find a scapegoat if the Pacers don't turn things around dramatically. While Frank Vogel is a natural candidate to absorb the blame, his history of success shouldn't be so easily ignored.
At this time of year, recency bias is awfully prevalent. If a player has a few bad games in a row, his stock can plummet. Opinions change quickly, and a larger body of work can be ignored.
That might be what's currently happening in Indiana. Here's Marc Stein on ESPN.com with more:
One playoff win has not eased the mounting pressure on Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel.
Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Vogel, despite a 56-win season that secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, is 'coaching for his job' in the wake of a prolonged slide that has stretched into its third month.
After Indiana's 101-85 triumph over Atlanta in Game 2 of the teams' first-round playoff series, sources told ESPN.com that coming back to win the series against the Hawks would not automatically ensure Vogel's safety.
Vogel received a two-year contract extension during the 2012-13 campaign that has him under contract through next season. Yet it should be noted that Vogel received the extension while Bird was away from the Pacers on a one-year sabbatical.
It seems a bit crazy that a coach who led his team to the East's top seed and a seven-game improvement in the standings is on the hot seat and "coaching for his job" when just a few months ago the Pacers were widely touted as the best team in the league. That can be the nature of the NBA, of course, but cooler heads should prevail here.
That's not to say there isn't reason to panic or to closely evaluate Vogel's performance. There's nothing more dangerous than a team that doesn't trust, respect or listen to its head coach, and there are certainly warning signs coming out of Indiana outside of the Pacers' poor on-court performance. Here's Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
On the eve of this Eastern Conference series, the wobbling No. 1 seed punctuated its final playoff preparations in a most self-destructive way: Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson.
Turner hadn't been the first Pacer to lose his temper with Stephenson these tumultuous several weeks, and Stephenson's relentlessly irritable nature suggests Turner won't be the last. These scrapes aren't uncommon in the NBA, but this confrontation had been weeks in the making and that reflected in the ferocity of the encounter, sources told Yahoo Sports.
Winning obviously makes incidents like that a lot more palatable. Michael Jordan famously punched Steve Kerr in practice during the championship runs for the Chicago Bulls, after all, so this isn't necessarily a bad omen. The rise of social media tends to give incidents like this a life of their own, though, planting seeds of doubt where it otherwise might be simply swept under the rug.
Most importantly for Vogel, it gives off the impression that he's lost control of the locker room. Even if this is just a symptom of losing, it might be treated as the actual cause, which is dangerous for Vogel's future.
I'm sort of going to Frank's side because he's had so much success by staying positive," Bird said. "We do have to stay the course. But I also think he's got to start going after guys when they're not doing what they're supposed to do. And stay on them, whether you've got to take them out of the game when they're not doing what they're supposed to do or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasn't done that enough.
That's an interesting way of claiming support and providing criticism at the same time, but it's not undeserved. Vogel is at least in some ways responsible for Indiana's collapse, but he probably deserves much more credit than he's given for Indiana's more successful periods.
Vogel's career winning percentage of 62.5 percent is one of the best among all active coaches, and the fact that Indiana has advanced deeper in the playoffs every year since he's been on the job shouldn't be taken for granted. The Pacers were extremely close to beating the Miami Heat in last year's postseason, and you have to wonder how much more slack he'd be given now if that had happened previously.
You don't really have to delve into the hypothetical to make the case for Vogel retaining his job at least for one more season, though. For two years in a row, the Pacers have had the league's best defensive efficiency, per NBA.com/Stats, even with Tom Thibodeau's Bulls out there.
How a team defends is usually the best sign of whether the players have bought into what the coach is selling, as that's the side of the ball where good schemes and strong motivation are usually more predominant over pure talent.
While it's true that the Pacers might benefit from a coach who could better maximize their offensive talent, ignoring the incredible defensive success the Pacers have had under Vogel probably isn't wise.
The big question on everyone's mind this offseason is whether Indiana's current struggles can be fixed, and whether Indiana can fulfill its potential as a title contender. For what it's worth, David West had this to say to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
We've been on the ropes a little bit," West told Yahoo Sports Tuesday night. "Every team goes through that. But I thought we did a great job of dealing with whatever issues we had. The great thing about this group has always been that we're very open with one another, always been able to get through the ups and downs of a long NBA season.
The scary thing for Vogel's future is that a lot can go wrong over such a small sample size. The Atlanta Hawks are a bad matchup with their floor-spacing big men and could conceivably pull out a few close games and win the series. Matchup-based upsets happen to even the best teams with the best coaches. Remember when the San Antonio Spurs lost the 1-8 matchup to the Memphis Grizzlies? These things happen.
Who is most responsible for Indiana's struggles?
They just aren't typically preceded by a regular-season collapse of this scale and reported locker room dysfunction. The timing of an early playoff exit could spell bad news for Vogel's future in Indiana, but again, there's a much bigger sample size that says Vogel isn't just a good coach, but a great one.
With limited trade assets and cap space going into the offseason, replacing Vogel may be viewed as the most logical way to "fix" whatever ails the Pacers. Still, overvaluing the talent of a roster that struggles primarily to make open shots and casting Vogel as the scapegoat seems awfully premature. Vogel isn't blameless in this collapse, but everyone in the organization needs to take a good look in the mirror before putting this all on him.