When a giant falls, someone is to blame.
Even when no one is truly at fault, the world still loves to find a scapegoat, doling out a heaping portion of guilt pie onto their plate. Whether or not that scapegoat is easy to find, he's going to be exposed one way or another, even if a bit of manufacturing is necessary.
Well, get ready to find one for the Indiana Pacers.
In a matter of months, the Pacers transformed from bona fide title contenders with a historically excellent defense into an inept squad struggling for life against the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Atlanta Hawks have Indiana on the ropes, forcing the No. 1 seed into must-win situations for both Games 6 and 7.
Quite frankly, you could close your eyes, point at the Pacers roster and find a convincing scapegoat at this point.
However, three names are inevitably going to emerge above the rest (or below, depending on how you look at it), and it's time to figure out which one will out-scapegoat the rest.
Option No. 1: Paul George
It's always trendy to blame the star player when a competitive team completely fails to meet the expectations, so it's only natural that we start with Paul George. After all, he's the superstar who helped carry this team to new levels early in the regular season with his two-way contributions.
But if anything, George has been playing better during the postseason:
|Is George actually improving?|
I'm not entirely sure how anyone can look at that and decide that George deserves the lion's share of the blame for the utter futility of this Indiana squad. It'll happen, but it shouldn't, much like LeBron James is supposedly at fault when he puts up a sensational performance but his supporting cast lets him down.
Let's just move on.
Option No. 2: Roy Hibbert
Ah, now we're getting to more reasonable candidates.
Roy Hibbert has been absolutely awful for months, but he just keeps on regressing. Against Atlanta, he's been such a liability on both ends of the court that he's become borderline unplayable for the closing portion of the first-round series.
Offensively, Hibbert simply can't score. There's being unable to score on a hula hoop-sized rim, being unable to throw a ball into the ocean while standing on the shore and then whatever this particular 7-footer is doing. The closest comparison might be a failure to hit the earth (whether water or solid ground) when dropping a basketball out of an airplane.
On the less-glamorous end of the court, the big man is playing like a fish out of water. Sure, he's a fantastic rim-protector, but that's virtually irrelevant when playing against a lineup comprised solely of players who can stretch the court out to the perimeter.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Hibbert has held opponents to 46.7 percent shooting at the rim, which is quite impressive. However, he's done so while facing only three attempts per game. And if you want to take playing time out of the equation, he's going up against 4.9 shots per 36 minutes.
During the regular season, those numbers were far different.
Not only did he keep opponents' field-goal percentage at the hoop to just 41.4 percent, but he did so while facing 9.8 shots per game. Removing playing time from consideration once more, Hibbert was being asked to affect 11.8 shots per 36 minutes during the first 82 games of the campaign.
Essentially, he's less than half as involved as he was while the Pacers were rolling, and he's also quite a bit less effective at stopping those shots. That's obviously not a good thing for the Pacers.
Why is this happening?
Not only is Hibbert's confidence completely shot, but the Hawks' offensive schemes are completely marginalizing his talent by asking him to stray further than an arm's length from the tin. And if he can't play defense, it's not like he's going to be worth playing, which basically renders an All-Star completely irrelevant.
Hibbert hasn't just been bad during the postseason; he's been historically awful, at least in terms of player efficiency rating:
As Chris Chase and Tim McGarry wrote for USA Today, "Hibbert’s 0.85 playoff rating ranks 142nd out of 147 eligible players this season. The next-lowest 2014 All-Star is Dirk Nowitzki, whose 11.31 rating puts him 106th for the playoffs."
But actually, I'm not so sure you need PER to tell you the full extent of Hibbert's complete and utter futility. You just have to watch him hobble up and down the court, looking fully overmatched on each end.
The roller-coaster nature of his 2013-14 season lends itself to status as a scapegoat, unfortunately for the Georgetown product. He fits all the criteria—playing far worse than he did earlier in the season, failing to do anything when it actually matters and gaining all sorts of public attention for his struggles.
Among the players wearing blue and gold, there's no one more likely to gain this ignominious descriptor. But players aren't the only possibilities.
Option No. 3: Frank Vogel
Who's usually to blame when a team completely collapses? Who gets the axe when chemistry goes up in smoke and the losses begin to pile up with unexpected frequency?
It's not a trick question. The coach is who you're looking for.
And since Frank Vogel is the man who holds the clipboard and paces the sideline for Indiana, he could be in big trouble. Maybe he already is.
After the Pacers got their first win of the opening-round series, ESPN's Marc Stein reported that Vogel was coaching for his job: "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."
Anonymous sources weren't the only ones who had something to say, though. Larry Bird certainly made his voice heard, per Stein:
I'm sort of going to Frank's side because he's had so much success by staying positive. 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.
Bird, the Pacers president, hit the nail on the head in many ways, but he missed one big problem: Vogel hasn't been able to come up with any sort of offensive system that works against the Hawks.
Through the first five games of the series, the Pacers are scoring just 102.9 points per 100 possessions. According to Basketball-Reference, that only beats the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Bobcats during the postseason, and it would rank No. 28 among all 30 teams in the regular season. Only the Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers boasted worse offenses.
For whatever reason, the Pacers have lost any semblance of an offensive system.
The offense is composed almost solely of isolation sets and limited ball movement along the perimeter, which often results in the clock ticking down toward zero and the Pacers forcing up an ill-advised but time-necessitated attempt. When an offense throws the ball away this often, stands around and lollygags while one player tries to play one-on-five and runs what looks like a playground style of basketball, it's not exactly a positive.
Vogel is a good coach, a great one even on the defensive end of the court.
But his offensive shortcomings, inability to adjust when his players are struggling and his apparent knack for getting massively outcoached by Mike Budenholzer—who just happens to be a rookie signal-caller—spell doom for his longevity in Indianapolis.
Even after breaking down the three names you'll hear the most, there are more who at least have to be mentioned.
George Hill hasn't been able to keep Jeff Teague from gaining penetration and wreaking havoc on the defensive schemes from inside the three-point arc. David West's defense has slipped, and he hasn't been able to carry the load offensively or use his leadership skills to get the Pacers out of their team-wide funk.
But neither of those players gets discussed enough to be a true scapegoat. They're known commodities. Lance Stephenson's stock isn't quite so established, but he's at least performed adequately and avoided generating as many negative headlines as his teammates.
Then there's the bench, which has faltered and sputtered one game after another, with the notable exceptions of Luis Scola and—to a lesser extent—C.J. Watson.
None of those aforementioned players (or groups of players) will be true scapegoats. Those blame-generators inherently need to be well-known names.
We can also rule out George, for the reasons given earlier in this article, which leaves us with just two figures—Hibbert and Vogel.
There's no easy choice between the two, as both have put together horrific performances throughout the first-round clash with the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Hibbert has been terrible on the court, seeing his minutes shrink and his fourth quarters filled with splinters. Vogel hasn't been able to get his team off the proverbial schneid, and he's been completely exposed as an offensive strategist.
Have your pick. There's no wrong answer.
But there is a right one.
Hibbert is saddled with a maximum contract that runs through the end of the 2015-16 season, assuming he picks up his player option in the final year. He's not easy to trade, and the Pacers are best served hoping he regains his confidence and the form that made him into a legitimate All-Star during the first half of the regular season.
Meanwhile, Vogel is a coach. He's automatically expendable—most coaches are, with the exception of a few notable names—and can be fired and replaced according to the Pacers' whimsy, provided they're willing to pay the necessary expenses.
Which do you think the team is going to make into a scapegoat?