The Indiana Pacers aren't just fighting for their playoff lives. In fact, the long-term identity of the franchise could be at stake when they lock horns in a winner-take-all Game 7 with the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.
Questions abound surrounding the futures of several key components: namely, coach Frank Vogel, center Roy Hibbert and swingman Lance Stephenson. All three played primary roles in the team's fiery start (46-13 through March 2), and all three have contributed to the club's rapid fall from grace (13-16 in the two months since).
Vogel's Pacers momentarily stopped the bleeding with a come-from-behind 95-88 win Thursday night, thanks in no small part to the coach's willingness to ditch his massive post-and-pound lineup for a mobile pace-and-space group:
#Pacers have Watson, Hill, Butler, George and Copeland on the floor.— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 1, 2014
It's a call that many, including All-Star forward Paul George, had begged Vogel to make, but it's a simpler one in theory than in practice.
"It's easy to hammer Vogel for not going to a smaller lineup sooner," Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix wrote." But Vogel has to think big picture with Hibbert. He needs to keep whatever is left of Hibbert's confidence intact."
Judging by how the big man has looked, Vogel might be drawing from a well dangerously close to being bone dry.
Based on how the All-Star center has performed—not just in this series, but also the months leading up to it—that well might just be empty.
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The plodding post man couldn't have found a more problematic matchup than Atlanta's versatile frontcourt. Hawks center Pero Antic's willingness to let if fly from distance has pulled Hibbert far beyond his safe zone near the basket.
There should be some give and take in this series, though. Hibbert should be getting back at least some of what he gives at the opposite end.
"You watch other teams who've played against Antic, they pound him on the glass, especially the Bulls, get early post-ups and run the floor because he's not a good defender," Pacers assistant Popeye Jones said, via Bob Kravitz of USA Today.
Hibbert is not a big-time scorer (unless the Miami Heat are in town), and Tim Tebow could throw more accurate entry passes than the Pacers. But Atlanta isn't the only team embracing undersized play, and Hibbert has to find a way to wreak some havoc on the offensive side to mask his shortcomings at the other.
Whatever he's tried so far isn't working:
Roy Hibbert is having the worst postseason of any player named to an All-Star team earlier that year. pic.twitter.com/2OmEt7WSZM— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 29, 2014
The stat in that tweet, by the way, doesn't include his scoreless 12-minute stint in Game 6. He just looks lost, and I'm not sure how Indy will find him. All I know is the Pacers have 58 million reasons to get him going again.
If a first-round exit spurs a fire sale, Indy might face 58 million roadblocks to find him a new home.
Cutting ties with either Vogel or Stephenson (or both) would be a lot easier. If the Pacers become just the sixth No. 1 seed in league history to lose to an eighth seed, heads are likely to roll. The coach and the short-fused swingman might be the most obvious scapegoats.
Vogel, sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein, is "coaching for his job." The Pacers have refuted that report:
Larry Bird just told me his sources say Frank Vogel's job is safe. @Pacers— Kevin Pritchard (@PacersKev) April 24, 2014
Two troubling months shouldn't erase the work Vogel has done, but this is a reactionary profession. "We've seen crazier coaching firings in the past and Vogel certainly wouldn't be that unrealistic," CBS Sports' Zach Harper wrote.
Stephenson, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, might exit over the summer regardless of Saturday's outcome. After posting career marks in scoring (13.8), rebounding (7.2) and assists (4.6), Born Ready might be ready to get paid.
He's supremely talented but also the source of far too many headaches. He fought with teammate Evan Turner the day before Indy's playoff opener, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, and was reportedly the target of Hibbert's "selfish dudes" rant, sources told Stein.
The high stakes of the postseason haven't completely cooled those flames, either:
Teague is righteous! Pacers battling (each other) to the very end. Lance asking for the ball after Teague jumper, West Waving him off. #SMH— Sekou Smith (@SekouSmithNBA) May 2, 2014
Stephenson is worth the trouble (and a reasonable investment) if Indiana is winning. If the Pacers get knocked out in the opening round, though, jettisoning the swingman might be one way to get this awful taste out of the Circle City's mouth.
Barring a trade, the Pacers might not have a lot of options to move other parts around. Eight of Indiana's top 11 earners are back on the books next season, with Luis Scola's contract nonguaranteed and Turner and Lavoy Allen needing qualifying offers to become restricted free agents.
Still, parting ways with a centerpiece big, a developing 23-year-old wing and a fortune-changing coach (or any combination of the three) would qualify as major transactions.
So, what's the likelihood the Pacers will be forced to make some of these tough calls? How good (or bad) are their chances in this sink-or-swim clash?
Well, Indiana needs to hope there's no collateral damage from the second-quarter skirmish between guard George Hill and Atlanta forward Mike Scott Thursday night.
Paul George and reserve guard Rasual Butler, both on the bench at the time, each stepped slightly onto the court during the dustup. Neither one approached the exchange, but a strict interpretation of the league's rules declaring "all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of the bench" could leave one (or both) subject to a one-game suspension, per NBA.com's Sekou Smith.
The NBA will reportedly look into the incident, according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Told the NBA will review second-quarter incident of Hill poking Scott in eye and whether Pacers, including George, left bench. #ATLHawks— Chris Vivlamore (@ajchawks) May 2, 2014
Former NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson tweeted that Butler seems more likely to be punished than George:
The Pacers wouldn't notice Butler's absence (he's played six minutes in the series), but George would be a tremendous loss. He's led the team in scoring (22.8), rebounding (10.7) and steals (2.5) over these six games and teamed with forward David West to ignite Indy's late-game rally:
"Talking to Paul, it just had to be him and me down the stretch." - David West on tonight's #PacersWin— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 2, 2014
Whether George plays, expect Indiana to lean heavily on West. The 33-year-old has been one of the few steady presences in these turbulent times (15.0 points on 51.4 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists in the series), and it often feels like he's the last bit of glue holding this fractured team together.
"He's a huge calming presence," George said, per Mike Wells of ESPN.com. "Nothing fazes him."
Update: May 2, per CBS Sports' Ken Berger:
All video of the Hawks-Pacers altercation has been reviewed by the NBA, and no further action will be taken, league source says.— Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) May 2, 2014
Hopefully the weight of a franchise doesn't prove too heavy for him to carry. The Pacers have a lot more at stake than just a basketball game.
Maybe this group will band together for 48 minutes and salvage this playoff ticket with a deep run that makes us forget about its problems. Maybe it completely collapses and this is the last time we see these players together.
If the Pacers' heart is still beating Sunday, then their smashmouth identity could stick around for a while. If not, it's back to the drawing board for team president Larry Bird and his staff.