The Indiana Pacers are within striking distance of going at least as far as they did last year, and yet the perception of some of their central characters has taken a decided turn for the worse. Who, though, has changed how the rest of the NBA views them the most between Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and Paul George?
A quick survey of several general managers and scouts suggests it's a three-way tie. Hibbert has been, without question, the most disappointing, but all three players have seen their respective stock slide. In every case, it isn't so much that they've mysteriously gone wrong as it is that they've reverted to who they were projected to be when they first appeared on the NBA radar.
To borrow former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green's line: "They are who we thought they were."
Hibbert's wild inconsistency, for example, is not exactly new; it simply hasn't been seen to this degree for a while. Coming out of Georgetown, he fell to 17th in the 2008 draft, in part because of a disappointing senior year after a promising one as a junior. Centers Robin and Brook Lopez were taken ahead of him. His up-and-down play with the Hoyas was attributed by some to the chloroforming effect the college game in general can have on big men. Others viewed it as a byproduct of the ease with which he became frustrated and tentative when the game didn't come easily to him.
Once in the NBA, the once-lumbering center re-made his body and approach to become a human wall defending the rim, a talent that prompted a free-agent fight for his services between the Blazers and Pacers, which also resulted in Hibbert landing a maximum salary. Some have always wondered, though, if Hibbert's mental shift was more wallpaper than wood-grain.
"You have to think about where this kid came from," says one Western Conference GM. "He's a success story based on what he was coming out of college. Mid-first-round picks aren't supposed to land max contracts. From a basketball standpoint, he is who he is."
The real alarm is not that his up-and-down competitiveness on the floor has returned; for one assistant GM, it's the dart he threw at his head coach, Frank Vogel. Blaming Vogel and his play-calling for his struggles has exposed a character issue for Hibbert that no one previously believed existed. NBA personnel men believe in the adage that adversity doesn't build character but rather reveals it, and Hibbert's shot at Vogel will not be easily forgotten.
"He was a stand-up guy," says one assistant GM, "and now he's trying to get his coach fired."
Stephenson's antics—trash-talking LeBron James before Game 4, blowing in his ear in Game 5—are only surprising in that he's auditioning for a big pay raise on the free-agent market. The craziness could cost him a zero on his next average salary—dropping from eight figures to seven—but no one has ever doubted his talent or his desire. Most NBA teams would prefer a player of Stephenson's temperament than Hibbert's, as long as his temperament doesn't create a full-blown distraction.
"Lance is consistently schizo," says one scout, "but no one ever doubted his ability."
The GM concurs. "Whether you pay him $4 million or $10 million, he'll be the same guy on the court," he said. "No matter what, I've never seen him not play hard. End of the day, you like him on your team. As for the craziness, you're comfortable with him as long as you have him on a leash. But you have to wonder, what's he going to be like if he gets paid?"
George did get paid in the offseason, signing a five-year, $90 million contract extension. Still, his 31-point second-half explosion to salvage Game 5 aside, other team executives have noted how comfortable George has been taking a backseat to Stephenson and David West throughout the playoffs—and even, at times, behind George Hill.
"PG is showing he's not there yet," says the Eastern Conference scout. "He has not shown the personality to be 'The Man' when it matters."
Not always, anyway, and that's never said about the true assassins. Again, though, the Western Conference GM sees George as an example of a player whose raw talent thrust him into a role that he didn't necessarily crave.
"When he was at Fresno State, if you had told me PG would become who he is now I would not have believed you," the GM said. "He was aloof in college. I mean, how many superstars come out of a place like Fresno State? He wasn't on his AAU program's top team. He was on the B team. Now there's all this pressure on him. He hasn't had that before."
Most telling for the GM and others is that George didn't seek it; it came to him because of his physical gifts. That's the distinction between the best two-way player on the team with the best record in the league—as George and the Pacers were midway through the season—and a player who can lead his team to a title.
LeBron James is one of the biggest reasons no one is quite willing to dismiss George's chances of evolving into that sort of figure. LeBron, after all, still appears more comfortable at times setting someone else up for a big shot than taking it himself, and yet he has four league MVP trophies and counting.
For now, no one is buying stock in the Pacers being championship-caliber as constituted, whether they retain Stephenson or not.
"They're maxed out," said the GM. "They've probably exceeded what they should be. They don't have a Michael Jordan or a Shaq. As good as PG is, if they were in the West they would've been a fifth or sixth seed."
That is a bit shocking in light of their record, their payroll, their array of talent and, yes, even their accomplishments. Not every team, after all, makes consecutive trips to the conference finals. That this might be their high-water mark, though, is not considered a surprise—but more like a fate that, given their cornerstones, could have been predicted.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher