The Indiana Pacers' spiral from legitimate contender to basketball punchline somehow managed to crash just two wins shy of the NBA Finals.
Still, the slide itself, which began with a 13-13 finish to the regular season and officially stopped with Friday's series-ending 117-92 loss to the Miami Heat, could prove costly for current coach Frank Vogel.
Should the Pacers decide Vogel isn't the right man for the job, current ESPN analyst (and former Golden State Warriors head coach) Mark Jackson could climb into the Pacers' coaching seat.
Marc Stein of ESPN.com has the details:
There's no escaping the fact that Vogel was awarded his current extension -- which runs through the 2015-16 season -- when team president Larry Bird was on a one-year hiatus. The fact Bird openly questioned Vogel's player-friendly approach during the regular season has only added volume to the belief that Vogel's seat is warming. That he’s not stern enough for Bird’s liking.
And there's more.
The whispers have already started in Indy about Bird turning to his old point guard, Mark Jackson, to take over. Jackson and Reggie Miller were the leaders when Bird was the Pacers' coach ... and Bird isn't the only big fan in the organization of the man Golden State just ousted. Fellow Pacers exec Donnie Walsh is another huge admirer who has long maintained privately that he wouldn't consider Jackson for the Indy job unless he had coached somewhere else first.
Stein first reported that Vogel's seat might be burning in late April, with sources telling the ESPN scribe that Vogel was "coaching for his job."
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports has since reported that the head coach remains a part of the Pacers' plans:
The Indiana Pacers intend to bring back Frank Vogel as coach, league sources tell Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 31, 2014
Even amid those turbulent times, Vogel still guided Indiana to its best regular-season win total in a decade (56), along with consecutive conference finals berths for the first time since it made three straight trips from 1998-2000.
The Pacers' rocky close to the season only grew rockier as they slipped into a 3-2 series hole in their first-round clash with the eighth-seeded, 38-win, Al Horford-less Atlanta Hawks. Indiana escaped that series, then dispatched the upstart Washington Wizards in the second round, but it ultimately had its playoff run ended at the hands of the two-time defending champion Heat for the third straight season.
"It's bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row," Vogel told reporters after the game, via Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press. "But we're competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era, and you have to tip your hats to them for the way they played this whole series."
After opening the series with an 11-point win, the Pacers were outscored by the Heat 495-445 over the final five games. Roy Hibbert disappeared at times throughout Indy's late-season skid, Lance Stephenson made his presence felt for the wrong reasons and the best player on the roster, Paul George, struggled to find consistency (30.5 points on 53.7 percent shooting during Indy's two wins, 20.8 points on 39.7 percent shooting in its four losses).
The Pacers will undergo some type of makeover this summer, but it's hard to say whether that will include cutting ties with Vogel.
"No matter what happens with the Heat, this Pacers team as currently constructed simply hasn’t been able to get over the hump for three straight seasons," NBC Sports' Brett Pollakoff wrote. "Vogel should be safe, but we’ve seen solid head coaches replaced in the past."
Who should coach the Pacers next season?
That group of solid coaches could include Jackson, who was let go by the Warriors despite leading them to their best two-year stretch in more than two decades (98 wins, nine playoff victories).
Jackson reportedly clashed with the Warriors front office, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, but perhaps his past relationships with the Pacers brass could alleviate some of those concerns.
Vogel helped put the Pacers on the doorstep of contention, but they could ultimately decide he's not the right coach to carry them across that threshold. Jackson could enter as a symbol of change, something the Pacers have seemed to need over these past few frustrating months.
Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.