After the first day of December, the Indiana Pacers were 16-1, taking the NBA by storm with their impenetrable defense and an offense that was surprisingly effective. Fast forward a few months, and the team was 46-13 after a victory over the Utah Jazz on March 2 gave the Pacers a five-game winning streak.
Then came the implosion.
From that point on, Indiana finished the regular season with a 10-13 record, and while it kept the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, it looked vulnerable. This was no longer a title contender—a title favorite, even—but an overseeded team prime for an upset in an early round.
Somehow, the Pacers staved off the Atlanta Hawks despite having to win back-to-back elimination games, then they took out the Washington Wizards and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. It wasn't exactly the expected route, but they ultimately arrived in the matchup versus the Miami Heat that so many expected heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
But after a 25-point loss in Game 6 ended their season, it was quite clear that these Pacers weren't on the same level as the Heat, who managed to hold a 37-point lead during the third quarter of that Friday night affair.
The implosion was complete, and it left plenty of prominent figures exposed as potential scapegoats. Frank Vogel, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson...you name a member of that organization, and there's a solid chance he might qualify.
There's a lot of blame to go around. But will anyone actually take such a hit for this fall from grace that he stands out against the backdrop of contenders for that scapegoat status?
Frank Vogel Is Safe
It's not exactly uncommon for the head coach to take the fall.
He's an easy scapegoat, as fans aren't typically as connected to the man on the sidelines as they are to the men who take part in the on-court action. Coaches are easy to replace, given the constant flux and assurance that somewhere out there is a qualified candidate. Prominent players are much harder to lose.
On top of that, we aren't too far removed from reports that Frank Vogel was coaching for his job with the Pacers. Here's ESPN.com's Marc Stein:
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.
That came during the opening round of the playoffs, and Vogel did far more than come back to win the series with the middling Atlanta Hawks. He and the Pacers followed that up by knocking off the Washington Wizards and then stealing two games from the Heat.
And as a result, he's being deemed safe, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
The Indiana Pacers intend to bring back Frank Vogel as coach, league sources tell Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 31, 2014
On top of that, Vogel's job might not ever have been in jeopardy, contrary to prior reports:
Even during uneven Atlanta series the Pacers never seriously considered replacing Frank Vogel, source said. Was never considered the problem— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) May 31, 2014
Publicly, Pacers GM @PacersKev threw support behind Vogel while Larry Bird privately told people Vogel wasn't going anywhere.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) May 31, 2014
But regardless of how hot his seat ever got, Vogel is a natural person to focus on as a scapegoat, and it's due to more than his status as a head coach.
He sat idly while his team went into a prolonged funk, and nothing he did was able to get them out of it. Additionally, the solid defenses faced in the postseason exposed just how bad the Indiana offense was.
However, that's not the primary problem. As Bleacher Report's Sean Hojnacki wrote after Game 6, "While the team could still decide to go in a different direction, a new coach would hardly act as a panacea since the roster clearly needs tweaking."
So, let's focus on that roster.
Don't Worry About the Established Starters
First, let's absolve David West of any and all blame while simultaneously acknowledging that no one expected great things of George Hill. It's the other three starters—George, Stephenson and Hibbert—who can be handed serious slices of the blame pie.
George, who spent the early portion of the season looking like a strong MVP candidate, failed to carry a struggling offense when it needed him most. Game 6 was one of his worst performances of the season, even if he managed to toss up a 29-spot by the time the final buzzer sounded.
At halftime, the "superstar" (written in quotations because it's uncertain the degree to which he's earned that designation) had one point on 0-of-6 shooting from the field. All of his made shots, and 28 of his points, came after the game was decided, for all intents and purposes.
This was a microcosm of George's season—the second half was a struggle.
But are the Pacers going to let George take the fall? Absolutely not.
Paul George should change his number to 13. That way he'd be be PG13, i.e. not quite ready for the grown up world yet.— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) May 31, 2014
George just turned 24, and his potential remains through the roof. He's a dominant defender with a developing offensive game that took many strides during the 2013-14 campaign. He might not be quite the building block many—myself included—were making him out to be early in the season, but he's still a franchise player who needs to be mentally coddled while he continues developing.
So, what about the other starters?
Hibbert took a lot of flak throughout the second half of the year. He regressed into a terrible offensive player, and his defensive limitations became increasingly clear. While the 7'2" behemoth remained one of the best rim-protectors in basketball, versatile bigs could pull him away from the hoop and open up driving lanes for their smaller teammates.
According to Stein, we could now be looking at a change in location after he failed to impress as a scorer or rebounder throughout the postseason:
There is said to be some thought on both sides—management and Hibbert's—that a fresh start would be beneficial for everyone after the big man's second-half decline.
Hibbert's camp hasn't outright asked for a trade, sources say, but word is that it wouldn't exactly oppose one if the Pacers decide to actively shop their center.
But is being traded the same as taking the fall?
It is if he's actually dealt for pennies on the dollars, but just shopping him is a good strategic decision. Indiana must pursue all options, and trading him is absolutely one of them. Thing is, there likely won't be many buyers, seeing as the Georgetown product is saddled with a max contract that looks more and more like an albatross every day.
The Pacers can't afford to run him through the coals, seeing as doing so only depresses his value.
And that brings us to the most likely candidate to take the vast majority of the blame: Stephenson.
Game 6 was an embarrassment for the entire Indiana roster, but it was absolutely mortifying for the childish shooting guard. If the rest of the roster's cheeks should've turned a rosy shade of red, Stephenson's should turn the color of a firetruck and left him wanting to shrink away into the background, never to be seen from again.
It won't, because he's Lance Stephenson, but his performance should lead to such a reaction.
Between standing over LeBron James, unnecessarily touching his face and clotheslining Norris Cole—not to mention the ear-blowing incident and the trash talking earlier in the series—Born Ready was more of a clown than a contributor Friday night.
But all the while, he didn't change who he was as a basketball player.
Maybe Stephenson's price will rise too high for Indiana to retain his services during the offseason, but he's still not going to be thrown under the bus by his teammates. After all, they recognize the value that his energy and offensive creativity brought to the Pacers throughout the 2013-14 campaign, even if the antics were sometimes too much.
George, contrary to how many interpreted his postgame comments, actually supported his teammate after the game:
West stated that he hoped he'd get to continue playing with Stephenson:
Does Lance return? "I think so. I hope so," said David West.— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) May 31, 2014
Neither committed to the Pacers retaining Born Ready, but both expressed a desire to keep playing with him. Is that throwing him under the bus?
Ultimately, no prominent figures are going to take any sort of major fall for their roles in the Pacers' decline. All are too valuable to the future.
But the bench isn't.
According to Hoopsstats.com, the Indiana second unit scored just 25 points per game throughout the 2013-14 season, a mark that beat only the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers. Things are just as bad when you look at efficiency, as the Pacers ranked No. 29 in offensive efficiency and No. 18 in defensive efficiency.
There was simply no one to rely on.
During the playoffs, things didn't exactly change.
Based on stats from Basketball-Reference.com, the non-starters averaged 18.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.6 turnovers per game throughout the playoffs, all while shooting 43.4 percent from the field. If you're adding up numbers and not getting the same results, remember that you have to account for the fact that there were 19 postseason games but not all players appeared in each one.
That's not exactly a positive.
And remember, that's not one player off the bench. It's the combined efforts of all the Indiana bench players.
Luis Scola disappeared when it mattered most. C.J. Watson was mildly effective. Chris Copeland produced some numbers in garbage time but failed to do anything meaningful. Ian Mahinmi was a non-factor on offense.
The list goes on.
If there's one glaring problem, it's that.
Who will take the fall?
However, can a group of non-starters really take the fall for a team with so many household names? Nope, not really.
The Indiana bench will likely be reassembled with different veterans next season, as the Pacers can't possibly hope to win with this current bunch. Maybe Scola's non-guaranteed contract won't be picked up, giving the front office a bit more financial flexibility.
But even drastic changes won't be akin to taking a perception hit. And for that reason, it's likely that no one takes any sort of major fall for this implosion.
Indiana is in for a long offseason, but you can expect a largely similar squad to be seeking revenge with restored confidence during the 2014-15 campaign.