Frank Vogel has at least one more year to prove he's the right man for the job.
The Indiana Pacers head coach was the subject of heavy criticism after his team came up short against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, especially because of the way the series ended. A 25-point loss in Game 6 was an embarrassment, a sentiment only added to by the fact that the lead ballooned as high as 37 during the third quarter.
Nonetheless, Vogel is going to be back on the sidelines in 2014-15, per Pacers.com's Scott Agness:
If there was any doubt, Frank Vogel confirmed that he’ll be back next season.— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) June 2, 2014
On top of that, Larry Bird, president of basketball operations, has confirmed that the coach's job was never in any serious doubt:
Larry Bird, on Coach Vogel: "His job was never in jeopardy."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) June 2, 2014
But that will change if Vogel can't silence the critics next season. He doesn't have as many lives as a cat, after all, and he very well might be on his last one heading into an important offseason.
Fortunately for the 40-year-old, there are a number of ways he can improve his fortunes rather drastically during the 2014-15 campaign. If guys like Randy Wittman (Washington Wizards) and Dwane Casey (Toronto Raptors) taught us anything this year, it's that one season can do a lot to change the perception—and the job security—of a head coach in the NBA.
Develop an Offense
The Indiana offense was absolutely putrid for much of the year. Whether you want to use analytics or the eye test, it failed.
Let's start with the numbers.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Pacers managed to score only 104.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, which was ranked No. 23 in the Association. They were carried almost completely by the defense. While undeniably impressive, it just wasn't enough.
Breaking things down even further, Indiana struggled in three of the four offensive factors.
The Pacers posted an effective field-goal percentage of 49.0 (No. 19 in the NBA), turned the ball over on 14.3 percent of their possessions (No. 26), grabbed 24.9 percent of the available offensive rebounds (No. 21) and generated 0.226 free throws per field-goal attempt (No. 10).
It's the last part that is actually a positive, as the Pacers were at their best when they were attacking the basket. But they often did so recklessly, from the comfort of isolation sets that were rather easy for the opposing defense to adjust to.
As Ian Levy wrote for Bleacher Report, they just didn't have an ideal offense:
The Pacers' best offensive players are George and Stephenson, but their effectiveness is often handicapped by playing in lineups with both Hibbert and West on the floor. Hibbert pulls extra defenders to the rim, while West sacrifices a narrow bit of spacing by not being a three-point threat. This chokes off driving lanes and pushes everything towards long two-pointers.
Lance Stephenson and Paul George are both valuable offensive players, but they can't carry the load by themselves. Each was forced into shooting a ridiculous number of contested two-pointers throughout the season, not because of poor shot selection, but because there were no other options.
Seeing the Pacers attempt to play offense during the first round of the playoffs was actually a little pathetic.
They'd slowly swing the ball around the key while the shot clock dwindled down, then there would either be a turnover or a low-percentage shot. Maybe a screen would be set, and it wouldn't even be an effective one.
Is it any wonder that Indiana managed to post just 103.7 points per 100 possessions during the postseason festivities, per Basketball-Reference.com?
Something has to change, and it's clear that alteration isn't coming from Vogel's mind. It's devoid of much offensive creativity, which means he must focus on hiring a complementary talent to his staff. Even if that means convincing Mike D'Antoni—or someone of that ilk—to join as an assistant head coach.
Part of being a coach is recognizing flaws.
If a signal-caller notices that one of his players isn't capable of performing admirably in one area, he has to make adjustments to account for that. It applies to scoring, rebounding and defense. Why shouldn't that principle extend to the sidelines as well?
Get the Bench Working
Speaking of the sidelines, the Indiana second unit struggled mightily throughout the 2013-14 campaign.
Is that Vogel's fault? Yes and no.
On one hand, he wasn't the one who assembled a lackluster group of talent, but it's also pretty telling that he couldn't do anything with the players he was given. Just think about the trade between the Pacers and Phoenix Suns, one that sent Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green to the desert for Luis Scola.
Scola declined quite noticeably on the offensive end of the court, turning the ball over more, scoring with less efficiency and not passing the ball nearly as well as he had with the Suns. Meanwhile, Green was a leading Most Improved Player candidate while Plumlee blossomed into a legitimate starting center.
Coincidence? I think not.
Plumlee's development might have been the natural result of age and experience, but Green was horribly misused during his time in Indiana. As was Scola once he arrived.
But forget about your perception of these players. After the trade, it was generally thought that Indiana had upgraded the bench.
Here's Bleacher Report's Dan Favale grading the deal for both sides:
Indy ranked second-to-last in bench production per game last season, notching a mere 24.1 points a contest. Less than two months removed from the Eastern Conference Finals fallout against the Miami Heat, the Pacers are suddenly teeming with role players who can make an impact off the pine.
Nothing about that is incorrect.
Indiana was indeed "teeming with role players who can make an impact off the pine." C.J. Watson, Danny Granger, Chris Copeland, Ian Mahinmi and Scola all qualified as such. And while it's not Vogel's fault that Granger never returned to 100 percent, it is his fault that the group was horribly misused and completely ineffective.
According to Hoopsstats.com, the Pacers improved and scored 25.0 points per game off the bench during the 2013-14 season. Unfortunately, that's a mark that still beat out only the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers.
The bench's offensive and defensive efficiencies ranked No. 29 and No. 18, respectively. Not exactly the type of combination that a title-contending team is looking for.
Something must be done to remedy that, even if it comes at the expense of regular-season victories.
Vogel needs to take a page out of Gregg Popovich's book.
"It’s the way Pop likes to play," San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford recently told Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry. "The way the bench played this year and the number of minutes they got was because [assistant coach] Chip Engelland and Pop have really been pushing our group to trust our bench. They brought us to where we are. We said, 'Let’s not shorten the rotation the first time the clouds get dark.'"
That type of trust needs to be the model for Indiana. Even if it might have short-term problems, it'll have more long-term benefits.
Win a Championship
It's pretty cut and dry here.
Vogel might make offensive adjustments and squeeze more production out of his bench. Or he might not.
The NBA isn't about the minutiae, but rather the bigger picture. The ends justify the means, as they say. And for Vogel, that means he's tasked with winning a championship for a franchise that hasn't gotten to lift up a trophy since George McGinnis and Mel Daniels led the Pacers to an ABA title in 1973.
Anything short of a championship is a failure, especially based on the results over the last few years.
Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien during the middle of the 2010-11 season, and he was able to steer the Pacers into the postseason thanks to a 20-18 record while in charge. That team, paced by Granger's 20.5 points per game, wasn't cut out to win a title, falling to the Chicago Bulls in the first round.
But it was the start of something special.
Can the Pacers win a championship in 2014-15?
The 2011-12 Pacers earned a 42-24 record during the lockout-shortened season, which happened to be Vogel's first full season as the head coach in Indiana. They advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals but fell in six games to the Miami Heat.
2012-13 saw Indiana fall to Miami once more, but this time it was at the end of a memorable seven-game war in the Eastern Conference Finals. And while they met at the same stage of the postseason this year, that penultimate series was much more lopsided.
In three years as a full-time head coach, Vogel has lost to LeBron James' squad three times. Does anything think a No. 4 is acceptable?