The sky isn't falling in the Circle City.
The Indiana Pacers might not have welcomed chaos, but they flashed an impressive fortitude while fighting through the adversity that stained the tail end of their 2013-14 campaign.
The offense flatlined, the defense faltered, the chemistry wilted and this team still fell two wins shy of an NBA Finals appearance. It scored a pair of postseason victories over the historically significant Miami Heat, losing a six-game series to a team that could go down as one of the finest the league has ever seen.
Indiana sits on the doorstep of championship contention. Securing consecutive conference finals berths suggests as much.
But the Pacers have yet to cross that threshold for a reason. This team cannot achieve the goals it's pursuing without improving itself at the point guard position.
The Pacers can seek out second or third opinions on what ills them, but everyone has already returned the same diagnosis:
The Pacers desperately need a point guard.— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) May 29, 2014
One thing that's definitive about the Pacers: they need an upgrade at point guard. Covers a lot of ills— Vincent Goodwill (@vgoodwill) April 20, 2014
Pacers suffer at poor point guard. George Hill just dribbles side 2 side. Can't break down defense.— Shaun Powell (@Powell2daPeople) May 27, 2014
It's hard to say the Pacers are hurting for production from their current point guards. Making such a statement would imply there are actual point guards to be found on this roster.
A scan through their ranks quickly dispels that notion.
George Hill is not a point guard in any sense of the word. Indiana, as Pacers.com's Mark Montieth explained, has never cast him as such:
Most people think of him as a point guard and compare him to other point guards around the league, but it's a case of mistaken identity. He's not listed as a point guard anywhere in material distributed by the Pacers, and he's certainly not a point guard in the mind of any Pacers employees, including his own. The only thing that should lead anyone to believe Hill is a point guard is that he usually defends opposing point guards.
Even Hill keeps himself out of that light.
"I'm reluctant to play the one," he said, via Montieth. "I'm happy with it, I 'm learning, but there's still some two in my body."
Hill, just like his backup C.J. Watson, is a shooter. That's the top priority for both players within this offense. Of the 950 field goals the pair launched this season, 405 of them (42.6 percent) came from beyond the arc. They had more three-point attempts than total assists (372).
The fact that these two don't generate a ton of offense for their teammates isn't problematic on its own. As the league moves further away from traditional position designations, assists are becoming a smaller part of the discussion in point guard evaluations.
With teams ceding more offensive control to their forwards (Miami Heat, LeBron James) or even centers (Chicago Bulls, Joakim Noah), assists are starting to come from all angles of the floor. The problem in Indiana is that sometimes, those dimes aren't coming at all:
Pacers have to be one of the worst-passing good teams I've ever seen.— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) May 27, 2014
Combo guard Lance Stephenson, now an unrestricted free agent, led the Pacers with 4.6 assists per game. That earned him the category's 32nd spot, one ahead of Minnesota Timberwolves stretch forward Kevin Love. Hill and Paul George (both 3.5 assists, tied for 53rd) were the only other Pacers to crack the top 60.
George and burly big man David West might be the team's two best passers. They also happen to be Indiana's two most consistent scorers, so asking them to create for others diminishes the threat felt by an opposing defense.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel has tried to cope with his team's distributing deficiencies by manufacturing clean looks off of his play designs. Only those opportunities haven't always surfaced, leaving these players in constant battles with the shot clock:
Pacers are fighting the shot clock on virtually every possession. Ball movement and spacing...not so good.— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) May 10, 2014
Once again, Pacers struggling to beat the shot clock. Whether it's structure or execution, something has to change.— Mark Montieth (@MarkMontieth) May 8, 2014
I do wish the Pacers would execute their offense while "pretending" the shot clock expired at 5 instead of 0. Too many end of clock shots— Jeremiah Johnson (@JJFSINDIANA) May 25, 2014
Too often these struggles have been mislabeled as "George Hill problems." It's easy to look at his middling numbers and those of this offense (101.5 offensive rating, via NBA.com, 22nd overall), and think that a direct cause-effect relationship exists between the two.
In some ways, it does.
If Hill were a more dynamic weapon, then this offense could greatly improve the power of its punch. This team looks noticeably better when the point-guard-by-default simply keeps the pedal to the floor.
"It's night and day, man," West said of an aggressive Hill's impact, via Pacers.com's Scott Agness. "When he's engaged...when he's just putting pressure on teams to guard him and stop him in transition and deal with his speed and his IQ, we're a different basketball team."
The proof is in the production. The Pacers went 4-1 when Hill scored 20-plus points in the regular season, 14-7 when he finished with at least 13 points.
Hill, of course, doesn't always have the opportunity to make that type of impact. He attempted only 13.1 field goals per 100 possessions, via Basketball-Reference.com, trailing every Indiana regular outside of Ian Mahinmi (7.9).
These offensive woes aren't Hill's issues, they are systematic problems. They need external attention, because there are no internal avenues to address them.
That may well mean moving on from Hill, assuming the team can find a taker for the three years and $24 million left on his contract, via ShamSports.com. It isn't his fault the team needs more than he can provide, but that fact won't secure his future in his hometown.
Finding those external solutions won't be easy—the Pacers are short on funds regardless of what they decide on Stephenson—but it sounds like team president Larry Bird is open to looking for them, via Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star:
"Lately, I've been hearing a lot about our point guard situation. I like George. But you never know what's going to happen this summer."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) June 2, 2014
Bird's comments might not seem like they should rattle any cages, but he took a far stronger stance on the uncertain future of Stephenson.
"I always want him back," Bird said, via Michael Marot of the Associated Press. "You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it."
Considering Hill still has an official roster spot and Stephenson does not, the difference in the two stances comes off as a bit staggering. Especially with Bird openly praising another point guard who could potentially become available this summer, via Buckner:
Bird on free agent Rajon Rondo: "He's a very good player. Been great for a long time. It's always good to daydream and wish for these guys..— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) June 2, 2014
Rajon Rondo is not a free agent, but he is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next summer. The rebuilding Boston Celtics could flip the 28-year-old table-setter—who Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald reported "may be more available now than ever before" via NBC Sports' Dan Feldman—for future assets before that happens.
Short on young prospects or coveted draft picks (Indy's 2014 first-round selection belongs to the Phoenix Suns), the Pacers may not have the pieces to get involved in any potential Rondo bidding wars.
Still, Bird's comments could lead one to believe that he's looking to address the biggest problem area on his roster. It might not be a splashy solution like Rondo, but it's hard to imagine the Pacers willingly breaking training camp this short on offensive creators.
The potential payoff in filling that void is massive. The Pacers aren't that far away from crashing the championship party.
But their point guard hurdle is impossible to overcome without action. The ceiling isn't crashing down, but it must be lifted for the Pacers to proceed.