At far too many points toward the end of the last regular season, it was easy to imagine Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel wondering—perhaps aloud, perhaps only to himself—whether things could possibly get any worse.
It might’ve taken months for the real verdict to present itself, but when it did, there was no mistaking where it fell:
Worse. Much worse.
First with the departure of Lance Stephenson and then with the tragic injury to Paul George, the string of mishaps and misfortunes inundating the Pacers have hit an almost surreal crescendo.
At the center of it all stands Vogel, whose coaching chops are about to be put to the ultimate test.
In all fairness, Indiana was bound to face doubts aplenty anyway heading into the 2014-15 season. From Stephenson’s playoff antics to Roy Hibbert’s dire disappearing act down last spring’s stretch, Vogel was already in for quite the repair job.
Now, he’ll be hard pressed to cobble together pieces enough for a playoff appearance.
For a team that couldn’t even crack the top 20 in offensive efficiency even with George and Stephenson in the lineup, the Pacers have a monumental task ahead of them if they have any hope of making it to five straight playoff appearances on Vogel’s watch.
Still, if Pacers fans can feel comfortable putting their sporting soul’s stock into anything, it’s in the blue-collar approach of their cager coach.
In 2001, then-Boston Celtics head coach Rick Pitino would set Vogel on his first rung in the NBA coaching ladder, offering him in the team’s film room. Ten years later, after taking over as interim skipper for the recently fired Jim O’Brien, Vogel was given the gig full time.
In an April interview with The Indianapolis Star’s Zak Keefer, Pitino recalled the work ethic of his New Jersey-born understudy, whom he’d originally hired as a video coordinator while coaching at the University of Kentucky:
"I've had guys work for me over the years that love to tell you how hard they work," Pitino said. “Then there's Frank, who never said a word. He'd put in 14-, 15-hour days and never complain. Not once. The only way we could tell he pulled an all-nighter was from his bloodshot eyes."
If he has any designs on rendering the Pacers respectable, Vogel’s future might include just as many film room all-nighters.
Still, as Matt Moore and James Herbert of CBS Sports aptly note, not all is lost in Indianapolis:
The Pacers had the best defensive rating in the league last year, even with their late-season collapse. When George went to the bench, they were worse, but they still stopped teams at a rate about the same as the Chicago Bulls, the second-best defensive team. This is why they won't feel George's absence quite as much on defense as on offense. Vogel's system won't completely fall apart without him and Stephenson, and Roy Hibbert will still be near the basket as an extremely effective anchor.
The challenge will be making up for George's versatility.
The addition of Rodney Stuckey, a 6’3” combo guard known for his scoring prowess, will certainly help. But building an offense around the Stuckey, George Hill, Hibbert and David West—good as they are in specific respects—will require a minor miracle.
As if that weren’t enough, Vogel isn’t but four months removed from rumors suggesting Indy’s skipper was “coaching for his job” in last year’s playoffs, via ESPN’s Marc Stein, this after word surfaced of a scuffle involving Stephenson and newly acquired guard Evan Turner.
Internal rancor is one thing. Being called out as contributing to that rancor by virtue of your passivity—another ball of wax entirely. From Stein’s report:
[ESPN’s Chris] Broussard reports that, with Vogel known for being "completely positive" in his approach to dealing with players, [former Indiana assistant coach Brian] Shaw often played the role of "bad cop" and helped keep the Pacers' potentially volatile locker room from imploding. Shaw's absence didn't appear to be an issue early this season, but some insiders think it has been felt during the Pacers' splintering over the past few months.
Will lowered expectations help Vogel forge a more coherent—and more direct—coaching identity? The old adage about desperate times speaks to precisely this possibility.
The more pressing question at hand is whether Indy might abandon designs on extending the coach beyond the 2015-15 seasons, the final year of Vogel’s contract.
Of course, NBA history is rife with once successful coaches who weathered a few off years before reclaiming their status as elite-level hardwood maestros, Doc Rivers’ stint with the Boston Celtics being the most obvious example.
Assuming George is able to make a full recovery and Hibbert and West both exercise their player options, the Pacers could return for the 2015-16 season at least a reasonable facsimile of the team fresh off a pair of appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Whether Vogel will be there to guide them back again, however, isn’t so certain.
Much will depend on whether Indiana’s front office sees in the forthcoming season reason for guarded optimism—a chance, perhaps, to somehow sneak into one of the East’s bottom few playoff seeds—or a lost cause altogether.
Whatever the team’s ultimate direction, it’s hard to imagine a more difficult row to hoe in all the NBA than the one Vogel’s about to undertake.