The Pacers have reached the halfway point of the season, after last night's loss in Denver. They currently stand at 16-25, having lost 11 of their last 14 games. They are returning home from a frustrating 0-4 trip out West.
Indiana had a hot start in the first few weeks of the season, but things fell apart after that. At one point early in the year, ESPN had the Pacers at number 11 in the NBA Power Rankings. This was after their impress five game stretch where they won in Miami and in L.A. against the Lakers. This was the comment that ESPN listed when they were 7-8. Week 5, Indiana had road wins over the Heat and Lakers, sandwiched around a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Oklahoma City? Throw in the recent narrow loss to Orlando, and you get one the finest 3-2 stretches in the league.
Things did not remain this positive though, as the team hit a bump in the road that took them all the way down the side of the mountain. After a downright miserable December, they haven't looked much better in January. Losing 11 of their last 14 games is bad, but how the losses have come is even worse. In the 25 losses they have so far, they have held lead in the fourth quarter in 12 of them. The lack of execution, lack of offense, and timid play by the players has been overshadowed by the poor coaching decisions that have been made by Jim O'Brien. You would be hard pressed to find 100 people in the entire state that would welcome him back next year.
Part of the problem is his coaching style, and his inconsistency of players minutes. The players aren't able to get into any type of rhythm, because one day they will play nearly 30 minutes, then see four or five minutes the next couple of games. The players on the floor are never the same group of guys, with the exception of the first few minutes of the game. Having been out-coached in so many games this year, many people are wondering why Larry Bird hasn't fired him yet. Larry has stated many times that he will let O'Brien finish his contract through the season.
The Pacers are running out of excuses for their poor performances. Whether it is the coach or not, the players should hold themselves accountable. While they say the right things after the game about how they need to improve this and not allow that, they don't seem to make any adjustments the next game. Why practice if you aren't going to fix the problems? They have been one of the healthiest teams all year so far. Hibbert missed a game with a stomach virus, and Granger missed a couple due to a sprained ankle, but there really haven't been any significant injuries to hobble this team.
Right now Indiana ranks 20th in points per game in the league, with 97. They are 21st in assists per game with 21, while ranking 15th in points allowed per game at 98. They are, however, ranked fifth in the league in rebounds per game with 44. Unfortunately, none of this translates to wins on the court. They are currently tied for second place in the division with the Bucks. Looking at the playoff picture in the East, the Pacers are actually in 10th position. They have the same record as the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Bucks have beaten them in both of their games this season.
There is hope for the fans though. The schedule looks to lighten up a bit over the next month or so. Even though they have two games against the Heat, whom they already made mad earlier this season, the rest of the games are all winnable games. Over the course of the next month, they will face the Nets, Raptors, Cavaliers, Bobcats, Timberwolves, Bucks, Pistons, and Wizards. They actually get the Pistons and Nets twice in February. They are one of the worst road teams in the league, but 11 of their next 18 games will be at home.
One of the other knocks on Coach O'Brien is his unwillingness to play the young guys. Maybe he is lightening up that strict policy, or maybe he was just too frustrated to care this past week, but some of the minutes are being swapped around. Rookie Paul George and second year guard AJ Price have seen their minutes increase as of late, and they have been playing well. Paul had seven points and three rebounds in just seven minutes in Portland, yet O'Brien refused to put him back into the game, while Brandon Rush played 27 minutes and didn't score a single point. Last night in Denver, George put up a career-best 17 points in the loss. Darren Collison looked disinterested all game last night, and his performance reflected that. Price filled in quite nicely, playing great defense on Chauncey Billups, and finished with six points and a team-high eight assists.
Many people had the Pacers on their "surprise team" list early this season, but they have quickly returned to the same team we have seen for the past five years here in Indy. Fans are getting frustrated with the organization, stating that they are not even trying to win. They would much rather pay O'Brien his money, rather than pay another coach to come in and fix things. They have nearly $28 million in expiring contracts that they can spend at the end of the year, but who knows if they will spend it wisely, or if they will trade them away before the deadline next month. If they hold on to them, next year we could see a completely different looking team, as well as a new coach.
Looking at how the season has progressed through these first 41 games, you have to wonder where it all went wrong. You can find the answer to that question in a lot of different places. The coaching is terrible, the players don't seem to get it, and everyone is just frustrated beyond belief. The feeling around the team is that they know they are better than this, but they can't seem to play up to their expectations. They have enough talent to get into the playoffs, being in the Eastern Conference. They are going to have to learn how to close out games, or they will never accomplish anything. If they could just finish half of the games where they had big leads, they could easily be around .500 right now.
We all know this team isn't going to win a championship anytime soon. The goal right now is to learn how to finish games, and win the ones they are expected to win. Once they learn how to do that, they can move on and focus on making the playoffs for the first time in forever. Once they can get some post-season experience as a seven or eight seed in the East, they can grow on that.
If Indiana has the same type of performance in the second half of the season as they have had in this first half, there could be some big problems in Indianapolis, with the future of this franchise.