A series of poor decisions by team President Larry Bird has taken the Indiana Pacers from Eastern Conference contender to a team without an identity
The Indiana Pacers are broken, and Larry Bird has ruined them.
Even if they continue to play the Cleveland Cavaliers closely in the remaining games of their first-round series, this team’s window has closed. A young team that gave Miami’s Big 3 a serious scare in the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference Finals was disassembled piece by piece at the hands of Bird, culminating in the firing of head coach Frank Vogel this past offseason.
Bird rightfully earned an Executive of the Year award in 2012 for his role in assembling the team that went to two straight Eastern Conference Finals. Stellar drafts that nabbed future all-stars Roy Hibbert, Paul George, and fringe candidate Lance Stephenson as well as nice trade and free agent acquisitions (George Hill and David West anyone?) gave the team a great, young core.
Installing Frank Vogel as head coach gave the kids a hard-nosed leader who placed a premium on defense and hustle. Two Eastern Conference Finals in the ensuing years had this team in position to contend for an extended period.
Still fresh off a Game 7 loss to the eventual champs in Miami, nobody could have forecasted that a grizzly injury Paul George suffered in a Team USA scrimmage in Vegas would derail the Pacers’ 2014-15 season.
In part because of the freak injury, Indiana went from Eastern Conference powerhouse to mediocre in sixth months’ time. It was always going to be hard to contend when the Pacers were missing their superstar.
But Bird had already weakened the team’s core before George’s injury when he played hardball with Lance Stephenson (fresh off a mostly excellent playoff run) and lost, watching the budding player leave via free agency to the Hornets for three years and $27million.
It might have seemed like a lot at the time for a small-market franchise that had just given a max-contract to Paul George the previous offseason and had Hibbert on the books for $14.5 million a year as the team’s defensive anchor. That being said, $9 million a season for a young, core piece (one who hung tough with LeBron) on a contender was, at worst, the going rate and and, at best, a bargain.
Predictably, the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers stumbled, finishing with a 38-44 record that saw them miss the playoffs. Without George and Stephenson, the offensive burden rested on point guard George Hill and offseason acquisition C.J. Miles. The Pacers were never going to win with Hill and Miles as focal points of their offense, but the two players did their parts by turning in career seasons on reasonable salaries.
BIRD, TO HIS CREDIT, RECOGNIZED THE NEED TO BREAK UP THE OFFENSIVE CORE. AND THEN HE TRADED THE WRONG PLAYER.
Frank Vogel earned praise for the job he did in guiding the Pacers to another top-10 defensive rating and narrowly missing the playoffs without a true star. There was a lot to like heading into the 2015-16 season. A healthy Paul George was back, as were Miles and Hill. The offseason pickup of scorer Monta Ellis and drafting of promising rookie Myles Turner gave Indiana its best offensive squad in George’s tenure, even if the defense was bound to take a step back with the offseason trade of Hibbert and non-tender to free agent David West.
The question with all that offense was whether or not those parts fit together. The team finished the season with a 45-37 record and the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
They eventually lost to a hungry Toronto team in a tough seven game series in the first round where their mismatched offensive parts looked confused. This highlighted the glaring split between the offensive and defensive identities of that team. While they finished with another top three defensive rating for the season, their offense was bottom five.
Vogel’s teams are designed around defense and efficient offense. Bird had assembled a team of inefficient scorers who needed the ball in their hands.
And here we are, with the Pacers again trailing LeBron and the Cavs in a playoff series. Only this time they don’t have the team to fight back and make it a series. They might take one at home, but this series will be over by the time the buzzer ends in Game 6.
This year’s team once again had potential. Bird, to his credit, recognized the need to break up the offensive core. And then he traded the wrong player. Before the season George Hill was sent to Utah in a three-team trade that brought back point guard Jeff Teague from the Hawks.
Teague is fine, and looked good most of the season, but he’s basically replicated what Hill offered, while Hill himself is a huge reason why the Utah Jazz made major strides this season. It would make a lot more sense to trade perennial chucker Monta Ellis and keep Hill. Of course, none of these moves would have mattered as much anyway had Bird not made his most questionable decision to date.
Following last season’s Game 7 loss to the Raptors, Bird made the decision not to bring back head coach Frank Vogel, citing the need for a new voice
. It was Vogel who allowed this team to overachieve last year, guiding them with his steady hand and focus on hard-work and defense. This year’s team slipped all the way to 16th on defense while only slightly improving offensively to 15th. Gone is the team’s identity, and that has shown more than ever in the Cavs series.
The Pacers are lost on defense, forcing switches that have allowed LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to fully take advantage of mismatches. The gritty, physical Pacers team has been replaced by a team that looks lost on defense. Vogel would not have allowed this to happen.
New coach Nate McMillan has been outcoached all series by Tyronn Lue. It was the coaching matchup where the Pacers usually had their biggest advantage. This lackluster Pacers’ team identity no longer lies in their coach. It lies in Bird; this is his mess.
In a vacuum, some of Bird’s decisions make sense (and the Hibbert trade was the right move regardless), but this also shows Bird’s weakness. He didn’t see the big picture with this team and made reactionary moves in the moment.
His team will lose the series to the Cavs because of his decisions and they’ll probably lose their star to free agency next year (if he doesn’t demand a trade before), if George’s recent postgame comments are any indicator. You have to wonder if that would still be the case were Vogel and Hill still in the spots now occupied by McMillan and Teague.