One third of the way through the season. Above .500.
This season has been full of unexpected events; this time related to on-court stories. On one hand we’re watching a team that has exceeded expectations. We’ve beaten several of the top teams in the league, have a winning road record, and have won six straight games on the second night of a back-to-back situation, which I consider a highly remarkable but mostly un-noticed
feat. But there have been some negatives. A six game losing streak, some unimpressive contests against some of the league’s worst teams [including losing twice to the team with the worst record (2-14 Seattle, 3-21 Minnesota)], and several blown leads have given reason for concern. But let’s take a step back.
At the beginning of the season, many predicted the Pacers to finish near the bottom of the league, let alone Eastern Conference. ESPN picked us to finish14th out of 15 teams, for example. We were expected to be a lottery bound team, and a mid-season trade
involving one of our top players would not come as a surprise. And can you blame many for thinking this after the way last season ended? I don’t think so.
However, I believe the main story to last year had little to do with talent and more to do with chemistry and the team’s investment into their former coach, Rick Carlisle. The Pacers have been one of the most consistently talented teams in the league, contrary to recent beliefs. The team that finished last season was not only more talented than the ’04-’05 team that lost
a contested 2nd round series to the Detroit Pistons, it was not performing to its potential. The most talented team in the league would not perform well with a coach that has been tuned out, period.
There is a common theme when speaking of the failures of Rick Carlisle. A ‘stereotype’ even. The popular belief is that Rick is a great X’s and O’s coach, but a terrible communicator. We heard the rumors from his days in Detroit, from some players to Piston’s
employees, so when it happened in Indy it didn’t come as much of a shock. But Rick’s biggest flaw was not a result of poor communication. Rick has never been a great strategist. A great strategist would direct his/her team to put a Danny Granger in the post when guarded by a Jason Williams. A great strategist would never make his shortest player the person to make the
inbounds pass from under the basket. A great strategist would find a way to maximize the talents oftheir players. And most importantly, a great strategist would change their gameplan if it didn’t work. Yet Rick didn’t change his gameplan. Our team
was never going to grasp the sophisticated offensethat Rick was trying to run. And every other team inthe league had learned the basics of this system, so it came as no surprise when our offense would become stagnant, especially as the game wore on and defenders knew their roles. What took place was a very slow regression, but by the end of the year, nobody believed in Rick or his system. Even the newest members of the team were tuning him out during timeouts.
Enter Jim O’Brien. After reading some recent comments by several players, it seems that O’Brien was the right fit for this team. The players were ready for an up-front, honest communicator. They were ready to replace long, cerebral practices with shorter, more direct, extremely physical workouts. They were ready to get back to the basics of the game. And Jim was ready to let every player on the roster know their importance to the team, from his first meeting with Jamaal Tinsley to his reassuring comments of David Harrison. He was also ready to maximize the talents of his players. He made a few definitive statements; if you’re open, shoot it. Offense is yours, but defense is mine. Attack the basket, protect the paint, and attempt to win every loose ball. These are things that every player understands, because they’re simple and bold concepts.
It was easy to be skeptical about this team after glimpses of preseason success. There were rumblings from Dick Harter, assistant coach, that there was ‘something special’ about this team after putting together a string of great practices. All signs were pointing towards a positive change, but last year’s transition from preseason to regular season was still fresh in the mind. After Rick’s promises of an uptempo offense waned eight games into the season, we saw the same old, same old. And in the first four or five games of this season, it looked like a repeat of the previous season. There was a noticeable difference in the way the team was attacking the rim. Less fast break points were resulting in more anxiety, but it turns out the difference may have been a result of adjusting to regular season defense. After all, the preseason offers a lax defense from most teams. Even during the six game losing streak, you could see the transition offense becoming more comfortable with each possession.
Around the same time, we started seeing a difference in the play of Jamaal Tinsley. Jamaal had looked no different in the first few games of the season. We saw a player, aside from one game, that lacked trust in his teammates as the games became tight. We were seeing the bad shot selection and what appeared to be a refusal to pass to his teammates. But there was one noticeable difference, and it was on the other side of the ball. Though still a below average defender, we were seeing an effort to defend. Jamaal was getting into defensive stance for the first time since Mike Brown was running the defense. Soon, the offense started coming around. We saw a better shot selection; closer to the basket for most shots and stepping into nearly all long distance shots. And his ability to find teammates for easy baskets quickly propelled him into the league leaders for assists. We’ve also seen a more engaged Jamaal. One who is leading the cheers from the bench and having a noticeably different
demeanor. As Jamaal’s play started improving, so did the team’s.
Other players have shown an increase in quality play. Several players are nearing or passing career highs in several per game averages, including minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Mike Dunleavy has gone from being a ‘bust’ in the eyes of many fans to the team’s most consistent and arguably most important player. Though he still shows signs of inconsistency, Danny Granger is on the verge of becoming the team’s best all-around player. Jermaine O’Neal is returning to form, averaging over 18 points in December games after a November average of 13. Jeff Foster has shown consistency in knocking down outside
jumpers. David Harrison appears to be on the edge of gaining respect from officials after seasons of frustration. Ike Diogu looks poised to make the Golden State trade more favorable for Indiana than previously thought. Kareem Rush is showing signs of becoming a significant role player despite the extremely small investment the team made by signing him. As a result of this increased quality of play, the Pacers, as a team have jumped up in several statistical categories. At the time of writing, the Pacers have been the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference and have led the NBA in rebounding.
At this point there are many people involved who deserve the credit for the way the Pacers are playing. Ultimately the burden lies on the players, and to their credit they have responded to the challenge. But at the moment, the most credit belongs to Jim O’Brien and staff. Simply put, does anyone see us playing this well under Johnny Davis? How about Reggie Theus, Brian Shaw, Mark Iavaroni, or even Stan Van Gundy? These are all names that may have seemed more attractive on paper. And it’s hard to make an argument that the team could be playing better given the circumstances.
What is the outlook for the remainder of the season? There is still a wide array of things that could happen, but it should be apparent that this team has the potential to be as special as Dick Harter predicted. Consider that the players are still getting
familiar with each other as well as the new coaching scheme. The ’93-’94 team started 16-23 before grasping Larry Brown’s philosophies and finishing the season with the 2nd best second half record in the league (and an overall record of 47-35). And we all know how magical that season was. It’s not surprising that the team has grasped O’Brien’s approach more quickly than
Brown’s as it is more of a grounds up operation. As the season has progressed, more sophisticated plays have been implemented into the offense. But nonetheless, there only seems to be room for improvement and understanding of the team’s gameplan.
But there are some areas of concern, as there are with most teams in the league. Number one is health, given the injury history of several key players. Number two might be defense. The Minnesota Timberwolves scored 111 points in the final three quarters of a recent loss. This was a Minnesota team missing two of its top players in McCants and Foye. There have been periods of time where the opposing team has gotten into a rhythm that the defense has been unable to break. Number three might be preparation. A well-prepared team, as we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the Indianapolis Colts, never underestimates a lesser opponent. And lastly, protecting big leads is an area of concern.
Regardless of what happens, I have been pleased with the season as it stands. It’s been very refreshing to watch this team compete again. I’ve enjoyed the (re)birth of Jamaal Tinsley’s career more than anything this season. Most importantly, I look forward to watching the next game more than I dread the feelings I expect to have after watching. As a fan of Indiana basketball, I’m proud to be following this team.