Are the Indiana Pacers a bad, good team or a good, bad team?
There's a difference, and unfortunately for Pacers fans, it appears to be the latter.
The way Indiana has played over the last few weeks, they may not deserve even that extra little bit of credit.
Despite their 16-23 record, the Pacers have won just seven of 23 games since the start of December. That's after a respectable 9-7 start that gave them enough padding to still hold onto the eight playoff spot despite their sub-standard play. It's stunning Indiana is even near a postseason berth but the once-hot Philadelphia 76ers have slowed and the Milwaukee Bucks are trying to get through an injury to point guard Brandon Jennings.
Otherwise, there isn't much competition down in the cellar of the Eastern Conference, and while the Pacers may not traditionally "deserve" a playoff appearance, they may get one due to attrition.
Leading the way is Danny Granger with his 21.5 points a game, down from last year's 24.1 (and the previous season's 25.8).
Indiana has five players averaging double figures but all are under 15 a night and closer to 10 (Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy). Hibbert, in particular, has slowed considerably after a mostly impressive November, an inconsistent December and a poor January in which he's averaged 7.3 points a game. Neither Tyler Hansbrough nor Josh McRoberts has been able to pick up the slack inside as a starting power forward. Earlier in the year, the starts went to McRoberts but more recently it's been Hansbrough as Coach Jim O'Brien looks for a combination that will work.
Over the past two months, the Pacers have looked worse than last year's team that won just 32 games.
"We've certainly played at a lower tempo to start this year," said O'Brien. "You can see it from point production. It's because we traded Troy Murphy so with a bigger lineup, we're not able to space the court as much. We're trying to bring Hibbert and Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts along as big players. We're going more to a smaller lineup now to space the court so we can be a little bit more difficult to guard. We still want to try to score in six seconds if we could but we're not willing to take a bad shot or give that up. Then we try to have a balance of inside/outside but frankly we're struggling with our post game so we need to go outside."
That's mean more time with Granger (6'8", 228 pounds) at the four.
"We were not playing Danny Granger any at the power forward spot up until about two weeks ago. That was our best lineup last year. We tried to be more of a traditional team with a big lineup," said O'Brien. "So we're still starting what you would consider a traditional lineup with a center and a power forward but at different times in a game in both halves you're going to see a pretty decent amount of minutes where you have Granger, point guard, center and two wings that can space the court and shoot the three."
Granger in a power position can be a double-edged sword.
"They have a lot of shooters. Danny Granger is a very difficult cover," said Del Negro on Monday when the Pacers visited the Los Angeles Clipper. "They run some good stuff . . . they spread you out."
Of course, it has its drawbacks defensively. Rookie Blake Griffin dropped 47 points on the Pacers, although Granger was rarely matched up against the Clipper star. Veteran Jeff Foster seemed to take the most minutes (and punishment) against Blake.
Danny doesn't think it hurts the team defensively when the Pacers go small.
"No matter how big they are, you get to their legs and push them so they can't jump," said Granger. "It just gives us a different look I think on the offensive end. When you go small, teams change their lineups. I think it's just a coaching strategy that [we] use just to switch things up a little bit."
The team hopes that moving Granger to the four will help to get more out of point guard Darren Collison, who is averaging just 4.7 assists per game.
"It opens up the game for Collison. It opens up the game for Granger when you have a center or power forward who can't space the court, there's really no driving opportunities there. The middle is not open," said O'Brien. "So we're trying to attempt to open up the middle, so when somebody is playing Granger or Collison and they know they have two teammates waiting in the paint for them and they can under their chin and make life difficult for them. When you can't do that, and you space the court, it opens up the court for the perimeter guys."
Collison said he sees a difference.
"It helps my game because you have another shooter on the court. [Granger's] ability to score the ball helps stretch the court out a little bit more," said Collison. "Any time I'm coming off pick and rolls, you don't want to leave him and if you do, I can set him up for a jump shot."
Darren doesn't want to point fingers, remaining protective of current starter Hansbrough.
"Tyler's coming along. He can hit that 15-foot jump shot. Any time he can hit that 15-foot jump shot, it's just like there's another shooter on the court," said Collison. "The difference between him and Danny is that Danny can hit the three-ball. It's more physical. It's more of a team thing when Tyler's in the lineup, he can rebound. He's explosive. Either way you want to go, it doesn't matter."
Despite the team's poor play recently, Collison has felt better about his game.
"Yeah. I feel like I'm getting a lot more comfortable," said Darren. "Especially running more pick and rolls in the system."
Against the Clippers, Collison scored a season-high 30 points. In Philadelphia a week prior, he dropped 13 assists along 21 points.
Through January, he's averaged 17.4 points a game and 6.4 assists.
Granger said he still thinks the Pacers can make the playoffs but they need to improve significantly.
"We need to establish a more consistent offensive flow for our game. We're really sporadic right now," said Granger. "Some games we shoot well. Most games we don't. That has to change for us to be in the playoffs."
The issue goes on just playing hard or well.
"Chemistry. Teams chemistry," said Granger. "We've just got to learn to play with each other better."
Unfortunately for the Pacers, it's not on the players. It's not on O'Brien, who more than one opposing coach has called privately "a difficult guy to go up against."
It's the player personnel department that hasn't done enough. Perhaps the blame falls on the shoulders of President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird or even former President Donnie Walsh, but the franchise is still trying to get through the rebuilding process from the Jermaine O'Neal, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson era.
The team will finally get out of their salary cap jam after this season after taking on the bloated contracts of Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Troy Murphy. Murphy has already been flipped for Collison and Dunleavy is expiring after this season.
Rebooting a franchise is rarely pretty.
The team will finally have financial flexibility but do they have the right building blocks in place to move forward?
Granger will be 28 years old in April. Collison represents the future with Hibbert, but the center's recent decline is certainly a concern.
Rookie Paul George hasn't had a strong year so far but he's loaded with potential. Both Hansbrough and McRoberts still have a lot to prove. Brandon Rush is somewhat solid, somewhat inconsistent.
The path for the team to take moving forward isn't clear. Granger will get $13 million a year for the next three seasons but looking at the team's prospects over the season or two, can they piece something viable together before Danny hits 30?
It may be time to consider trading Granger, "franchise player" or not, for additional assets in the same age range as Collison and Hibbert (both around 24/25).
The Pacers never fully embraced the rebuild. Now may be the time.
Indiana has plenty of expiring contracts to deal but there's no point in wasting that flexibility on veterans with multi-year deals just to make a token playoff appearance.
The youth movement is the way to go.
Instead, the team should look to use their $25.7 million in expiring contracts to try and get out of James Posey's extra year at $7.6 million, Dahntay Jones' two additional seasons at about $2.8 million each - while bringing in some a few more kids and/or draft considerations.
Trading Murphy for Collison was a step in the right direction.
Attendance at Pacer games has been poor, so keeping the fans in the seats can't and shouldn't be the top short-term priority.
It's time for Bird and management to do the real work of putting together a solid, youthful core and letting that winning chemistry happen organically . . . even if that means giving up on the current face of the franchise in Granger.