An exciting Pacers team built around young stars but with a solid veteran leader and an optimistic young coach get off to brilliant start, become the talk of the league, and become instant celebrities. But right after the All-Star Weekend, which the coaching staff and several players spend getting all puffed up, the troubles begin. Turns out, they were celebrating a little too early, enjoying the fruits of success before actually achieving any of substance, and they limp down the stretch and get upset in the playoffs.
That was 11 years ago, the 2002-03 season.
Then, the players were Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest and Reggie Miller. The coach was Isiah Thomas. The start was 14-2, which became 37-15. But when the bandwagon hit a chuckhole, the wheels came off because nobody cared to look at all the loose bolts, let alone notice they could’ve used some tightening. They lost 19 of their final 30 games, slipped from the top of the East into the third seed, and fell in the first round to Jim O’Brien’s Boston Celtics in six games.
Is it happening again?
Now, the players are Paul George, Lance Stephenson and David West. The coach is Frank Vogel, O’Brien’s former assistant. The start was 16-1, which became 39-10, but it all changed right around the All-Star break, when the Pacers were once again the toast of the NBA. Their slide hasn’t been as precipitous, although it is heading that way: five losses in the last seven games, nine in 15.
Their fifth consecutive road loss, 90-76 in Cleveland Sunday, left the Pacers with a one-game lead over Miami in the East. Since beating the Heat 84-83 Wednesday night to take a three-game lead, Indiana has lost twice, while Miami has won twice, and now all the good of that emotional victory has been undone.
By all appearances, this team is falling victim to the same basic problems as its predecessor more than a decade ago: a premature feeling of accomplishment leading to a false sense of entitlement, a few too many spoils for the victors, and a general blindness to problems that were cropping up along the way.
For awhile, the issue was stunning slippage from a defense that had been dominant. But as the Pacers have regained their footing on that end of the floor, they have become Bambi on ice, offensively. In their last five games, they have shot below 40 percent each time, breaching 80 just once.
The problem with the offense starts at the top.
George’s shooting slump, which began in January, has only snowballed. In the last seven games, he has shot 31 percent from the field, 29 percent from the 3-point line, and fully 36 percent of his attempts have come from the arc. Yet he seems more concerned with blaming officials for his problems than holding himself accountable.
While he is capitalizing on the stardom he built in the first half of the season with endorsement deals, he is also ensuring those will be short-term agreements with his flameout of the past three months.
Some potential upcoming campaigns, should his current slide continue:
>> “As former future superstar Paul George has proven, new Gatorade Fierce gives you all the energy you need to last almost half a season.”
>> “Papa John’s announces the Paul George Trifecta special, in which two out of every seven pizzas will actually be delivered.”
We must try to laugh, because the alternative is just too painful.
Against Miami, a team apparently worthy of his best effort, George was aggressive and played with authority. Against the Wizards and Cavs, he played as though he was doing everyone in the arena a favor just by making an appearance, totaling 34 points on 11-for-35 shooting (.314).
As the best player on the team, George must bear the brunt of the blame for its struggle. Only if he accepts it can things change.
But he is far from alone in this mess.
The wizened old veteran West was brought here for precisely this moment: to be the man who knew the way, the one who could lead the Pacers out of a crisis. Yet there was West in Cleveland, throwing an elbow at the head of a backup point guard, then grabbing the opposing center by the throat with six minutes left in a blowout loss. That’s not leading, that’s acting out.
There is also the coach, whose unfailingly positive approach was just what this team needed — three years ago.
But as individuals obviously struggled, as George lost his way, as Roy Hibbert reverted to a lost puppy in the post, as Hill continued to walk the ball upcourt with all the energy of a slug, as all of these individual habits snowballed into a collective malaise, Vogel stuck to his script.
Credit (fill in opponent name here), they played well. Our shots just didn’t fall. This is a tough stretch of schedule. Hey, it happens to everybody. Nothing to see here. Move along, folks.
It isn’t too late, by any means. The Pacers still are in first place in the East. If they want to remain there, it is up to Vogel, George and West.
The coach must stop concerning himself with individual egos and push the buttons that make the team work. When George starts jacking up first-pass threes, when Stephenson starts heaving behind-the-back passes into the third row, when Hibbert starts playing like a victim instead of a warrior, when Hill walks his teammates into a coma, when West does not impose his will early in a game, there are seats on the bench waiting, with messages attached.
The superstar must remember what earned him that label, and realize it is not necessarily permanent. He wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Kobe and LeBron, but hasn’t grasped the most basic tenet of true stars: they may not always have it, but they always bring it.
The leader must lead. Spread those shoulders, fill that chest and do what needs to be done. No more walking on eggshells.
The alternative is simply unacceptable.
Because they waited too long to acknowledge the problems that started their downward spiral 11 years ago, the Pacers could not stop it, the coach was fired and the team ultimately broken apart.
We know what happens to those who fail to learn from history.