Once a year, without fail, there comes a time when I think Frank Vogel has become unhinged.
It is that time when what I see on the court and hear in the locker room simply does not align with the message being sent by the Pacers head coach. Being a skeptic by nature, it is difficult for me to understand Vogel’s relentless positivity when, by all appearances, the team is falling to pieces.
Once a year, without fail, I am wrong.
And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
It started in Vogel’s second month as a head coach. After taking over for Jim O’Brien – and let us not forget, having the temerity to change basically everything his longtime mentor was doing on the fly – the Pacers had the predictable initial surge that frequently follows a coaching change. But in March, it looked as if the wheels had come off in a six-game losing streak, with the losses coming by an average of 16 points.
After a particularly egregious 101-75 blowout in Minnesota, Vogel’s message was upbeat. He saw good things, felt like the players were getting it together – you know, the usual. Then came a 10-point loss in Toronto that dropped the Pacers to 27-38, more positive messaging and the general assumption was Vogel was a nice guy who was in over his head.
The Pacers turned it around, made the playoffs, stood toe-to-toe with the Bulls and, well, you know the rest.
It happened again in 2011-12, when the Pacers dropped nine of 15 in a slump bridging February and March, but they finished with a 15-4 burst.
And again last season, when they lost five of their final six games heading into the playoffs, where it seems like they did OK.
“I think there’s been a stretch like this every year since we’ve been here,” Vogel said. “April last year was a dark time. This is a frustrating time. I wouldn’t call it a dark time.
“I don’t believe the sky is falling, I don’t believe the world’s coming to the end. We are frustrated. We all want to play better. I believe that this will stabilize.”
For Vogel, the job is about rebuilding the fundamental habits, to put the building blocks back in place.
“What we’re doing works,” Vogel said. “Just because you hit a rough patch doesn’t mean we don’t have a good basketball team and we don’t have a good structure and a good system. Just continue to remind them of that.
“I always go back to the Rick Pitino phrase, ‘Never chase money, chase winning.’ Be good at what you do, focus on the task at hand. We’re not saying we’ve got to go win. We’re saying we’ve got to go play the right way and when you play the right way the winning will come.”
Just five games remain in the regular season, precious little time for the Pacers to rebuild confidence and momentum heading into the playoffs. The schedule offers them an opportunity for healing, with games against the Hawks and Bucks preceding next Friday’s showdown in Miami.
Whatever is to come we cannot know. But given this team’s recent history, it just might be a good idea to think positive.
It has worked before, almost without fail.