What begins Saturday night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse is much more than a first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks.
For the Pacers, this postseason is a referendum on the futures of several key figures in the franchise: Larry Bird, Frank Vogel, Roy Hibbert and George Hill.
It begins with Bird.
As much as Frank Vogel and the players opened themselves up to criticism with their vocal pursuit of the No. 1 seed, Bird was the guy who said the Pacers were “all in” this year and that every move he made was pointed strictly at a championship run.
Bird was the guy that traded Danny Granger and signed Andrew Bynum, changing the makeup and chemistry of a team that, at the time, had the best record in the NBA. It wasn’t broken, so why the attempted fix?
Bird also used the local newspaper to call out Vogel for not being tough enough on his players, interesting coming from the man who issued his coach a mandate to create and maintain a positive culture. It also set a dangerous precedent for the players; if it’s OK for Bird to air his laundry in public, it must be OK for Hibbert to talk openly about “selfish dudes” in the locker room.
As much as he has done right in assembling this roster, Bird also has taken some calculated risks. Winning at the elite level is a high-stakes game and nobody knows that better than Bird. He also knows the repercussions of falling short. On the line is not his job, but his reputation – not to mention the future of the franchise, given the payroll problems looming this summer.
There is more pressure on Vogel.
Under his stewardship, the team has progressed every postseason: first-round loss to Chicago in 2011, second-round loss to Miami in 2012, third-round loss to Miami in 2013.
Under normal circumstances, that type of run in a coach’s first three seasons would cement his status, give him the NBA equivalent of tenure. But these are not normal circumstances.
In his recent interview with WRTV’s Dave Furst, Bird said he backed Vogel “100 percent,” but he also set the bar for the coach and the team.
“If we don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals or the (NBA) Finals,” Bird said, “it’s going to be a bad year for us because I know the talent we have.”
Bird has long believed in a three-year rule when it comes to head coaches before the players tune out. He followed that to the letter himself, stepping down as the Pacers’ coach after his third season in 2000, even though he had just directed the team to the NBA Finals for the only time in franchise history.
How much of the late-season collapse lies at Vogel’s feet isn’t entirely clear but it’s possible he could become the victim of his own success. The Pacers weren’t as good as their 33-7 record indicated in January, but no one expected a 23-19 finish.
It seems obvious anything short of a deep postseason run, at the very least a return to the conference finals, could be very bad news for Vogel.
And then there is the curious case of Benjamin Button Hibbert, who seems to be regressing before our very eyes.
Once the very centerpiece of this franchise’s rebirth, the intimidating rim-protector with the big smile, Hibbert has devolved into a glowering non-entity, the first man in the locker room to point fingers when things began to unravel.
Having just concluded the worst of his five seasons as a full-time starter with a pitiable slump (3-for-28 in his last four games, 31-for-106 in his last 12), Hibbert could use the playoffs to re-establish his importance, or continue to drift into irrelevance.
What to make of Hill?
The man who doesn’t want to be a point guard sure played that way. Like Hibbert, he took a big step backward this year and finished the season mired in a slump. Unlike Hibbert, he has never really established a firm grasp on his position.
This system may not need Chris Paul to succeed, but when C.J. Watson and even Donald Sloan seem to make it work more fluidly, it becomes increasingly clear Hill’s future may well lie in his past – as a third guard on another team.
Hibbert and Hill are scheduled to earn nearly $23 million next season, when Paul George’s massive extension kicks in and Lance Stephenson most certainly will get paid.
If they do get it together in these playoffs, it would be easy to see paying the price to keep the core together for another run.
If they do not make it work, the franchise may well decide that money should be better spent.
For some of these Pacers, what begins Saturday night is a postseason in which they will either go deep, or go away.