This was Larry Bird talking:
“Put Copeland in.”
The response Monday was to a question about how the Pacers might better contend with spread lineups; given the source, it lent uncommon gravity to a thought common to the point of obsession within the fan base.
It also sent another message entirely: that the bench, as it was deployed in 2013-14, needs a different look.
Despite a concerted effort by Bird to upgrade the available talent, the second unit was again one of the NBA’s worst in 2013-14, ranking 28th in the league at 25.0 points per game. In the playoffs, the production dipped to 18.9 points.
After being outscored by 76 points in the 2013 conference finals, the reserves were outscored by 56 this time around, both times by a decidedly mediocre Miami group.
“Our bench has got to be more consistent,” Bird said. “They’ve got to get in there and play more minutes than they’re playing now on a consistent basis. It makes Frank (Vogel)’s job a lot easier.”
In theory, yes. In practice, not so much. This may well have been the most talented second unit the Pacers have put together in recent years, with Luis Scola, Evan Turner, C.J. Watson heading the list. But that talent did not translate into production for reasons that should’ve been predictable.
Scola had been a starter for 410 of 468 games in his career prior to joining the Pacers. He wound up with career lows in minutes (17.1), points (7.6) and rebounds (4.8).
Turner had started 138 consecutive games in Philadelphia and was averaging a career-high 17.4 points in 34.9 minutes when the Pacers acquired him in the midseason trade for Danny Granger. He wound up averaging 7.1 points in 21.2 minutes during the regular season and eventually fell completely out of the rotation during the conference finals.
Granger met with much the same fate with the Clippers, averaging 2.6 points and 28 percent shooting in the playoffs. Though many fans point to the Granger-Turner trade as the start of the Pacers’ late-season slide, in truth its impact was nominal.
“He was one of my favorites but I don’t buy into that,” Bird said. “I never had one player come up to me and say anything about the trade. … they were cool with it. Danny was never this leader everybody seems to think he was.”
No, the bigger issue was that the two most important players on the second unit, Scola and Turner, both were ill-suited to those roles.
“The problem you get into when you do these deals is when you bring guys in that’s used to playing 30-35 minutes and all of a sudden they’re down to 12-14, are they going to be able to handle that?” Bird said. “And handling that is keeping themselves prepared, keeping themselves loose. A lot of these guys have an opportunity to get out and play a little bit and maybe they can get away with missing a couple shots here and there but then they get into a rhythm. When you come off the bench you’ve got to be ready to go.”
The one newcomer that performed as expected was Watson, a career backup fully comfortable with the role. But Watson is a facilitator, a solid backup point guard, not a guy whose productivity can change a game.
The same was true to a lesser degree with Rasual Butler, who played little during the regular season but remained ready and became a contributor in the playoffs. He, too, brought years of experience as a reserve and thus understood the role.
Meanwhile Copeland, the first player signed in free agency, languished at the end of the bench because Vogel gave more weight to his defensive liabilities than his offensive potency.
“We’ve got a unique situation where we have five starters capable of playing at an All-Star level,” Vogel said. “And when you have that and you have the health that we had this year, those guys coming off the bench didn’t get a lot of opportunity.
“I do agree we had the best players that we’ve had the past few years, in terms of coming off the bench. We’ve got to make sure they play better and I’ve got to do a better job of making sure they’re playing confidently. There are some things I know I can do better to do that. That’s certainly one of the areas I’m going to look to improve next year.”
However the second unit is constructed in 2014-15 – Turner is a free agent unlikely to return, Scola could be cut in order to save $3 million in non-guaranteed salary, and Rasual Butler, Lavoy Allen and Donald Sloan also are free agents – Bird and Vogel must learn from past mistakes.
For Bird, the mission is to acquire players willing and able to play secondary roles, and whose skills fit the team’s needs. Signing Copeland as a free agent and then trading for Scola created a logjam at power forward that left both players unfulfilled.
For Vogel, it is to build greater trust in the second unit, to show more confidence in the reserves. He allows starters to play through mistakes, but tends to banish reserves more quickly.
After years of obsessing about reserves cannot do, it is time for Bird and Vogel to find a way to exploit what they can. Otherwise, this is a history that is doomed to repeat.