The question came via text message on April 6th as part of a season-long conversation about the NBA. The question was: Are the Pacers the most depressing thing in the NBA right this minute? Obviously over the whole season there are tons of teams that are more depressing, but right this minute, man, the Pacers are a huge bummer. Even guys I like, like Roy Hibbert, have seemed like assholes lately.
Shockingly, hilariously, the question came more than four hours before the Pacers took the floor at home against the almost-equally-depressing Atlanta Hawks, and had their dicks kicked off into the hungry mouth of a killer whale. The question came, of course, because the Pacers had lost 11 of their previous 18 games. It came because they'd played 8 consecutive games at the end of March without topping 91 points, and because they've looked like absolute crap on the floor, and they're starting to snipe at each other through the media. I feel particularly grateful that I neglected to respond to the question, because only a few hours later the Hawks game happened and answered more thoroughly than I ever could have: God, God, the Pacers are depressing.
There's something satisfyingly appropriate, though, about the Pacers falling from such early season highs - regressing, perhaps - to such late season awfulness, for the way it suggests that maybe they've been a little over-hyped. I mean, yes, they were that good, because they won those games and scored those points and oh man the verticality. But the popular narrative told us their early season success was evidence that the Pacers as a construct had ascended to Championship Contender status, and it turns out maybe they're not fully there. If that pleases the non-Pacers fan, it's because non-Pacers fans have been horrified to watch the various component pieces of the Pacers - players and coaches and executives - be treated as though they've achieved the same hard-earned status as, say, Doc Rivers, or Sam Presti, or (most egregiously) LeBron James. Frank Vogel, cast as The Next Great NBA Head Coach. Larry Bird as Roster-Building Savant. Roy Hibbert as Pillar of Defensive Excellence and Forthright Leadership. Paul George as The LeBron Stopper.
Heh. About that.
That this praise was premature seems obvious now. Frank Vogel is an excellent coach, but there are real flaws in Indiana's offensive design. Larry Bird has built an excellent roster, except they lack shooters and ball-handlers, no one can throw an entry pass, and, well, Luis Scola. Roy Hibbert's defensive prowess can be negated by matching him against [gulp] Pero Antic. And Paul George is a terrific player whose offensive game is still several large steps behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant and probably even a few other guys. From well on the outside, doesn't it also seem like all this premature praise sort of went to their heads? It seems increasingly like certain Pacers players are playacting their assigned roles - like Roy Hibbert is doing Roy Hibbert, Leader of Men, and Paul George is doing Paul George, Superstar Party Crasher.
Of course, stuff like that doesn't really win or lose basketball games. Plays are called and executed and defended and the ball goes in the basket or it doesn't. Each team tries to give itself the best chance to score while making it as hard as possible for the other team to do the same. Whoever pulls it off better wins the game. But maybe, within the plays and execution, clues can be found that illustrate the flaws in the psychology of the team. And oh man does this Pacers team have flaws. Hell, they're having a whole big identity crisis.
In his recent Grantland piece, Zach Lowe uses a couple of plays to illustrate just how out of sorts and disorganized Indiana's execution has become on offense. In the first play, a side pick-and-roll eventually leads to Paul George rolling right into a Roy Hibbert quick post-up in the lane, drawing the defense and mucking up the spacing. Here it is:
In the second play, the same side pick-and-roll with the same weak-side action: Paul George sets the screen for George Hill, Hill swings it to David West, Paul George rolls into open space, Roy Hibbert seals his man in the restricted area, and Paul George and Roy Hibbert are suddenly standing on top of each other, drawing multiple defenders into the same space and halting the design of the play. Here it is:
It's clear that both plays are designed to get Paul George cutting to the basket while simultaneously creating a passing lane from David West to George, and it sort of looks like clumsy goofball Roy Hibbert jumps the gun on the play's secondary action. In Lowe's piece, these plays are used to demonstrate that Hibbert, in particular, is out of synch with the rest of the team and is sabotaging what would otherwise be a clever, clean play for the team's best offensive player.
Watch the plays again, though. In the first play, as the ball is swung to West near the top of the key, Roy Hibbert, the largest man in the NBA, seals his man directly under the basket. He is able to do this because his man cheats over to help on the pick-and-roll action involving Hill and George. Lowe presents this as Hibbert dragging his man into the action, when in fact he's taken advantage of the way the defense is warped to get the best possible position, immediately in front of the basket. It's only because the offense is single-minded about generating a look for Paul George that Hibbert's action is seen as interference. West is so focused on the skip pass that his 7'2" center establishing dominant position directly under the basket with zero available help is somehow a bad thing.
In the second play (unlike the first), one of Cleveland's perimeter defenders chases George into the lane. Hibbert's man cheats even more to prevent George's clean roll to the basket. Hibbert sees this and seals him, again, this time on his outside shoulder. Hibbert has the best possible position on the floor, and all by just utilizing the defense's actions. West doesn't even see him. In his tunnel vision, he sees two defenders and three large bodies around his intended target, and the offense stalls utterly.
This type of thing is made more interesting in light of Roy Hibbert's recent comments, declaring some of his teammates selfish. Here's the exact quote:
"We play hard, but we've got to move the ball. Is it obvious, or what? I don't know whatever our assist ratio, or whatever it is, is in the league, but it probably isn't up there. I'm really trying hard not to spaz out right now, but I don't know. We've been talking about it for a month. I'm not handling the rock. I don't know. I've made suggestions before and we do it for, like, one game, and then we revert back to what we are. I don't know. I'm not the one to answer that question. It directly affects me and the bigs. We're just out there and it makes us look bad."
So, a big guy makes a smart play and gains valuable position under the hoop, and his teammates are...annoyed? The offense...suffers? It's easy to see why he might take that to mean that some of his teammates (Paul George) are soaking up a disproportionate amount of Indiana's touches, to the detriment of the offense as a whole.
Then the Atlanta game comes around, and right there in the very first play Indiana runs on their very first possession, Hill brings the ball up, David West puts his butt into Paul Milsap at the edge of the restricted area, and the ball is swung away from him and eventually finds Paul George, isolated in what could generously be called the high post. The ball stops, the movement stops, and the play ends with a ridiculous step-back fading brick from the baseline. West is languishing on the weak-side. Hibbert is at the top of the key. The very first play of the game! Remember: It directly effects me and the bigs.
Paul George is a sublime player, but several dramatic leaps of faith are needed before one can believe that a Paul George isolation from 18 feet is a higher-efficiency play than David West from the edge of the paint on the low block (especially if George turns those isolations into wild fall-away baseline heaves). Or that a pass through the lane to a diving Paul George, with an opposing big rotating over to help, is a better look than Hibbert literally a few inches from the front of the rim.
At some point during last season's playoffs, fans and the media decided Paul George was the third- or fourth-best player in the NBA. And from that point forward, of course we all want to see him, you know, become the third- or fourth-best player in the NBA, right before our eyes, with a refined and dominant offensive game to match his stuff-of-legend defense. I want Paul George to get all the touches, to chew up defenders with precise footwork and turn isolations into highlights and pour in huge numbers. And whether he can actually do those things or not, a Paul George isolation is always going to be more entertaining than another earthbound Roy Hibbert post up. But, see, I'm a fan. Of course I've bought the hype. It's the job of Frank Vogel and the Indiana Pacers and the design of their offense to stay clear on what kinds of plays give them the best chance to score. It's starting to look from afar like the Pacers have focused in a bit too much on generating shots for their emerging star, and, thanks to the public comments of the Pillar of Forthright Leadership, we know the view from inside isn't all that different.
No one outside of Indiana's locker room knows if this is truly a case of Paul George being a selfish player, or if Hibbert was just blowing off steam. But there's evidence, anyway, that Indiana's offense is feeding George disproportionately, to the exclusion of other important weapons, and to such a degree that honest-to-God positive plays have suddenly become obstructions to the offense's design, which looks more and more like a Paul George Star Vehicle. It will be interesting to see how this progresses headed into the playoffs, but if it isn't cleaned up, it won't be pretty, one way or another.