Before the season started in the fall, I had gleefully pronounced that I thought the Indiana Pacers would win the NBA title. This prediction was what you would call a “sexy pick,” since Indiana would be as close to a starless championship team as the league has ever seen. Yet from an outside perspective, Indiana seemed like the logical team to finally take out the Heat. They had taken Miami to a game 7 in consecutive years, seeming to get better and better as each series went along. It seemed like it was their time.
At least for the first few months of the season, such a prediction was looking brilliant. Roy Hibbert anchored what was by far the league’s best defense, a defense that was so regularly dominant that it earned comparisons to some of the greatest defenses ever. Meanwhile, Paul George has played his way into the MVP discussions as he appeared to have made “the leap” much faster than the rest of the world had expected. After the first few weeks of the season, Indiana was on pace to win almost 70 games. In fact, the Pacer’s early season dominance should not have been a surprise. Indiana’s starting unit was the single best lineup in all of basketball last year, only hampered by their lack of bench help. Yet with what appeared to be a better reserve group, Indiana seemed poised to make the leap.
Of course, merely a few months later, the Pacer’s dominance can no longer be taken for granted. While Indiana’s defense has continued to be excellent, their offense, which always appeared to have been held together by duct tape and glue, completely collapsed. Almost everyone seemed to expect George to regress to the mean, yet the degree to which he has regressed must be worrying for Head Coach Frank Vogel. George’s success had been based off of unsustainable mid-range jumpers, a feature of his game that would not last. Yet George seems to be so busy attempting to force his offense that he has lost control.
Lance Stevenson, long the tempestuous wildcard for the Pacers, has appeared to have played himself out of millions of dollars as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Many had assumed that he would be one of the most sought-after commodities this offseason, but as he has lost control of his offensive gifts over the last few weeks, Stevenson appears like a much less valuable player. Stevenson is a gifted player who allows Indiana to be a much more dynamic team, but his intensity is often completely uncontrolled, allowing him to hijack the team’s offense, completely ruining whatever set Indiana is trying to run.
More perplexingly, David West and Roy Hibbert, both integral components of Indiana’s previous playoff runs, appear to be struggling mightily this season. For West, it appears as though his long career of bullying defenders in the paint is finally catching up to him. He simply lacks the intensity and physicality to dominate the way he did last season. For a player whose ability to pass out of pick and pops essentially broke Miami’s defense last season, Indiana will need West to be a more active contributor. The case for Hibbert is even odder. Hibbert should be in his prime, and is indeed one of the league’s best defensive players, but is nonetheless a below average offensive player, despite his reputation as a much more intimidating offensive force. For whatever reason, Hibbert transforms into a dominant post-presence whenever he plays Miami, yet has not been able to translate his success into everyday games.
In subtle derision to the rest of the conference, analysts have long claimed that Miami and Indiana would easily make the conference finals, with limited resistance from the rest of the conference. Yet even the most optimistic observer has to be concerned about Indiana. Their struggles have not been a mere aberration; they have simply become a worst team since the all-star break.
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