People in Indiana don’t seem to be too big on reality these days — even when it comes to their basketball.
When the NBA season was getting ready to start, some folks around here seemed to think that the Indiana Pacers had a chance to get back to the Eastern Conference finals after adding the likes of Al Jefferson and Jeff Teague.
Two weeks into the college basketball season, Indiana University was the No. 3 team in the nation after knocking off Kansas in its season opener. People were talking Final Four, and rightly maligned head coach Tom Crean even seemed to be pulling his head off of the chopping block.
My, what a difference three months makes.
The Hoosiers are 16-13, sitting near the bottom of a lackluster Big Ten and looking at probable loss number 14 tonight at Purdue. Crean, not surprisingly, is on the hot seat again, and IU fans suddenly have visions of Brad Stevens dancing in their heads.
Are you for real?
Let’s think about this logically for a second. You’re Brad Stevens — raised in Zionsville, a DePauw grad and the stuff of Indiana legend after leading Butler to consecutive NCAA title games in 2010 and 2011. You parlayed that unlikely success into a lucrative contract with the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2013.
Four years later, you’ve signed a fat contract extension, you’re coaching the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference and your team is staring at a limitless future, with likely top-three picks coming in each of the next two NBA drafts courtesy of a gift trade with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013 that keeps on giving.
Are you telling me that the first thought entering your mind if the Hoosiers cut Crean loose is, “Yes, can I please give up this golden opportunity to win championships for the most storied franchise in pro basketball to go back home and coach the fourth-best college basketball team in the state?”
Sorry, folks, but Indiana basketball fans need to accept the same reality that Notre Dame football fans do — your head coaching job is not a destination gig anymore. You can not expect elite-level coaches to drop everything and beg for your school to hire them.
What Indiana needs to hope for is that it can find the next Stevens and rebuild around that person, whoever it might be. Maybe it can lure Archie Miller away from Dayton, if it’s lucky. Maybe it can hit the jackpot with some other hot young mid-major up-and-comer.
But the Hoosiers aren’t getting Stevens, or anyone of comparable stature. Stop getting your hopes up.
Speaking of not getting hopes up — it’s your turn, Pacers fans.
None of what I’m about to say should be taken as a slap at Larry Bird. I grew up going to games at the Boston Garden. I met Larry when I was 7 years old. I still consider him the best player of all time who isn’t named LeBron James. Larry Bird is, and always will be, a basketball deity.
But when he passed on a chance to hit the reset button by trading Paul George last week, I was surprised. Granted, as a Celtics fan, I wasn’t disappointed, because George isn’t the missing piece for Boston and wouldn’t have been worth what Bird and the Pacers were asking. But Bird and the Pacers aren’t really in a position to be playing hardball with the Celtics right now.
The Celts already have a good team and are sitting on a treasure trove of assets, including Brooklyn draft picks in 2017 and 2018 that could both become No. 1s because the Nets are dumpster broth. They don’t need to make a desperation move. Indiana, meanwhile, is in basketball purgatory — not anywhere near good enough to contend but just good enough to not get the high draft picks it needs to bring in a difference-maker or two.
Those difference-makers aren’t coming through free agency — sorry, but Indy is not a destination of choice for most NBA stars. And when George leaves via free agency after next season, which he seems likely to do, then the Pacers will have gotten nothing for him.
Yes, I know fans thought they might’ve had the makings of an East contender when the season began — but those fans were kidding themselves. Cleveland, Boston, Washington and Toronto are all clearly better than the Pacers now, and the Bucks and 76ers (and the Celtics) all have considerably brighter futures. Bird can’t afford to stay the course any longer; if he does, Indiana will be irrelevant in the NBA for at least another decade.
It’s time for both the Pacers and Hoosiers, and their fans, to step out of their alternate universes and embrace reality. The sooner you realize that your present isn’t what you wanted to believe it was, the sooner you can move toward a real future.