In a recent message to fans, Larry Bird did his diplomatic best to put the Indiana Pacers’ season in sunny perspective.
On the positive side, he noted, the Pacers won 56 games, were the No. 1 seed in the East and reached the conference finals for the third straight year.
But in the next breath, the Pacers’ president was forced to acknowledge the dark side of 2013-14.
Quite simply, the Pacers didn’t accomplish what they set out do: Win a championship.
Worse still (Bird didn’t actually say this), the Pacers didn’t make it out of the conference finals.
They didn’t even make it to Game 7.
As a consequence (Bird did say this), there is more work to be done. Everyone, from the front office on down, has to perform at a higher level. He’s committed to making next year even better.
End of message.
So there we have it, the final word on what was, charitably speaking, a disappointing season. Harsher critics (and they are out there) might even call it a failure of a season.
Although “disappointing” is probably more accurate, it’s easy to understand why some have an entirely different perspective.
This was, after all, the year the Pacers were supposed to do more than challenge the Miami Heat for the East championship. They were supposed to win it. Not only that, they were supposed to make a spirited — if not successful — bid for the NBA title.
And for the much of the season, it looked like they were going to.
You know the story.
Possessors of the league’s best record for the first two-thirds of the season, the Pacers clearly were its best team. They
dominated the East, won consistently in the West and were a complete package.
They were the NBA’s best defensive team. They had a starting five who each averaged double figures. They had an MVP candidate, two All-Stars and a solid bench that contributed just enough to allow the Pacers to blow opponents out in the fourth quarter of most games.
To be sure, it was an exciting, exhilarating time for the Pacers and their fans. Sellouts were common, again, in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana was the talk, and the toast, of the NBA.
And then along came the All-Star break and a downward spiral that portended what eventually happened in the playoffs.
Although the wheels didn’t fall off, the ride wasn’t exactly smooth. Losing streaks, including losses against bad teams, became alarmingly common. As a result, the Heat were suddenly poised to the do the improbable: Wrest away the No. 1 seed.
In the end, of course, the Pacers hung on. They finished with the best record in the East and secured home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs — then played poorly for surprising stretches throughout the postseason.
Their MVP candidate, Paul George, fizzled at inopportune times. Their Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Roy Hibbert, all but disappeared. And their rising star, Lance Stephenson, embarrassed himself in the conference finals with immature displays that did the Pacers no favors.
There were other issues, too, such as the Danny Granger-for-Evan Turner trade that paid zero dividend. And chemistry problems involving Stephenson and Turner, and who knows who else, that clearly had a negative post-All-Star break impact. And soft bench play. And disjointed point guard play — all of which, in the end, turned what could have been a special season into something of a wash.
Not a total disaster, but nothing to really celebrate.
Which brings us back to Bird’s message.
Make no mistake, he is serious — dead serious — about his pledge to improve the product. He has a proven history for doing so. Losing is anathema to him, and he won’t stand pat.
But the Pacers’ problems, it would seem, had more to do with the players than anything Bird did or didn’t do, or anything coach Frank Vogel did or didn’t do. Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy to point to a trade that didn’t work or to adjustments that weren’t made and say those were the main problems.
Pin this one on the players.
If anyone needs to learn a hard lesson and work harder next year, it’s the guys who didn’t get it done this year.
The ones who are coming back, anyway.
Rick Morwick is sports editor for the Daily Journal