As bad as they look, it’s still too early to write the Pacers out of the playoff picture.
But the time is nearing, possibly even today.
Yet if/when the Pacers fail to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, let alone win the East, heads are sure to roll. It would be a shame if Frank Vogel’s is one of them.
Think about it for a moment.
Vogel is only 40. He’s been an NBA head coach for less than four full seasons. The Pacers have reached the playoffs each time.
Not only that, they’ve advanced a round further each ensuing season (even though this one might break the trend). They came tantalizingly close to beating Miami in last year’s conference finals and, in the process, became relevant again in Indiana.
But here we are, nearly a year later, with a miraculously healthy roster, a fortified bench, a wealth of postseason experience — and a wealth of wealthy players — and the top-seeded Pacers are on the verge of first-round extinction against No. 8 seed Atlanta.
Equal parts embarrassing, inexplicable and inexcusable, there is no denying the Pacers are a collective mess. Plenty of blame to go round. Players deserve most of it, but everyone from the front office team-assemblers to the coaching staff deserves a share.
At this point, it’s not about whether the Pacers survive the first round. It’s about whether they win the East. If they don’t do that, the season will be a failure. Larry Bird has said as much. And when they fail to win the East, there will be changes.
Although the roster would be a good place to start, it’s likely to begin with the coach. The clamor for Vogel’s job is out there. But as maddening as the meltdown is, firing Vogel seems insane.
For those with short memories, rewind to Jan. 30, 2011.
That was the day Vogel, a then-37-year-old with no head coaching experience, at any level, was appointed interim coach when Jim O’Brien was fired. The Pacers had a losing record. They hadn’t been to the playoffs in four years. They had lost much of the support of a city that had adored them before The Brawl.
By the time that interim season ended, the playoff drought ended with it. The Pacers gave then-top-seeded Chicago a first-round scare and have been East contenders ever since. It’s worth noting they established themselves as such without a true superstar to speak of.
That speaks to skillful coaching, regardless of what we’re seeing now — which is not a sight to behold. There are myriad reasons for that, some of which is Vogel’s fault (too soft on players?), some of which is Bird’s fault (good as it looked at the time, the Danny Granger-for-Evan Turner trade looks terrible now), but much of it is the players’ fault.
Roy Hibbert comes to mind. So does Paul George and George Hill. Hibbert, as the world knows, is awful. George, a onetime MVP candidate, is way off his All-Star game. And Hill, once a pillar of consistency, is contributing next to nothing.
Why? That unanswered question has lingered for two months. Did Vogel forget how to coach? Did players forget how to play? Did coaches and players lose focus in the glare of sunny headlines? Is there a chemistry issue that’s thrown everything into chaos?
Certainly, there are multiple answers to that one mysterious question: What’s wrong the Pacers?
No one has the answer, but Bird will comb the debris field until he finds it. When he does, heads will roll.
With any luck, Vogel’s won’t be one of them.
Rick Morwick is the sports editor of the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.