Posted May 7 2012 1:47PM
INDIANAPOLIS -- About three weeks before the playoffs, Pacers coach Frank Vogel benched his starting point guard. Bad idea, said Darren Collison, who lost the job.
"I know I'm a starter in this league and when I was (starting) we were winning," he said.
Good idea, said George Hill, who inherited the job.
"I think I can help my teammates get involved offensively and help us defensively."
It was a decision that was controversial mainly because it went against an unwritten rule in sports: no one gets the hook if they're hurt (and Collison had a groin injury at the time).
"That's certainly the old saying, but sometimes, in certain situations, it makes sense to make the move," Vogel said. "For us, it would not have made sense to stay with that same group."
And so here they are, two point guards who respect each other but who also think they're the best man for the job. In the end, their healthy competition may work best for the Pacers as they creep toward round two of the playoffs.
From a performance standpoint, Vogel's suspicions are being confirmed. Before the benching, the Pacers were 34-22 with Collison, a respectable record, but Vogel felt something wasn't right. And make no mistake, a coach doesn't yank his starter without getting the pulse of the locker room. Something besides a gut feeling pushed Vogel to go with Hill, and the Pacers are 11-3 since, including the playoffs.
"Inserting him into that starting lineup elevated our whole team's level of play," said Vogel.
The Pacers are rolling in the first round, up 3-1 on the Magic with a chance to close it out Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and Hill is definitely a reason. But Collison, too, at least lately. In Game 4, the Pacers received the kind of balance that two "starters" can provide.
Collison came off the bench early and had 11 points and helped Indiana take a 19-point lead. Hill had missed all six of his shots, was sent to the bench, and required a pep talk from Danny Granger and David West. Then, with the Pacers locked in a tight game late, Vogel turned to Hill, who made a pair of big shots and sank two free throws in the overtime win.
"When you've got two point guards playing at the level of Darren Collison and George Hill, you've got a chance to win anywhere against anyone," said Vogel.
Of course, something's got to give, and the Hill-Colllison tandem is destined for a very short shelf life. Hill is up for a contract extension and if the Pacers pay him as expected, it would all but signal the end of Collison's time in Indiana. If so, then the Collison era would end much earlier than anyone previously thought.
When Pacers president Larry Bird traded for Collison two summers ago, it seemed like a solid fit. As a rookie, Collison replaced an injured Chris Paul in New Orleans and took the NBA by surprise, averaging 18.8 points and nine assists for two months and hiking his trade value. He arrived in Indiana last season as a 22-year-old without any competition for the starting job, and the Pacers thought they'd found their point guard for the next decade.
But Collison never had the same impact in Indiana as he did in that abbreviated stint as a starter for the Hornets. Collison has averaged 13 points and five assists, solid numbers for sure, but not enough for Vogel. He's only 6-feet and weighs 160, which means what he adds in speed and tempo, he gives up in size and strength.
Losing his job to Hill, who is 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, was tough for Collison. He didn't think the process was a fair one and it wore on him initially, struggling his first few games off the bench.
"In this role, you've got to produce, and do it as quickly as you can," he said.
Hill had three productive seasons with the Spurs before joining the Pacers at the start of the season via a Draft-day trade, and returning to a city where he starred in high school and college at IUPUI. He was a part-time starter for the Spurs and that experience was a bonus to a Pacers team trying to establish itself as a contender.
"I started 55 games in San Antonio and starting was something I was used to," Hill said. "I've been in this position before. I learned so much there, from so many good and veteran players. I was just trying to bring whatever I could to make this team better, to share what I learned in San Antonio with these guys. We had a good month of April when I got to the starting lineup."
The point guard situation is helping the Pacers right now, and will be even more valuable to the franchise this summer. Collison will become trade bait because of his favorable contract (two years, $5.6 million) and age (23). That, along with a projected $15 million to spend under the cap, will give the Pacers plenty of options for improving in the offseason.
Plus, Collison gave the impression he wouldn't be resistant to a trade, if that means a fresh start and a starting role. In the right situation, he might find what he thought he had in Indiana.
"I'm not the starter right now and that was the coach's decision and you've got to respect it," said Collison. "But I know my time is coming. I'm not worried about that. Make no mistake about it, I'm going to be a starter in this league again. That's my goal and my mindset."
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