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The Case For Hanging In There

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

June 2, 2014

Frank Vogel and Larry Bird met with the media Monday, and their answers to all the questions were pretty boring. To summarize, they said they want to stay the course, try to keep the core together, tweak the roster and hope maturity brings further improvement.

That might not be what some knee-jerking fans and media members wanted to hear, but they happen to be the correct early-June answers. Declarations such as “We're trading Hibbert!” or “We're letting Lance walk!” or “We've got to get a new point guard!” would have generated better headlines and social media reaction, but that's not what works in the real world of the NBA.

“We're gonna hang in there,” doesn't exactly make for a scintillating marketing slogan, but it's what works best most of the time when you have a team capable of contending for a title. Veteran Pacers fans who look back fondly on the playoff runs under Larry Brown and Larry Bird know this, although it's easy to forget. Fans of other teams know it, too, because the kind of improvement needed to get to the NBA Finals doesn't usually occur in a straight line.

The Pacers had shown steady and obvious improvement each season under Frank Vogel until this past season's All-Star break. Losing to Miami in the conference finals for the second straight season, in six games instead of seven, was an interruption to that trend, but doesn't call for a major shakeup. As boring as it sounds, “hanging in there” has history on its side.

Think back to 1995. The Pacers had made a stunning run to the Eastern Conference finals the previous season, taking a 3-2 lead on New York before losing the final two games. This time expectations were primed for a trip to the Finals. They took Shaquille O'Neal and Orlando to a 3-3 tie in the conference finals, only to get blasted in Game 7, 105-81.

It got worse from there. Reggie Miller suffered an eye injury late the following season and the Pacers lost a first-round series with Atlanta. The next season, due largely to injuries to Rik Smits and Derrick McKey, they didn't even make the playoffs.

The rumblings for change were mounting. Miller, Smits, McKey and Mark Jackson each were past 30, after all. How could they be expected to take another step in their declining years?

Team president Donnie Walsh stood pat.

The Pacers returned to the conference finals the following season (1997-98) in Bird's first season as coach and took Chicago to seven games, reigniting hope. They were the consensus favorite to win the championship in the lockout season of 1999, but lost to New York in the conference finals again, in six games.

This time the rumblings were nearly deafening. The core of the team hadn't gotten any younger. The talk radio shows and newspaper columns were filled with calls for a sledgehammer to the roster that would break up a team that couldn't quite get to the top.

Donnie Walsh stood pat again.

The following season, the Pacers reached the NBA Finals for the only time in franchise history. True, they didn't win a championship. But they wouldn't have come nearly as close with an overhauled roster that required years to re-mold into a contender, either.

In San Antonio, there no doubt were calls for to break up the Spurs after they lost to eighth-seeded Memphis in the first round of the playoffs three years ago. But they kept the core together, and will begin play for their fifth title on Thursday.

In Oklahoma City, the Thunder face a similar challenge as the Pacers. They reached the Finals in 2012 but lost to the Spurs in the conference finals last season and this one. Do they overhaul or tweak? History would advise them to tweak and hope the Spurs finally grow old.

It takes courage for a team president or general manager to stand pat in the face of disappointment. They're paid a lot of money to build rosters, and action always seems a better option than inaction. But the landscape is littered with fired executives who over-reacted and over-reached.

This particular Pacers team isn't yet old. When next season opens, Stephenson and George will be 24, Hibbert 27, Hill 28 and West 34. If the starting lineup is brought back intact, they should be an improved team off experience alone. They've just learned some hard lessons – or should have. George struggled with the distractions that go with becoming a nationally-known sports figure who gets magazine covers and commercial endorsements. Stephenson struggled with becoming an emerging star who nearly made the All-Star team. Hibbert struggled with the reduced offensive role that resulted from the improvement of George and Stephenson and his own sensitive nature. Hill struggled with finding a place to fit into the offense, and his mental block about playing point guard. West no doubt struggled with having to deal with everyone else's struggles.

If they come back older and wiser next season, many of the “little” problems that led to the late-season stumbles go away. They are challenged by the fact they don't have a classic role player, a Dale Davis type who doesn't care about scoring, so they have to be willing to step back on any given night, depending on the match-ups or flow of the game.

Vogel is much like his players. He's still a young coach, still in the improvement phase of his career, as opposed to the jaded, burn-out phase. The psychological issues his team faced were mostly beyond his control. To know whether he dealt with them the best way possible would have required bugging his meetings with individual players. Ultimately, though, the Pacers were eliminated by a better team with two certain future Hall of Famers in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and probably three, with Chris Bosh.

Every team's mission in every off-season is the same: find a way to get better. For good teams such as the Pacers, that's difficult. There's no room under the salary cap to sign significant free agents, and high-priced players are difficult to trade for even better players. It's risky to disrupt chemistry, and the Pacers had outstanding chemistry until around the All-Star break. It's safer to try to recapture it – and they seemed to have gone a long way toward doing that by the playoffs – than to make major changes and hope it works out.

It could happen, though.

Bird hesitated when asked about Hill, who appears to be the most vulnerable starter. He still doesn't view himself as a point guard and he's the lowest-paid starter other than Stephenson. His salary, if traded, could be applied to re-signing Stephenson if necessary.

Hibbert regressed in a major way from the previous season after the All-Star break, but would be difficult to trade in a deal that brings an equal or better center. He bears the greatest burden for the shortcomings of the past season, and therefore the greatest responsibility for improvement next season. No team can get away with its starting center, an All-Star at that, disappearing as he did on occasion, although his teammates share the blame for some of his offensive MIA's. There's no coincidence in the fact the Pacers were 1-3 in the playoffs when he went scoreless, and 7-2 when he scored in double figures.

It's impossible to guess the marketplace for Stephenson, given the conflict between his potential and late-season controversies. As was proven with Hibbert two summers ago, it only takes one team to make an extreme offer that poses a front office dilemma. At some point, the cost of re-signing him would no longer make sense. Time will tell.

Stephenson, though, has improved and matured significantly since he was plucked out of the second round of the draft, and there's no reason to believe he won't continue to progress. The comparisons to Stephen Jackson and the forward formerly known as Ron Artest are foolish. They're all different people, for one thing. Stephenson's off-court life is far more stable, for another thing. He still lives with his parents, for crying out loud. And, Jackson and Artest have started on championship teams for yet another thing.

Sure, the Pacers could make major trades involving starters this summer. One never knows what opportunities will arise once conversations between executives begin flowing. History, though, says such moves are unlikely – and probably unnecessary, too.

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